ON THEIR OWN, and despite containing compelling moments, neither the tour nor the wedding succeeded as convincing spiritual or artistic exercises for me. It was the weekend’s most traditional event that knitted the programme into a meaningful, textured experience.
Panel talks, I’ve been told, are the staple diet of public programming. They’re like Weet-Bix: good for you, but a little dry on their own. Wellness Weekend’s panel talk introduced the broad topic of ‘Art and Spirituality’.
‘Just because this is about spirituality doesn’t mean this is going to be dull,’ Leafā Wilson said, the artist and curator leading the panel. She spoke with Pākehā artists Jen Bowmast, Katy B Plummer, and Belle Basin, as well as Carl Mika, a Tuhourangi, Ngati Whanaunga academic and philosopher.
‘And let’s start this right,’ Leafā added, ‘with a minute of silence.’
The discussion roamed widely. Each panellist discussed how their relationship to spirituality informed their work. They unpacked how af Klint’s ideas resonated with their own. Most usefully for City Gallery’s programme, and for myself, they politicised spirituality.
Scepticism is what drives a wedge between artists, spirituality, and the contemporary art scene. And scepticism, Belle explained, has been a driving force in art for decades.
‘But in a spiritual context or community, you put one sceptical person in the room and nothing can grow,’ she said. ‘Sincerity is new to contemporary art.’ A recurring motif was how these distinctions are created and enforced by Pākehā communities and Pākehā art practices.
‘I don’t distinguish between ‘spiritual’ and ‘non-spiritual,’ Carl said. ‘I spent time with my Māori elders when I was a teenager. They accepted the spirit world and so do I. But neglecting spirituality in western philosophy is itself a spiritual issue.’
The spiritual doesn’t exist in opposition to the intellectual or conceptual. It’s an outmoded distinction. Art has a naturally spiritual component that can be thought about in conceptual terms. And if this was the main idea I took home over the three events, it’s a great one.
In the inherited Pākehā obsession with categorisation and separation, the spirit world is divorced from the material world. The panel described the ‘spiritual wound’ of Pākehā disconnected to land-based and ancestor-based spiritual practices. They explained how fetishization and appropriation become the blunt tools we use to address that wound. ‘The urge to fill is a very, very white response.’
One question hovering behind the panel, that wasn’t necessarily answered, was whether af Klint was to be held up as an artist to whom other white artists could look for guidance instead. I also wondered whether Wellness Weekend itself was providing a genuine instance of rebuilding spirituality from the ground up, or just another chance to fill?
In exploring these themes the panel opened Wellness Weekend up to important questions, and the other events became grounded in something meaningful. I could, for example, now sketch clear lines around my discomfort on the tour. I’d been given a key to critique it, and a vocabulary to probe my own values around participating in it. When does Pākehā spirituality cross a threshold from nourishing into something dangerous, an empty and appropriative aesthetic?
Personally, I seek comfort in the unknowable—the impartial warmth of the universe—so I try to remain open-minded. (If your crystal gets you through the day, then your crystal gets you through the day). But can many new-age practices genuinely be considered ’letting the wound air out?’ as Katy described it. The mindfulness industry—when stripped of meditation’s historical and cultural context, appropriated by white people, co-opted by capitalism—reinforces inequality. Depoliticised, it lets us think the problem is inside us, not in a system we perpetuate and can be acting to change. We’re distracted by seeking self-discipline in deep breaths.
We’re a long way from Hilma here, but the themes raised by the panel offer an interesting parallel to my experience of Wellness Weekend itself and the wider questions of programming for large institutions. Beyond provoking missed connections to artworks, might irreverent programming risk us getting the wrong impression all together, replacing thoughtful and respectful engagement with something surface level, even insincere? I do think that’s a real danger and, sometimes, Wellness Weekend felt like it could stray into that territory. But it never fully crossed that line because the three events informed and contextualised each other. It’s not that we must only eat Weet-Bix—there’s definitely room for Coco Pops and the occasional bowl of Fruit Loops—but we can’t just have the latter. Maybe traditional programming can be dry, but it’s what grounds the rest in something thoughtful and real.
And so I forgave the Self-Love Wedding Ceremony its armour of heavy irony.
Katy had explained that alongside her interest in ‘heavy ancestral stuff’ she wanted to ‘unlock special and surprising places.’ Sincerity may be a necessary condition for spiritual experiences but it doesn’t have to ride solo. Maybe it is possible to begin a serious quest with humour.
I started to see the wedding's irony not as hostile to genuine transformation, but as a method of putting people at ease. For many people humour is a safe way to step into ritual, to start making eye contact with yourself. If Pākehā want to begin again with spirituality—without harming indigenous people—then we’re making a lot up from scratch. Of course our spiritual practices are going to look bogus and feel reverse-engineered, silly. Art galleries, with their histories of performance and spectacle, might be fine places to try this out.