Kristen Alvanson’s Poison-in/Poison-out is a series of four ink drawings on paper using Persian ink (made out of gum Arabic, soot, alum, tannic acid and water) and Persian calligraphic pen. The works have been created as a part of artist Christina McPhee’s Pharmakon project.
The history of middle-eastern talismans depicts a range of essentially ambiguous religio-political and cultural dynamics in the Middle East. These socio-political ambiguities are mostly influenced by the symbiosis between nomadic culture and the State, between polytheistic beliefs and the dominant monotheism on the one hand and monotheism and heretical beliefs on the other. Such ambiguities or ambivalent inclinations always manifest in the spells’ final shapes. The spells are simultaneously haunted by harmful and therapeutic effects, demonic and benevolent features. In middle-eastern spells, the pharmakonic or the profound ambivalence in intention and structure, form and content are not repressed but brought into the foreground so as to create a complex chemistry of ideas. The alchemy of middle-eastern spells involves the synthesis of ideas and intentions in the form of twists, inconclusive destinies, incurable maladies and unestablished cures. Middle-eastern spells are mostly created in the form of diagrammatic bodies formed by abstract components: numbers depict body parts, letter curvatures represent fiendish fauna, geometric elements form skeletal frames for the spells and miniature ciphers become contagious particles which conduct the effects of the spells toward targets. Moreover, middle-eastern spells require a chemical reaction in order to be effectuated. Such chemical reactions include burning or introducing the actual spell drawn on paper, fabric or metal to certain chemical components such as acid, mercury, sulfur, gold or silverMark. Therefore, the spells bridge actual chemistry with the abstract alchemy of their syncretic ideas in order to unleash their occult ambiguities. For this reason, middle-eastern spells contain textual or diagrammatic instructions of chemical initiations embedded within the spell.
Poison-in/Poison-out are Poison/Cure spells which push the idea of ambivalent middle-eastern spells further as the artist uses western and middle-eastern, personal and social, inventive artistic elements and vaguely familiar components in her spells. Like all adventurous alchemists who are preoccupied with inconclusive and indefinite chemical reactions and elements, Alvanson takes up the calligraphic pen without any compunction with regard to ‘authenticity’. Since middle-eastern spells are already syncretic, mongrelized entities, she allows herself a free hand in their contemporary re-creation by mixing Farsi, Arabic, English and other symbols to ‘see what happens’.
The Farsi word for poison (zahr ) has been incorporated throughout the spells; the second letter in the word (from right to left) is the letter Ha2 which is a dominant letter in Arabic Qabalah known as ABJAD. The letter Ha always appears as a syncretic and twisted coil which suggests both Islamic and heretical connotations. In Poison-in/Poison-out, the letter Ha has been repeated throughout as a catalyst for the effectuation of the spells and a conduit into which the poison is poured and from which the poison leaves the spells – channels called ‘Poison-in’ and ‘Poison-out’. Alvanson also uses alchemical activation and de-activation commands such as ‘Bury it’ and ‘Burn it’ mixed with elemental combinations and codes to build the spells. Some of the components include: Fire, Wind, Water (sea), Earth, Miasma, Gas, Μέταλλο including: 16/S (Sulfur) 80/Hg (Mercury) 21/Sc (Scandium) 29/Cu (Copper) 32/Ge (Germanium) 107/Bh (Bohrium) 72/Hf (Hafnium) 20/Ca (Calcium) 114/Uup (Ununquadium) 69/Tm (Thulium) 71/Tu (Lutetium) 19/K (Potassium), Heat Capacity (Cv,m J mol−1 K−1) including: Helium 12.4717 Nitrogen 20.8 Neon 12.4717 Water 74.53 Air 20.7643 Argon 12.4717 CO2 28.46, and Allotropes of Brimstone (Cyclo-S8 and S7,cyclo-heptasulfur). As syncretic congeries of elements and alchemical commands, Poison-in/Poison-out exemplifies spells which refuse to generate conclusive or definite effects.
Kristen Alvanson (born in 1969 in Minneapolis) lives and works in Malaysia, after several years in Iran.
She attended The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and holds a degree from Sarah Lawrence College. Alvanson has exhibited in shows in both the United States and the Middle East. In 2008 she participated in group/solo shows in Tehran, London, Istanbul and Belgium, including a solo exhibition of her work at Azad Gallery in Tehran and participation in the International Roaming Biennial of Tehran. Her writing and artworks have been published in Collapse: Journal of Philosophical Research and Development, New Humanist, Frozen Tears III, Cabinet Magazine and Specialten. Most recently, she collaborated with Reza Negarestani with illustrations and text for the 'speculative theology' novel Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Re:Press 2008, listed as a best book of 2009 by Artforum international.
"I've always been interested in the occult not as a mystic reservoir for solely personal experiences but as a map for occluded socio-political currents which are essentially collective. A number of people have said that the drawings and paintings I was doing while I was in New York had a strong occult line running throughout and I have to agree. But it wasn't until I was researching middle-eastern talismans about three years ago that I began using 'spells' in my work. It started with a project called 'Maskh' which was 100 drawings dealing with my metamorphosis – not in a narrative manner but in a cartographic way. I saw spells as occult maps for certain concrete socio-political processes which surface in the domain of collective desires; spells show transitions and metamorphoses of these desires from the collective to the individual sphere. That's why spells usually incorporate themes like abrupt transformations of identity and possession. Middle-eastern spells are mostly created in the form of diagrammatic bodies formed by abstract components such as numbers, letter curvatures and geometric elements which are ideal skeletal frames on which to build new spells. The spells I created for the Maskh series mainly had to do with the events leading up to my leavingt he US and moving to Iran in 2006. Once in Iran I continued to work with spells. I was able to see current examples of Persian calligraphy around Shiraz (in books, on walls and other places) as well as see many examples of old talismans. I was able to actually use locally made Persian ink which is a much richer and darker substance than what I could find in the US. I also learned how to work with Persian calligraphy pens which created so many types of lines. These pens create such limitless forms of curvatures and lines which I think are perfect for narrating the transitions of desires and transformations of identity through different expressions of intensity and ink tonality. Most Iranian calligraphers use the pens and ink in a very traditional way, but I tried all sorts of techniques with the pens…for example, scraping and using them on hard paper opposed to traditional glossy surfaces. I worked on a second 'installment' of maskh drawings and over the past couple years I've continued to work with spell making. The 'Poison-in/Poison-out' drawings I created for the 'Pharmakon' project is a continuation of this work."