Art Review | How To Lose Yourself: The Power of Ritual by Nozomi Watanabe

‘Shifting Sands: Hybrid rituals and symbols in contemporary culture’ was held at Modern Art Oxford until 12 July 2015, one of the UK’s most influential contemporary art spaces.

Folkloric rituals which is the main theme in this exhibition produced various symbols, images, music, dance and materials through the rites and activities in a specific place and time, and these traditionally by-products give a strong stimulus to some artist’s senses or thought.

Mary Magoulick, folklorist and Professor of English & Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgia College, writes, “Our sense of history is built partly from folklore, just as folklore directs us or allows us to imagine how to live. We are simultaneously forward-thinking and reflective creatures, we humans” (Mary, 2011).

Serena Korda (b. 1979) who is featured in this exhibition is one of them. She is known as artist working with performance, film and sculpture, and her ideas underpin the concept of ritual, symbolism, folklore and magic. Through the research of historical materials or practices, she creates her works rich in visual attractiveness and originality. The profound insight attracts people.

‘The Hosts’ is her ceramic works. They were shaped by referencing Bellarmine Jugs of the 16th century used as common household objects. This original jugs were made in the Netherlands and mass-produced, incorporating a stamped image of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) who was known as a bitter opponent of the Dutch Reformed Church. Then, those jugs also frequently used as ‘witch bottles’ to prevent witches’ threats during the 17th century. She discovered them at local museum in Suffolk and research the history. Eventually she reconstructed the historical symbol, including her interpretation and imagination.


Fig.1. The Hosts (2015)

Fig.2. The Hosts (2015)

In more detail, she added the original design to some objects such as breasts, spiral pattern, frogs, and a kind of heraldic emblem. Moreover, some of them foam at their mouths or cock their heads, and others combine other creature such as a monster. While the whole shape as vessel has comical impression, they gave me a strange and weird impression for the inscrutable figure, and also the glazed surface generates a mysterious atmosphere.


This is because her works strongly connect with traditional folklore. For example, the spiral pattern inscribed on the surface is some of the oldest geometric shapes in ancient artwork. Through the historical context, we can imagine the symbol of woman, nature, cosmos and so on. Moreover, frog was also a symbol of the devil due to the Catholic Church associating the frog as one of the animals witches use as a familiar in medieval Europe (Udo, 2000: 121). In addition, in European pre-historic societies, sculptures of female figures with exaggerated breasts were commonly observed (Charles, 2007). She often used this motif in her past work. ‘The Fertility Orbit of the Boob Meteorite’ is her performance work in 2014. She expressed the performer as an orb of female energy. Monster is also her favorite motif. She used that based on the thought of animal symbolism. In the performance work, the monster is seduced in a romantic duet with a female performer costumed in fake fossilised breasts. I watched the performance video on her official website. While it was ridiculous and comical, I felt it seemed like a metaphor of human behavior.


As mentioned above, she manipulates these motifs and their meanings, and creates hybrid rituals and symbols in modern society. Henry Glassie III (b. 1941), a folklorist and emeritus College Professor of Folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, writes “Throughout time and space, many of our most profound arts globally were folk arts like textiles, ceramics, and stories, which urge us to glimpses of excellence even within our daily lives” (Henry, 1999:18). Serena Korda also said, “Ideas of ritual and how they manifest themselves within popular culture in the sense that, in this country at least, we search out ways of playing out a belief system – whether that be going to a rock concert instead of church or going to a DIY store to do up our houses or to improve ourselves in another kind of way. So the work has that theme running through it; searching for a sense in the everyday, finding ecstatic ritual or joy within a group context” (Sam, 2015). Interestingly, her words connect with the theory of folklore. Hence, we can see the relationship between rituals and daily lives through her works, observing carefully and analyzing the concept.

It should also be mentioned that performance work is viral part in her works. She often has large-scale performances she reconsiders aspects of communion and tradition in our lives.

During the exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, she held a performance work as part of her project. Interestingly, these jugs have functions of both sculptures and instruments. She said, “There’s the history of the jug and how it’s been used as a musical instrument, in a skiffle type way, people making their own rudimentary instruments and still happens today in different cultures” (Sam, 2015). I listened to the sound named ‘The Jug Choir’ on the website of Modern Art Oxford. It was magnificent and beautiful beyond all expectations in spite of the figures. I thought, perhaps, the deep tone reminded people of ecstatic ritual that has been inherited their memories in genes. The figure people holding and playing the jugs are as if they communicate with the jugs and are blended into the history with the tone. I can imagine it appears in a magnificent place and time there.


She expresses ideas of the sprit, soul and fears of people. Although her expression is often playful and sometimes painful, through her works, we can feel the power of ritual. It would take people on a journey to explore human nature.

List of photographs:

Figure 1. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 2. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 3. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 4. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 5. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 6. Unknown (2015) The Hosts At: / (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 7. Unknown (2014) The Awakening At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 8. Unknown (2014) The Fertility Orbit of the Boob Meteorite

At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Figure 9. Unknown (2015) Listen to The Jug Choir

At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)


Catherine, B, Spirals At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Charles, M (2007) Prehistoric & Ancient Art – The Art History Archive At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Mary, M (2011) FOLK ART – Georgia College & State University

At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Henry. G. (1999) Material Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Sam W. (2015) ‘Hole & Corner’: SHAPE SHIFTER – Serena Korda.

At: on 16.07.2015)

Serena, K (2015) Serena, Korda: Listen to The Jug Choir – The Hosts at Modern Art Oxford At:  (Accessed on 19.07.2015)

Udo, B (2000) The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. [online] At: (Accessed on 19.07.2015)


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