When I meet artist Elijah Burgher at a little cafe in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood, I notice his arm tattoos immediately.
After researching and studying the artwork of the upstate New York native (who currently resides and works in Berlin), I notice that the ink on his arms emulates some of his most well-known work. The intricate symbols that decorate his skin are known as “sigils”—popular in occult magic—a part of the universe of 20th century occultist Austin Osman Spare. The creation and purpose of each symbol is meant to manifest a specific intent or outcome.
As I look at their neat geometric shapes and lines, I wonder what each means. What kind of desire, hope, or aspiration does each lively symbol represent? I wonder what kind of sigil I would draw if I had Burgher’s knowledge, if I was more in tune with my own desires.
As someone who knows very little of the occult, I felt lost in the maze of Burgher’s sigils. But the further I looked into his artwork, works like “Machine to Catch Ghosts,” “Pattern of all patience 5,” and “Year of swords, conclude! (Neither peaceful nor monumental version),” which all feature giant sigils, I became curious and enthralled by this mystical cult of queer sexual energies that I’m sure has been swirling around me much of my life, though I’ve never known to look for them.
These sigils are present in Burgher’s new collaborative exhibit, Sperm Cult, running at LAXART from November 11, 2018 – January 5, 2019, in which he and seven other artists come together to explore themes of sex, sexuality, transgression, desire, and ritual. The exhibition is, as the gallery kindly calls it, an unabashedly phallocentric affair.
Based off of a sold-out zine of the same name published in 2017 produced by Burgher and artist Richard Hawkins, the publication erotically combined Burgher’s love for the occult and Hawkins’ interest in ethnographic sexual taboos and rituals. Within the 48 pages of the zine, there are pictures of masked naked men engaging in various sexual acts and ceremonies, which may or not may not always be the same thing. There is erotica about wildmen and metaphysical poetry about anuses, men Call-Me-By-Your-Name-ing themselves on fruit, and scribbled over much of it are hundreds of sigils.
The opening text says: “Those lofty signs of masculine, intellectual, civic, conjugal, bourgeois and revolutionary value that other males hold high, they merely dispirit me.”
The introduction continues: “Atrocious imperfections, those are my only delight. I have made a singular and persistent point of dedicating myself to the most incurable of helplessnesses, to pathological vulnerabilities and made a profession out of my many charming faults. I do couple quite often… but only with headless monsters.”
To the unobservant, shy, and vanilla first glance the zine may be unjustly watered down to kinky smut, but from an artistic lens (and if you actually read the text), we come to understand the acts and depictions of queer male sexuality as something primeval that doesn’t subscribe to our modern modesties. Or, we view it as something belonging to another realm entirely, a magick one that nullifies both the heteronormative and the homonormative mainstreams.
Sperm Cult is both a persuasive argument that we (and our queer bodies) have been tricked into thinking we desire the sigils of brands—the tacky script of Andrew Christian and Marco Marco on an elastic waistband, the stretching wingspan of the Smirnoff label, and the rainbows of inauthentic corporate Pride support. These are the mainstream telling us to indulge in these narcissistic knights of revelry; that this is the only way to exist as a queer body and soul.
But Sperm Cult shows us that we are allowed to be in tune with our bodies and where we take them and what we do with them. The zine gives didactic instructions to couple the mind and body (as well as the cock and anus, for that matter) that may or may not be enhanced by focused meditation, by drawing with the mind’s eye, and even by a long edging session without the accompaniment of our dear technologies. It is at once a cult of the lone one, as well as one of the horny many.
LAXART theorizes on behalf of the exhibit: “If societies are founded upon a sexual matrix, the heart of which is reproduction of the species, then sexual cults and subcultures of every stripe, past and present, represent a boundary from which to critique and theorize society at its most fundamental level.”
Sperm Cult is one of those specific examples, but made attainable visually as a zine and now in exhibition. But how does one turn a zine with “For Entertainment of Adults Only — No Sale to Minors” on its front cover into a public art exhibition to be enjoyed by the mainstream when it is so specifically niche?
“It’s not just a transformation from a print publication to an exhibition; the purpose is not edification. The process involved a lot of conversations with the three of us (Hawkins and LAXART Director Hamza Walker) and it moved a little bit more towards magic and ritual and thinking about an imaginary temple space. I had a list of other artists that I wanted to bring in, so we were trading a lot of images and seeing what exactly would stick. What emerged was an interest in mythological features that we rallied around— in particularly the god Attis.”
With Hawkins taking a more minor role in the exhibit (he and Burgher collaborated on a few “photographic flights of homosocial and homosexual fantasy in a variety of psychedelic colors” in the exhibit), Burgher continues his focus on the occult, enthralled by the Attis cult and the experience of the ritual. One of the most prominent works in the exhibit is a massive tarp that blankets the floor and is full of an intricate sequence of red sigils that welcome visitors into their first rub with magic.
Scattered around the exhibit beside the massive tarp are herms by sculptor Oscar Tuazon and poet Ariana Reines. Herms are tall, erect square pillars that usually feature a bust at their top (historically of Hermes, as they originated in ancient Greece) and often an erect phallus or other genitalia a few feet from the ground. As noted by AQNB on the artists’ herms, “Poetry and sex are both languages of holes: peepholes and glory holes. They provide lacunae through which what is wordless can become seen…it becomes evident that the orifices cut into these beams are aligned perfectly for an eye or a cock.”
While Tuazon and Reines’ herms are certainly approachable to a mainstream audience, as the energy and symbolism of the herms hides in plain sight, to others, they exist in plaster and wood and other materials as an erotic offering and ode that is inexplicably Sperm Cult.
Another artist, ektor garcia’s collection of “filigree fetishes and a witchy chain logotype” occupies a similar sphere. The artist’s past exhibits look like elevated and ornate BDSM dungeons that are partly brutal (there are meat hooks, chains, handmade floggers, and rope), but they are juxtaposed with ornate blankets and throws embodying the lines from a poem in the Sperm Cult zine: “the whole lot: a bizarre mixture of virility and effeminacy.”
The exhibition is complemented enticingly by Canadian multimedia artist Scott Treleaven (well-known for his movies Queercore and The Salvation Army) as well as by Chicago-based artists Ryan M Pfeiffer and Rebecca Walz , who produce collaborative drawings based on their extensive research into “prehistoric & ancient art, historical erotica and archeo-anthropology.” Their works for Sperm Cult feature beautiful gender-bending scribbles that follow some of their main artistic themes of death, sex, myth, and transformation.
And so, Sperm Cult is a must see exhibition that while incredibly modern, also draws heavily on the past. It is a reminder that embedded in our modern subcultures are doodles, sigils, and ideas that have existed for thousands of years, that time is a current that washes up relics on the sands of our most secluded archipelagos.
Sperm Cult is worth seeing and experiencing because it allows us to consider what our desires are. Something so many of us fail to do in the modern day-to-day, allowing ourselves to be persuaded by others, by brands, and by the hetero/homonormative. It is the chance to become acquainted with the occult, to weigh and consider it, and perhaps draw your own sigil and think about what it is you really do wish in the reality of your own future. As the zine so wonderfully states in a poem, “I am a solar anus and a black sun. I am an asshole evacuating the living death of consensus reality.”
Sperm Cult opens November 11th, 2018 at 3pm at LAXART in Hollywood, California.
Cover— Burgher working on studio floor. Image courtesy Inside\Within.