If you are in Berlin in September, then visit Ludwig, a neighbourhood pub that first opened in 1909 which now also encompasses an exhibition and art space. It should be worth your while. ‘The Serpent Eats Its Tail‘ is the first solo show of the artist Russell James Redwood Harris. Examining ‘primordial transformations and the history of alchemy’, Russell uses masks and ritual objects to suggest ancient cultures and gods, and to question the nature of change in the primordial processes that shaped the Earth.
Alchemists believed that they could change ‘base metals’ into ‘noble metals’, more specifically gold. This idea stretches back as far as the ancient Egyptians and is present in cultures across the globe. Today, we know it best as an early precursor to chemistry, or in relation to the philosopher’s stone, the substance that would facilitate the transformation of base metals and from which the elixir of life could be derived.
Change and our relationship with nature has also fuelled our belief systems. The belief that man descended from animals is thought to have been key in many ancient religions, passed down through oral traditions, and is linked to ‘therianthropy’, the ability to shape shift or transform into an animal. This remains with us in werewolf myths, whose origins can be traced as far back as the iron age. Some Native American and First Nation legends talk about skin-walkers, who can transform into animals through rituals whilst wearing animal pelts. The concept of being able to transform oneself is a familiar in popular culture through shapeshifters in science fiction such as the creature in ‘The Thing’ (based on ‘Who Goes There?’, the novella by John W Campbell from 1938). Hallucinogenics have been used by witch doctors, wisemen and shamans across the globe to change and alter consciousness allowing them to commune with the spirits of the land or the woods, or to communicate with their tribal ancestors. Change can also be found in the ideas of rebirth which again stem from pre-christian beliefs and can be traced through to the cycle of rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism. The christian faith is woven through with ideas of change such as catholic transubstantiation and redemption though the concept of salvation.
So change, whether spiritual or physical, has been central to the human condition from earliest times and it is often connected to ritual robes, mantels, masks or objects imbued with mystical powers. These are deeply rooted in our psyche and by presenting them in the gallery Harris plays on these primitive impulses to examine ‘the evolution of an idea within the artists head.’ Another interesting idea he explores is that the objects presented to an audience are all experienced differently by each member of the audience.
‘The importance of the role of the onlooker is integral to the work. It’s impossible to control completely what someone sees, an audience’s interpretations are the myth-making of the work. The metabolism of this work by you, the onlooker, is a vital part of the process.’
Immerse yourself in the sensory experience – looking, smelling (courtesy of the olfactory halos that surround the pieces, created in collaboration with the Berlin scent house AER) and experiencing ‘The Serpent Eats Its Tail. Let it alter your perceptions and lure you in to be transformed…
The exhibition runs at Ludwig from the 8th of September through to the 18th of October. The show is dedicated to Russell’s mentor and friend Michael Howells who died earlier this year.
Text © Jonathan Dredge and Russell James Redwood Harris, images © Russell James Redwood Harris