Under a Spell: The Witchcraft of Elena Bajo


 Elena Bajo | Photo: Matías Muñoz-Rodríguez.

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center: 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

What is a witch?

A witch -- typically a female (men, having powers, are granted more noble titles such as "magician" or "wizard") upsets the social order, the rational order. A witch is an anarchist. A witch is an artist.

Elena Bajo pushes this question further, giving us a multiform answer that is not expressed merely with language, but with a full sensory exploration communicated by dance, sound, and experience in her exhibition "With Entheogenic Intent (Burn the Witch)" at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica.

Bajo is the current Artist Lab Resident at 18th Street Arts Center, the largest continuous artist residency program in Southern California. Its core gallery program, Artist Labs, stimulates public dialogue around the role of artists in society through process-based, commissioned projects intending to foster exploration and experimentation and provide in-depth opportunities for artists to critically develop their practice. Structured as both a residency and an exhibition, individual artists or collectives develop new work and generate provocative programming. Bajo's exhibition opens this Saturday, February 1.

Elena Bajo | Photo: Matías Muñoz-Rodríguez

Elena Bajo is an artist whose practice bridges architecture, performance, installation, and sculpture. She is interested in the social implications of spaces and of objects. Her work is informed by philosophical and political questions of embodiment, of autonomy, and of social organization. While researching the history of witchcraft, female revolutionaries, and the relationship between colonialism, capitalism, and strategies of control, Bajo returns to the concept of the witch, again, and again.

Through performances, interventions, and object crafting, Bajo will conjure a sensitive "anti-interrogation" of the archives in Southern California. She investigates -- not like a private eye, but rather a public heart. Witches are lovers of action, both visible and theatrical. They are opposed philosophically to the secretive tribunals used to batter, crush, and destroy them. A witch's objective is the goal for this exhibition: to articulate the living spirit of resistance. Resistance is not formalized or strategized, but a chemical, intuitive resistance of the body, of sound (the witch's scream), of the rules of science (the witch's flight, transforming a broom of domesticity into a tool of freedom), and of aesthetics (the witch who is "beautifully ugly", the Frida Kahlo-esque pleasure of the witch looking into the mirror). By using the stereotypes of the witch as a starting point to engage a world of ideas, Bajo creates the scenario for an adventure that is bold, open, and free.

Having roots in the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys, Bajo uses actual human beings as her material such as found objects, sourced through friends of friends, as part of a "found human" organic process. By introducing wood, glass, and concrete, resources natural to a built environment, she conjures real, not artificial substances. In previous projects Bajo has invited performing artists to engage with a simple square of black fabric as a gesture of anarchist resistance to social control; commissioned weavers from India to reinterpret an abstract image derived from a highly pixilated portrait of anarchist godmother Emma Goldman; and translated anarchist manifestos into musical notation which was then performed by a string quartet and accompanied by an improvised choreography.

Elena Bajo | Photo: Matías Muñoz-Rodríguez

 Elena Bajo | Photo: Matías Muñoz-Rodríguez.

Bajo's interventions in gallery spaces employ all of these materials -- organic and synthetic, embodied and dematerialized, alive and inert -- to trigger images that coalesce not in the space but in the minds of visitors. Her project at 18th Street Arts Center is structured into three sections. One space hosts Los Angeles-based artists whom she has invited to participate by intervening in her own practice of intervention. Rotating every two weeks, the artists each receive a text piece, a "spell" of sorts, that they are free to interpret and respond to in their own unique way. The result is a revolving exhibition of ideas, which are replaced, removed, and abandoned for others.

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A second space is devoted to objects that Bajo has commissioned from artisans to respond to public domain pictures of objects and artifacts used for shamanistic rituals by Native Americans. Gradually, the gallery will be filled with these ceramic objects. Sand from Playa Vista, a historic and desecrated Tongva-Gabrieliño burial site, is mixed with clay, and these materials are fused in fire. The content is embodied in the material and aligned with the history of the site. The witch, in this context, is Toypurina, an eighteenth-century Gabrieliño medicine woman who led a failed revolution against the Spanish imperialists of Los Angeles. Everything is linked to power. With more power, you can do more.

A third space is dedicated to "power objects" of copper, quartz, water, and sound. This too is linked to Native American thinking: if you put energy into an object, it retains power for you and for the world. The exhibition is a space of daily nourishment for personal power and radical autonomy. It is an anarcho-ecosophist site, ruled by self-determination and the power of relationships and context. Objects have no meaning independently, but they are never independent: always assembled, juxtaposed, and configured by human hands and intellects, and always engaged in interplay with human and other living bodies.

The title of Bajo's exhibition, "With Entheogenic Intent," signals her desire to generate a psychoactive response in viewers that prompts an internal sensation of awareness of a nameless divine. A witch is someone with the power to make such sudden changes to objects, as to our lived realities and ways of thinking. Bajo creates a space invested with the potential for awareness and changed consciousness, provoking a psychological process that is already and always at work.

Elena Bajo: With Entheogenic Intent (Burn the Witch) from 18th Street Arts Center on Vimeo.


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