The Wheel of Fortune from tarot artist Cathy McClelland’s Star Tarot deck (2017), in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica
The Wheel of Fortune from tarot artist Cathy McClelland’s Star Tarot deck (2017), in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica © Cathy McClelland

It has been half a century since R & B group The 5th Dimension sang of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when “peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars”. Today, however, the esoteric is no longer solely the remit of the counterculture. 

While astrology has long had a mainstream presence and loyal audience, there has been an explosion of interest in the more far-out end of the spiritual spectrum. Mediums, tarot readings, the secret life of plants and sound baths are all gaining new fans. 

“Covid-19 has put the reality that we are all interconnected right before our eyes – and this idea of correspondences within the universe is the foundation of esotericism,” says the influencer Pari Dust (aka Pari Ehsan), who has 187K Instagram followers and has just launched an astrology newsletter. “I felt it was time to experiment with a hybridisation of astrology, art and fashion,” she says. “If romanticising cosmology brings people into greater alignment with each other and the universe, I am all for it.” 

Pari Ehsan’s Astro Wheel, with illustrations by Donald Urquhart
Pari Ehsan’s Astro Wheel, with illustrations by Donald Urquhart

Each star sign in Ehsan’s newsletter is illustrated by Scottish artist Donald Urquhart, who is represented by Maureen Paley and known for his graphic amalgam of queer glamour and club culture. “He has conceptualised a cast of magical characters, all associated with New York City, each born under the various star signs,” Ehsan explains. “We have Billie Holiday for Aries, Debbie Harry for Cancer in a crab tee, and Keith Haring for Taurus, wearing a bull hoodie.” 

East London-based tarot reader Felicia Kozak has become an underground phenomenon. Her (top-secret) client list includes high-profile musicians, artists and business people from their 20s to their 70s, and she consults everywhere, from Australia to Mexico. “Tarot and other modalities of mediumship create a safe space to navigate the energies surrounding us – and can alleviate stress and anxiety by helping people reflect,” she says. For Kozak, the rise in interest has been inevitable. “Everyone found themselves trapped and scared of death, sickness, bankruptcy, unemployment and so on. I can barely keep up with appointments.” 

Tarot decks featured in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica include the well-known Rider-Waite-Smith (1910). . .
Tarot decks featured in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica include the well-known Rider-Waite-Smith set (1910). . . © Courtesy of Taschen
. . . and, from 1974, Italian tarot artist Osvaldo Menegazzi’s Le Conchiglie Divinatorie (shell divination)
. . . and, from 1974, Italian tarot artist Osvaldo Menegazzi’s Le Conchiglie Divinatorie (shell divination) © Osvaldo Menegazzi, Il Meneghello

This renewed focus on tarot extends to a cross-section of platforms, from Instagram’s daily readings to Taschen’s Library of Esoterica, which recently launched with an incredible visual history of the cards. The Taschen series aims to demonstrate “creative ways to connect to the divine”, and the book, written and edited by Jessica Hundley, a contributor to Vogue and The New York Times, includes a forward by feminist collage artist Penny Slinger and an exceptional selection of artist card images. 

Los Angeles “sound healer” Roxie Sarhangi at work
Los Angeles “sound healer” Roxie Sarhangi at work

In California, Los Angelenos have never been afraid of exploring the arcane and experimental, but things have intensified. Before the pandemic, sound healer Roxie Sarhangi held in-person sound baths at art galleries and high-end hotels. But in an altered reality, she turned to Instagram Live – gaining 1,100 new followers in less than two weeks. Sound baths, she explains, are “meditative acoustic sound ‘concerts’ that bring you to a state of deep relaxation, and this activates your body’s natural system of self-healing”. Her 70-minute guided experiences focus on “changing brain waves” and clearing “blockages” in the body. “Our day-to-day lives have dramatically shifted and we are living a new reality,” she says. “The need to deeply relax, connect and heal is no longer optional.”

Octagonal Drawing (1976) by Ann Churchill, at the exhibition Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium
Octagonal Drawing (1976) by Ann Churchill, at the exhibition Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium © Ben Westoby/courtesy Ann Churchill

The popular appropriation of these countercultural practices was astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s worst nightmare. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he wrote of an America where “clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes... we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness”. But sceptic or no, mainstream culture is reflecting a shift towards the mystical. The Hayward Gallery’s touring show Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium, which opened at London’s Drawing Room earlier this month, looks at how artists have made connections between the material and the hidden worlds over the centuries and features radical spirit drawings created during seances in the mid-19th century, and work by cult outsiders like Austin Osman Spare and Madge Gill. “The show feels timely,” argues co-curator Simon Grant. “It shows how out of date a lot of art history is, and how narrowly it has been taught.”

Carl Jung’s concept of the Philosophical Tree is explored at The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree
Carl Jung’s concept of the Philosophical Tree is explored at The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree © Courtesy of the Foundation of the Works of CG Jung

Camden Art Centre director Martin Clark adds that: “I think there was a sense that our consumerist, materialist, way of life was accelerating out of control... that it was hugely dysfunctional.” Camden’s latest show The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree, opening on 24 September and which can also be viewed as an online exhibition, highlights the relationship between art and advances in quantum biology, plant neurobiology, computing and physics. “Science has only accounted for about five per cent of the known universe,” says Clark. “The other 95 per cent is called dark energy and dark matter, because scientists know it’s there but they have no idea what it is or what it does. We still have no idea how consciousness works. These questions shouldn’t be left to the fringes of mysticism, magic or the weird. They should be at the heart of our investigations.”

Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist As Medium, 10 Sept – 1 Nov, Drawing Room, 1-27 Rodney Place, London SE17, drawingroom.org.uk

The Botanical Mind, Camden Art Centre, London NW3, camdenartcentre.org, botanicalmind.online

Tarot, by Jessica Hundley, Thunderwing, Johannes Fiebig and Marcella Kroll, is published by Taschen, taschen.com


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