A well-thumbed copy of a Frances Yates book on the esoteric aspects of the Renaissance sat on a desk next to a digital timer. The mid-twentieth-century iconoclast’s emphasis on the hidden dimensions of culture was a radical break from more prudish official histories. Rachel Rose was making her way through it — twenty-five minutes at a time, a couple hours a day — in between editing a series of new films about pre-Enlightenment agrarian witchcraft.
This was a little over four years ago. A new U.S. president had just stoked a new chapter in the culture wars, pitting the likes of Richard Spencer and Mike Cernovich against Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks: an army of incel meme magicians on 4chan against the #hexThePatriarchy witches of Instagram. Rose, as ever, was simultaneously aware but unaffected. Her interest in magical thinking wasn’t a reaction to headlines or trending hashtags. She was just doing what she does: following her instincts and interests on a perpetual crash course with the near future.
Rose had just had her first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum, a single-room installation of her film Everything and More at the Whitney. A year earlier she won the Frieze Artist Award. A couple years before that, she was still a grad student making her first film.
Wil-o-Wisp, titled for the fairylike atmospheric lights seen floating over bogs and marshes at twilight, was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2018. The film features Elspeth Blake, whom the narrator tells us was “a mystic and a healer whose gifts depended upon a divine balance that connects all living things.” Twenty-odd years ago, she was also blamed for the fire that consumed her husband and child. Rose’s camera pans across time to show Elspeth’s arrival at what is yet another stop in the itinerant life of a rural healer. Initially courted for her healing abilities, Elspeth is quickly despised for the aspects of the natural world they forced others to contemplate and encounter. Magic is permitted only as a last resort. The film ends with her being escorted out of town.
Initially a painter, Rose uses oneiric effects to render her films painterly. Many feature supernatural cameos. Wil-o-wisp includes a holographic bird beamed in through an open window, figures fading to dust, a crimson moon, ethereal Fresnel effects, pulsing night vision, and ghostly archival overlays. It divides time with a recurring scene of a woman knelt foraging in front of a picture-in-picture projection screen, turning the fourth wall into a fractal that consumes the spectator. In one such instance, a jittering light spot flits across the screen like an usher’s flashlight looking for someone’s keys, breaking the spell and casting another as it bobs on the horizon like an antique UFO.
Later in 2018, declassified documents showed that the U.S. military had been tracking such phenomena on its radar screens for years. It’s not merely coincidental that this would be one of the few unfolding narratives that would persist throughout the pandemic. Reports of paranormal incidents always spike in moments of existential crisis, particularly in cultures that repress them, that exile spirit and deny the soul, carving out parts of nature and outlawing parts of ourselves. As religious scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal said of UFOs, “Of course, it returns to haunt us as the Alien.”
Rose’s Elspeth shows us that the economics of magic are perennial. As crises mount, so goes our taste and tolerance for the mysterious and miraculous. Some stoke the trend, others profit off of it. Rose produces art that tells a more complex tale, transmuting the lessons of history into new allegories that lift the veil on mytho-economics. She binds the ethereal to the indisputably real, as in the song she composed for the film:
As the land was privatized, greed disturbed the peace their town once knew. Victimized by selfish lies, charges against Elspeth would accrue. A farmer said she stole his crops, picked a batch of peas without consent. When Elspeth did return the stalk, they say she cast a spell on him as revenge.
After turning away from painting, Rose thought she would become a documentary filmmaker — and she has. Fantasy is her vehicle. What appear as otherworldly and fleeting are simultaneously penetrating and prophetic meditations on our moment in time informed by others that rhyme with it.
Forest and Egg distills this impulse into a 17-second “moving portrait.” Always on the lookout for posthuman landscapes — those that feel shaped by a since-departed human hand — Rose records them and then inserts an alchemical black egg to better articulate this sense. In its presence, a fluorescent algae bloom is rendered hyperbolic and ambiguous: radioactive chemical spill? Ghostly apparition?
This is how mass fantasy works. It is alluring and protean, an oblique take on the natural that renders it super. Perhaps it’s why Rose’s work has resonated with so many from the start.
We discuss this and more in the interview below.
How did you become an artist?
I started as a painter, but in grad school I felt as though I didn’t know how to ask the questions I wanted to ask through painting. That made me feel like I wasn’t an artist because, at the time, I had no conception of an expanded view of what art could be. So I set about learning how to make what I thought would become a documentary film, thinking I’d use my remaining year and a half as best as I could and then go into that world. I shot my first work, Sitting, Feeding, Sleeping, at a cryogenics facility in Arizona, zoos across the country, and a robotics perception lab in San Diego. It was a pathway into learning how to technically make a film and put it together — how to edit, how to shoot, how to sound design — by doing it all myself for the first time. When I finished the film, it was clear it was an artwork and not a straight documentary. I had used these different sites to talk about a feeling that was inside me at the time, which I described then as doubtfulness. That’s not exactly a documentary. It was like a documentary about how I felt, which is more an artwork than anything else. That’s how I ended up making films as an artist.
You are very meticulous about the way your films are shown in space. How did this aspect of your work develop?
Everything and More was among the first works installed at the new building of the Whitney Museum in New York, so I was able to help choose where it was going to be installed. The film — which is about an astronaut’s experience of his body in outer space and his return to Earth — shifts from this virtual, other, disembodied space of his space walk, looking at Earth as it’s blackened out from the other side of the moon, to the very grounded, embodied space of the return to Earth, feeling his body as an anvil filled with gravity and having a new sense of color and sense perception that he never had before. It’s about an oscillation from disembodiment to embodiment. I wanted the installation to reflect that. The room I worked with had a giant window wall; I partially blacked-out the windows and installed a semitransparent screen in front of them. When the film was projecting in full color, it appeared like a typical cinema experience, but any black on the screen was translucent, letting the viewer see through the window into the world outside. The film, in the way it is cut, relates to the space that it’s in and relates to this core oscillation in the story of the film. This is an example of how I think about binding cinematic storytelling to physical space. I think this is something very specific to showing a work as an artwork.
You took this one step further in your collaboration with MOS Architects, designing a custom tapestry to project onto.
This was for an exhibition of my work at Kunsthaus Bregenz, an iconic building wrapped in a sheath of glass by the architect Peter Zumthor. His use of glass is so medieval. It’s not about transparency but opacity, as in stained glass. I thought about the screens and projectors as lamps, and worked with Michael Meredith of MOS to develop them. We came up with these tapestries for the screens that are knit with CNC milling machines — the same tools that are used to create Nike Flyknit shoes — which let us weave a still from the film itself into each screen. The idea was that the films would be, for the most part, two-dimensional, but at certain moments when the image lined up with the screen, suddenly the image would become three-dimensional, like a low relief. It was as if the light was pushing into the screen and the screen was pushing back out.
How did you develop your sensitivity to architecture?
Before I went to art school, I thought I would be an architect. I studied architecture and architecture theory in college, doing a thesis on the British neoclassical architect John Nash. My father makes green affordable housing as an urban developer and my uncle is a planner, a founding member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and part of this universe of 1970s utopian urban planning. So I grew up around this emphasis on the built environment and the idea that how you build it can change people’s lives. Being an artist felt indulgent — like, why would you be an artist if you could be an architect? Architects are artists who can change the physical world. I later realized I don’t have an architect’s mind, but the principles of architecture have stayed with me. A Minute Ago, which I shot at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, came from an emotional place. After Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, I felt a total disillusion with the New York I thought I lived in, which suddenly seemed like such a fragile place. The film looked at the fragility of the history of modernist architecture and the ways in which steel and glass are such recent inventions, even though they surround us everywhere, and their relationship to death.
Mysticism, the occult, alchemy, witchcraft… these are other themes in your work. What’s the story behind this interest?
I think of magic as a living component of our lives even if we don’t recognize it as such. A lot of my work seems to return to some state of animating nature or has an animist relation to the forest and landscape. One of the things that really drew me to sixteenth-century agrarian England, the setting for Wil-o-Wisp, was the dividing up of the land, deforestation, and mass shift in perspective toward nature in relationship to the proliferation of cash. It was in that very moment of deforestation and division that people were also developing a new, enlightened humanist view toward nature, which was precisely what they needed to develop in order to accommodate this destructive force. I wanted to explore how magic, intimately connected to the forest, was displaced as an idea into capital. Today this happens with magic we don’t necessarily call “magic.” Thinking about magic all around us in our lives now might give us deeper insight into how people thought about and related to nature then.
Where did the idea for Forest and Egg, the work you created for the K21 Collection, come from?
The egg has been central to a lot of my works, unconsciously and occasionally consciously. An egg is both a symbol for alchemy and is itself alchemical. When I was in Arles in 2019, pregnant with my first child, I drove out to the Camargue and saw wild white horses in a surreal midday scene. It felt like a world without people. Being so familiar with domesticated horses, to see them wild made it seem like the humans had left, like they had had their life cycle with horses and now they are gone. At the time I was working with an egg form in some of my sculptures, and when I dropped an image of an egg into the scene in the Camargue it felt like it was articulating exactly that feeling: this was a time after people, but people had formed it. Since then, every time I would experience a landscape with that same feeling, I would photograph or film it. Sometimes these scenes included other white animals, sometimes not. During COVID, on a hike, I came across a clearing in a forest that was filled with an electric green algae that once again felt like a post-human place, so I dropped an egg in it to articulate that feeling. It’s a practice that keeps me attuned.
They are always short and in the vertical, portrait aspect ratio. What do you call these works? Are they films?
I think “moving portraits” is the best way to describe them. Moving and shimmering makes them feel alive. As a still photo, I think they would feel too much like a collage. It’s about creating a bit of a fantasy space. I like the word “fantasy” for this work — I haven’t used it before. There are small and big fantasies. Lake Valley is set in a mundane suburban house, yet the way it is composed and the animation create a sense of fantasy. The boiling vat of pasta is the hair of an angel from a drawing, the bedspread is made of water, the house is built on pieces of paper. This creates a sense of fantasy because the whole thing feels like a dream, but it’s accessed through a mundane setup. I’m into that perspective on fantasy, a feeling that you’re never really where you are and anything mundane can transport you.