In his essay ‘Primal Sound’ (1919), the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke speculates about what would happen if the grooves of the coronal suture – the junction formed between the two parietal bones and the frontal bone of the cranium – were traced with a phonograph needle. For Rilke, to ‘play back’ the skull in this way would result in a transfer of one sense to another, a synaesthetic confusion that he likens to the “splendid danger” of erotic experience. Overwhelmed by an abundance of simultaneous sensory impressions, poets experiencing synaesthesia risk becoming lovers. Moreover, and perhaps most troubling for Rilke, poems risk becoming mere noise.
Although it does not explicitly cite Rilke’s essay, the group exhibition Third Eye Butterfly currently on view at Mint takes synaesthetic experience as one of its through lines, intertwining technics, erotics, and, yes, poetry, in ways that evoke not only the risks of sensory disorganisation, but its transformative potentials as well. Guest curator Cathrin Mayer, formerly part of the curatorial team at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and now associate curator at Halle für Kunst Steiermark in Graz, has taken the work of poet turned experimental filmmaker Storm de Hirsch (1912–2000) as the departure point for this sparse yet heady presentation.
The show’s namesake, Third Eye Butterfly, is a 1968 short film for two projectors that is visually patterned after the abstract designs of butterfly wings. Yet the result is neither as fragile nor as ‘poetic’ as that description suggests. Rather, the film assaults our senses (two, at any rate) with quick cuts and kaleidoscopic layerings that decentre, fragment, and multiply the visual field, all while a percussive soundtrack relentlessly keeps pace.
De Hirsch was closely associated with New York’s underground film scene, where she worked alongside Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulous, and Jack Smith, among others. Like many of the expanded cinema experiments undertaken during this period, de Hirsch’s film seeks to expand consciousness by opening the “third eye” of higher thought. Yet, despite its allusions to mysticism and ritual, the vision offered here is less one of spiritual transcendence than one of psychic disorganisation – a messy overflow of thought and sensation that reverberates in the show’s many formal rhymes and atmospherically lit corridors whose colour palette derives from de Hirsch’s film.
To varying degrees, this thought expansion recurs in the other contributions to the show, from Nat Marcus’s hydrofeminist mixed-media prints (The Velvet Sound I–II, 2022) and Sofia Restorp’s vaguely Surrealist pastel drawings to Period Piece (2021), a spoken-word sound installation by Luzie Meyer that anxiously reflects on the symbolic regulation of the female sex: “questions mark all over her body,” she intones over a beat not unlike the one in de Hirsch’s film.
Yet, it surfaces most potently in works by London and Los Angeles-based filmmaker, artist, and poet P Staff, whose Eat Clean Ass Only and Ancient and Celibate (both 2021) comprise scrolling verse displayed on wall-mounted 3D hologram fans. Suffused with a sense of dispossession and ambivalent wanting, these intimate and lyrical works speak to problems of continuity and identification, with lines such as “eat clean ass only / and I have nothing,” “if it’s in me it is me,” and “I am putting it on / really really really thick / and anonymous,” lending a dysphoric tenor to the show’s broader questioning of normative mind-body structuration.
Indeed, it is in the disorienting noise of desire, Mayer’s exhibition seems to suggest, that we might approach the transformative power of its truth. Or, put differently, the “splendid danger” of losing ourselves.