This is the third story in a series exploring the connections between art and magic. Click here for the first two.
Eliza Gauger is an artist, writer, and the creator behind Problem Glyphs, a psychotherapy-inspired series of magical-looking illustrations that draw on anonymous crowdsourced complaints, transforming each one into a simple black-and-white image that represents both the problem and its solution. The sigils are then transformed into real-life design elements as amulets or even tattoos. Gauger personally likes to trace the figures with her bespoke divination deck, which she plans to bring to the public through an online funding campaign later this year, right after her book adaptation of the hugely popular Problem Glyphs series is published. Ironically, she doesn't think of herself as someone who casts any spells—at least not in the traditional sense.
"I went through a phase as a kid where I followed all the instructions I could find with Wiccanism," she says. "I never got measurable results of any kind, so I lost interest. But what I did continue to study, and did observe, was the scientifically demonstrable efficacy of human belief, expectation, cultural memory, mythology, and archetype. A sort of meta-magic, the magic of magic-system. Those are the things I work with today, and those are the things I consider my own workaday 'magic.' But I think everyone has working definitions that give them their own results, and those individually interpretable results are a vital part of the project."
The eponymous problems in Gauger's unique, visionary series run the gamut from abstract issues such as delusion, disconnection, and existential angst, to rape, poverty, depression, and a blind lost cat. The artist's carefully crafted images examine problems while offering visual "solutions," inspired by her own cultural heritage of Greek and Norse mythology, all the way to the internet itself, which has always teemed with appropriated imagery from multiple/questionable sources, forming the basis of the meme.
"I try to use symbols and keys which carry their own 'thingness' as well as being aesthetically suggestive of an idea or a feeling. The concept of 'thingness' is something I pursue constantly in all my work, not just Problem Glyphs. By 'thingness,' I mean the way some drawings are able to give the impression of being very whole or present," she says. Gauger cites German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer's drawing of a hare, as well as paintings from the Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France, as examples. It is when the representation of the image moves beyond mere representation and becomes the thing itself, at least in our imaginations, that Gauger finds so magical. "I want my glyphs to have the thing-magic, to be objects, hexes, or spells or blessings, to make their carrier or wearer heavy and rich. I always try to give them that muchness."
Gauger feels that modern memes and the language of the internet are related to ancient imagery and traditions, insomuch as they both occur on different "sites" and come from different sources, independently from each other. "You find certain figures and ideas again and again all over the world at different times and places, replicated so closely that it’s sometimes spooky. Very basic archetypes like the Horned God, the Triple Goddess who controls fate, the apotropaic grimacing “gorgon” face with fangs and protruding tongue, the god who dies and is reborn yearly, the trickster shapeshifting god, and so on. The influence of these concepts on human culture are very, very thorough. But the things that pique my interest the most are the very small, very subversive synchronicities."
When asked whether she feels today's contemporary artists are more receptive to occult/esoteric themes in their art, Gauger says she believes millennials have a lot in common with the disenfranchised, free-spirited believers of the Spiritualist movement in America during the turn of the 19th/20th century.
"Esotericism, spiritualism, and the occult come back into style whenever faith in the mainstream is badly shaken, and we are living in an age of economic depression, war, police brutality, racial oppression and an absolutely savage generation gap. This can lead to innovation and activism (intersectional feminism, BLM, trans rights), but it can also [lead to] anti-intellectualism and pseudoscience (anti-vaccination) as people burned by the established way of doing things seek out alternatives. It's a vulnerable and volatile time."
And a magical time, too.