Thinking about Ritual

Curator Miranda Stearn shares some of the thinking that has gone into the initial phase of our 2023 annual theme, Ritual, and gives a taste of what to expect.

The word ritual can conjure up a variety of images and associations. Weddings, funerals, graduations, coronations, processions, pilgrimages, family meals, pre-match chants or private meditations. Mystical incantations and secret ceremonies. We may think about solemn or scared rites, unchanging over centuries and steeped in tradition, their origins lost in the mists of time. Traditional rituals may become individualised – our attachment to the way our particular family marks birthdays or religious or cultural festivals. Rituals might also be highly personal – a series of actions we enact to ensure good luck on the day of an exam or an important event, or a particular way we greet our partner or a group of friends. Rituals might bind us together, nurturing a sense of community and belonging – but they might also exclude and separate. They may seem a tool of the establishment, used to reinforce power and promote compliance, but might also be subversive.

Opening this week in the Peter Scott Gallery, Objects in Ritual is an exhibition exploring the relationship between rituals and things; about the objects we create, choose, treasure, share or even destroy as part of rituals. It has been created through the generosity of everyone who responded to our invitation to share their objects and tell us about the rituals associated with them. From a cup passed down through generations to be used at family Christenings, to a sketchbook documenting an individual’s creative ritual, to a ‘joke’ present exchanged every year between family members, the display spans the serious and the quirky, the everyday and the unusual. We hope it will continue to grow, creating a snapshot of rituals in our lives now. Please join us in sharing an object or image, virtually or in person.

Accompanying the exhibition, we are working with artists to deliver workshops for anyone who wants to explore the theme further through participation.

February 8: Objects in Ritual with Will Dickie

February 16:  A Party of Mass Destruction with Lowri Evans

February 17: Making Rituals with Alison Clough

The first, with Will Dickie gave participants the opportunity to share and reflect on the structure of rituals and the role of rituals and ceremonies in their own lives through conversation, movement and physical enactment. On 16 February, Lowri Evans will host a ‘party of mass destruction’ for anyone interested in leaving things behind through ritual, while on 17 February, people of all ages are invited to make rituals together with Alison Clough. These workshops will create a space to think about, experience and create our own rituals together, and we look forward to sharing the ideas that come out of them through the exhibition.

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ObjectsinRitual Objects lent by Will Dickie

Rituals, and their associated objects, have been with us for a long time. The exhibition has offered opportunities to look at the university art collection afresh through the lens of ritual, and to do some research into parts of the collection that haven’t been shared for a while. We have thought about how ritual plays a role in the work of some of the contemporary artists in the collection, either as part of their process or as part of their subject matter (or both). We hope visitors enjoy the chance to consider works such as Rebecca Chesney’s ‘Dandelion Project’ (2006-ongoing) and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Jumpers (what must I do to be saved) (2013) from this perspective. We have also enjoyed the chance to explore the theme across time and place by bringing out some of the oldest things in the collection, for example, fragments of papyrus and linen bearing texts from the ancient Egyptian book of the Dead. A particular highlight has been the opportunity to find out more about some of the beautiful Buddhist and Jain imagery within the collection in the context of ritual.

Of course, the theme of Ritual will continue to resonate through our programme across different art forms. Some of you will have been moved by pianist and composer Nico Namoradze’s powerful ‘On Rituals’ concert at the Priory in January, and Tai Murray and Martin Roscoe’s March concert will continue to explore ritual through music. In April, Russell Maliphant Dance Company’s VORTEX reinterprets Jackson Pollock’s ritualistic painting process. In March Silvia Mercuriali and Yael Karavan’s Human Rights Bingo takes the familiar ritual of the bingo game as the starting point for a free participatory theatre experience getting us to think about human rights. In June, Chloe Smith’s This Endless Sea installation will provide an opportunity to reflect on ritual in relation to grief, loss and remembrance. Our conversation with artists around ritual continue to develop, and as we move into the Autumn season later in the year, expect further opportunities to engage in in this topic which goes to the heart of who we are and how we navigate the world.

We are just at the start of a year immersed in Ritual, and each performance, workshop, event or conversation adds a new dimension to this multi-layered topic. We hope you’ll join us as we continue to ask questions through art about what ritual can be and do in our lives.

Posted on 13th Feb, 2023