We should never forget our uncertainty
Art, science, magic, religion, and philosophy were once a single quest to make sense. It was only with the advent of the modern age that this holistic mission became divided into distinct disciplines, each with its own ways of thinking and doing. In turn, each discipline begat its various specialisms and sub-specialties. And, while this narrowing and sharpening of focus allows for deeper penetration into the subsoil of all we do not know or cannot yet express, it also isolates each purview drawing horizons closer the deeper it drills down. Meanwhile, each scion inherits their practices and ways of thinking from what has gone before, refining and building on them a kind of cognitive performance; rituals of the mind that anchor them to what is understood amid the endless tracts of what is not.
For the Australian artist Joseph Häxan it is the allure of that vast unknown that beguiles his imagination. He draws not on any one branch of knowledge but on the primeval abyss of the occult. Taking his own body as a kind of sorcerer’s familiar, he undertakes rituals that combine mysticism and modern technology, embodying the personal and the cosmic, the esoteric and the erotic. It is a kind of performance approached at a tangent. Rather than conceiving an idea or character and expressing it physically, he uses his body to bring forth new ideas and feelings. Like ritual, it is a process that relies on pattern and repetition, but these patterns are not an encoding of what is known or believed but rather a mantra whispered into the darkness to discover what echo or response might come.
These unorthodox images arise at the intersection of ancient and modern, proficiency and uncertainty. A skilled compositor and fan of genre fiction, Joseph Häxan is a child of his generation, but his eyes peer back into the mists of time, his skin seeks the caress of the unknowable, his psyche opens to the darkness of the abyss. Just as psychologists describe that which is not like us as ‘the other’, so he seeks to enter that ‘other’ world which is no longer ours, his body bared at the behest of unfettered imagination. And just as the psychological phenomenon of ‘the other’ defines the self as real by being perceived as separate from it, so these other worlds become a black mirror in which the artist perceives an extended sense of his own reality.
How would you describe the overarching themes that drive your artmaking?
My early work focused on a sense of rebirth as my way of responding to and interpreting a traumatic period in my life. But its deeper origins lie with my interest in taboo and a metaphorical breaking of chains. Defying the rules that others try to impose on us, and that the unenlightened mind imposes on itself.
The most significant theme in the work is probably the mystery of consciousness. What is it, if anything, that separates us from the rest of the enigmatic cosmic system within which we exist. Why have we been given the gift of awareness? What are we to do with it? What is the nature of our humanity, and why are we different from other animals?
Why do you choose photography as your medium of expression?
There’s a persistent notion that photography is in some way truthful. It allows a lot of room to explore the more extreme aspects of the supernatural while grounding the work and keeping it from becoming unintelligible.
Despite our growing interest in simulation, I think there will remain a place for photographic documentation for some time to come. Artificial image-creation still pales in comparison to the intricacy of reality. But I am fascinated by technology and have been since childhood. It’s a chronology of human evolution, not just physically but mentally and spiritually. Everything physical exists in a broader context, much of which has yet to be revealed. I imagine a future when our consciousness is no longer tethered to our body in the way we understand it today. Then, how might we look at works depicting bodies and what will we think of them?
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Jungle Encounter’ 2021 from the series ‘Universe’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Continuum Eye’ 2022 from the series ‘Reality’
In Swedish, häxan means ‘the witch’.
Yes, it does. I was inspired to choose that name for myself in high school because of my interest in Benjamin Christensen’s [ground-breaking 1922 film] ‘Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages’. I use it like a pen name. But it also helps me to recall how inspired I was by watching old and sometimes obscure genre films as a teenager.
For you, is the occult a supernatural reality, a psychoanalytical trope, or an imaginative device?
When I refer to the occult, I’m mostly referring to mysticism. The realm of the mystical is inseparable from imagination. While many discount the imagination as scientifically unreliable, it is in fact our greatest scientific tool, and our closest connection to the truer nature of things.
The intelligent atheist is often travelling a path towards the mystical. But, having rejected the thoughtlessness of organised religion, they often over-invested themselves in the power of science and the comfort of the known. Science, however, is a working theory of things; it can never show us the full picture. That’s what I’m trying to communicate: that we should never forget our uncertainty, or act as if the mystery of existence is not relevant just because we cannot comprehend it. We should live within that uncertainty, contemplating it without fear. In my images, the occult is a visual metaphor for these uncertain mysteries. Through it, I seek to invoke those ways of thinking and being.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Premonition’ 2020 from the series ‘The Rite of Spring’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Erotic Earth’ 2022 from the series ‘Universe’
Why do you use yourself as the actor in your work?
It started as convenience. Now, it’s an integral part of the work. It’s an exploration of self in relation to nature. I have spent a lot of my life feeling and being alone. It’s actually been one of the best things to happen to me, I think. I work more intensely alone and feel intimately connected to the work I make. No one is doing anything they do not wish to do… And I like the idea of a ‘community’ that arises from a single mind and intention.
How much do you pre-visualise your images?
Only in my mind, I never do sketches. In Photoshop, the canvas acts as a kind of sketchpad as you create a work. I almost always start with an image of my body, and then build the work out from there, taking additional images and searching for locations to composite into the visual environment.
The simplest images I make are the ones shot on location, because the environment comes first, and I move around the frame and capture the figures in situ. People never realise how hard it is to take timed pictures of oneself until they try. I shoot in total darkness, lit by the brief flash of a strobe. So, there’s always an element of the unexpected. And it can be a laborious process, especially when you’re getting in and out of a pond thirty or forty times, having carried twenty kilos of equipment on foot to a location, and then packing it all up and hauling it back when you’re cold and wet. I do love it though; these are unique experiences.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Dusk’ 2022 from the series ‘Universe’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Sheltering on the Mountainside’ 2020 from the series ‘The Rite of Spring’
In some images the figures adopt an abject, Gollum-like posture; in others, a more transcendent character as they grow wings, flex rapturously, or dematerialise. What is it you seek to evoke in these contrasting physical depictions?
The poses are mostly symbolic of emotions. It’s quite complex for me to put into words because the very thing I like about photographing the unclothed body is the way that the diversity of context pulls its ‘meaning’ in so many different directions. I can’t see myself when I’m taking the images, so I tend to perform to the environment and then build the work around the characters or motivations suggested by these poses. Sometimes, these naked figures are like bees, all working towards a collective goal of transcendence. At others, there are moments of solitude, private contemplation, doubt…
There is an interesting tension in your work between Eros and Thanatos…
The life and death drives are an essential part of every lifeform’s experience on earth, so I don’t see how they couldn’t play an important role in my work. I think it is also a possible way of interpreting my coming to terms with my living on both a social and a mystical level simultaneously. Death is inevitable, a non-event, an aspect of a process that is ceaseless and eternal and at least as mysterious as life.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Our Place’ 2022 from the series ‘Universe’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Stillness of Night, Totality Approaches’ 2020 from the series ‘The Rite of Spring’
There is another tension I sense… In your work, what is the relationship between obsession and the occult: the passionate pursuit of something and the impossibility of it being revealed … Or have I misread things?
No, I don’t think you have. Actually, I am quite obsessive about everything I’m interested in. I have suffered from pretty severe obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] for much of my adult life. It can be debilitating, making me walk in certain directions, acknowledge certain objects, count in my head, and repeat mantras to myself hundreds of times a day. I’ve felt for a long time that my compulsions are very similar to religious ritual and have reasoned that religion is an important social construct that gives believers a way to negotiate those nagging worries we all experience… especially with OCD. I wonder whether my OCD is a product of my lack of belief in organised religion, and my recognition of how little control we have over much of what happens to us.
The fact that the occult can never be understood is what makes it so endlessly interesting as a topic for the arts. But, while I often say that my work is more about mystery than about revelation, some work also depicts moments of euphoria, realisation, and communion with higher powers. I suppose it deals mainly with the process of seeking and finding, working spiritually, and receiving the gifts of that labour.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Apocalypso’ 2018 from the series ‘Body Horror’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘River Pluto’ 2023 from the series ‘Reality’
What about the role of skin in your work – both that of the body and the surface of the billowing silk frozen in the instant?
My exploration of the skin was mainly during the making of ‘Body Horror’ [2018–2020], which was influenced by my readings of Julia Kristeva and Sigmund Freud. I love of the horror genre, so my reading was very much in the context of body horror and the abject aspect of the skin as a seal. The work was informed both by the repulsive nature of the functions of the body in decline and death and the psychosexual nature of the abject and uncanny as they relate to oneness and wholeness. In terms of the textures of the skin, I tend to create the shimmering surface to imply transcendental states, but it can also simply be a visual device to imply mood.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Fire in the Sky’ 2018 from the series ‘Body Horror’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Blood’ 2017 from the series ‘Body Horror’
The earlier series we are discussing seem to be set in a nocturnal, but still recognisable, suburbia. For you, what is the relationship between suburbia and the occult?
The suburbs are the ultimate symbol of civilisation’s fragility. I find them really fertile ground for meditations on the origin of life and the path humanity has taken in bringing us to where we are today. I think about the evolutionary need for shelter and community, and about the transformation of trees and minerals into houses and Wi-Fi. The suburbs represent our need for dominance over other species, and our will to control and change our environment for our own purposes.
When I started moving through the suburbs at night, especially as I was growing up in them, they were revealed to me both as a kingdom of artifice, and as a really humbling and cosmic view of our path forward to wherever we’re headed as a species. The occult and suburbia are a pretty natural fit. The occult is the hidden, the clandestine, the private journey of the soul. In suburbia, we must make an external show of conformity, while maintaining and tending to the depths of our soul privately, within the home. The night reveals this other side of suburbia. When we can see the stars and all is quiet, nothing about the houses and roads of the suburbs feels as definite as it does during the day. I realise that, despite being totally surrounded by people, I am the only one outside. And what I am doing feels as though I am breaking some societal contract I had entered into unaware.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘In Space the Stars Are No Nearer’ 2018 from the series ‘Body Horror’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘Cave Dreaming’ 2020 from the series ‘The Rite of Spring’
In series such as ‘Body Horror’ and ‘The Rite of Spring’ animals appear along with the human figures, later insects swarm over the skin. What is it you seek to explore in these juxtapositions?
The animals that appear in those series are emblems of anarchy; the truer nature of things, but also uprising, awakening, levelling… In scripture, sheep for example have been sacrificial animals. So, I made a work where men pray to them. Insects are maligned in the Bible, but in many cultures symbolise transformation and rebirth. I guess the animals in those series point to the various hypocrisies of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I have always been drawn to maligned animals, recognised their beauty. It dismays me how people treat insects and reptiles in particular. The lack of respect for their role and for their life. Theirs is a particular beauty that requires a more sophisticated appreciation. I can find a similarity between them and me, having always felt I am a not to everyone’s taste, and definitely that what I make is not to everyone’s liking.
During my research at university, I stumbled upon Derrida’s ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, which also informed those depictions of animals. He wrote that: “As with every bottomless gaze, as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called ‘animal’ offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human.” One of the first works I made featuring animals is called ‘Ozymandias’ [after the poem by Shelley], which emphasises humanity’s illusion of control and our hubris in relation to all we identify as unlike us.
[Left] © Joseph Häxan ‘Water Sphere’ 2021 from the series ‘Universe’
[Right] © Joseph Häxan ‘The Mononoké’ 2021
What kind of public response have you had to your imagery?
It’s certainly been varied! I do feel that in the last couple of years I am being taken more seriously by the arts community. The only time I ever experience outright hate is when a particular work reaches a completely new audience, usually because the images that tend to be shared most widely are the more confronting ones. I really do love it though, because it’s very interesting to follow the different responses and see the art working in real-time.
Over the years, I’ve developed a bit of a cult following on social media, and I’ve tried to create smaller groups and more personalised profiles so that people who are really into the work can feel more connected to me and to the process.
What have you learned about yourself through making these images?
One thing I’ve learned is that I will never fit neatly into a single category. I’ve always had very disparate interests, at times seeming almost contradictory. For this reason, trying to make work that is true to myself can be challenging. One challenge being knowing when to reveal more of myself and when to embody the fantasy of the creation.
These works and their universe are my partners through life. They are a reminder of my place on this wet rock, spinning through a dark and beautiful abyss. They remind me of the road left to travel, and all that as yet remains hidden. My only goal in life is to follow the path of my soul. To avoid the trappings of social conformity and to live without shame.