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Holly Warming | 2014 | Wake to Answers


The artist I believe in; the art is a mirage.

-Marcel Duchamp


Always watching  
Ever watchful

Angela invites us to the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. I had heard of the Chapel for years without much curiosity. I knew better its psychedelic founder, Alex Grey, assuming for most of my life that he was something of a local eccentric. Only in the last decade did I realized Grey is an international phenomenon, so long as one looks in the right quarters.

I didn't feel that my belief in him or his message was the point of this excursion, however. I can tolerate divergent thinking for an anthropological experience. As Angela majored in art, I would like to believe that her asking us on this adventure has more to do with her artistic training than any desire to worship at Alex Grey's feet. Amber skewed more toward the "gawk at the freaks" than "appreciate Alex Grey's talent in person" side of the equation, making her a fine Girl Friday for my anthropological expedition. Let me be agnostic and see Grey's philosophy proven to me.

The internet is unambiguous that some see CoSM as a cult, which makes me wish I had given them a false name before paying my admission. Angela says she welcomes this to be a cult, that she would avidly join a cult devoted to the arts. She will not be a useful observer tonight. Were this a horror movie, she would be the erstwhile ally who turns on the rest of us the moment she thinks she can become the villain's priestess-consort.

I am biased to the other extreme. The core of my complaint against the Alex and Allyson grey is that their thesis is contingent on human unexceptionalism. You aren't an artist, you are merely a paintbrush for transdimensional aliens or a fistful of hallucinogens. I cannot support or encourage the belief that humans are so worthless to the act of creation. If the Greys were characters in my novels-and there is a chance I may parody them in a future installment-they would be the avatars of the modern drug gods. Who else but spiritual quislings could want humanity to be worthless skin suits for altered substances?

I know and admire people who use drugs, though it is not for the drug use that I think well of them. The trouble with conflating drugs with spirituality is that it will produce a profound state quickly, but you are unable to know which aspects were from the divine and which were from chemical interactions. Despite what the Greys would have us believe, there is a difference. I can play infrasound and make you feel haunted, I can magnetically stimulate your brain and make you have an abduction experience. External interference does not validate induced experiences.

I do not call into question that Alex Grey is talented. He studied and worked for decades to achieve his vision. If he wishes to invalidate this by claiming it was all to do with drugs and parallel dimensions, that is between him and his ego. The Greys call themselves visionary artists, prophets, but their prophecy seems like reheated leftovers from the sixties: do copious drugs and, as an afterthought, maybe love one another.

They remind me of students I have had, who believe that smoking pot constitutes an identity in full. My students will, in the absence of drugs, roll up pieces of notebook paper and pretend they are smoking, which ranks as one of the dafter displays to which I am weekly privy. It would be like making an identity of eating Twinkies or drinking Mountain Dew. You can have a full life that partially includes things you ingest, but it is a barren mind who considers that the totality of one's persona.
Mixed altar  
The altar

Yet, the Greys do not seem to have a barren life. They have built a devout following on the backs of the chant "Do drugs if you want to be an artist/spiritual." Their life, as far as I can tell from meeting them and researching, has been sacrificed on the altar of this credo and it has paid off for them. It absolutely won't pay off for any of their followers. They will need their own shtick.

I am hardly divorced from spirituality, though I do not care to cheat to get my knowledge and die knowing I was a fraud in the ways it most counted. Even when my philosophy matches up with the Greys, they immediately veer into the incredulous, ascribing it to knowledge gained while tripping out of their gourds and hallucinating conspiracy theories. So little they say has any connection toward the verifiable. They demand one take 100% of what they say on faith, which requires the listener to believe the Greys themselves are holy. I have had far more exposure to liars, opportunists, and cheats than I have to genuine shamans.

I mistrust them most because they pretend at having answers. I respect questions, I admire theories. I glare at people who build cults of personality based on facile conclusions with no evidence. They are so invested in this identity. That is a dangerous place because you are no longer allowing questions. They are committed to a party line. They cannot say they don't need drugs anymore. They need to perpetuate.

Despite how my books may sound, I have no issue with believers. Belief can be a delicious sauce on life for those who think they have at long last found the answer to questions long sought. However, to me, it is not unlike a high school experiment with phenylthiocarbamide to test for recessive alleles. After placing a tab on our tongues, those with a particular dominance would run to the water fountain to dilute the apparent taste of an acidic urinal. The other half of my class tasted nothing. I could understand attempting it if there were a change of peppermint or bubblegum, but I could not rationalize a choice between fetid urine and nothing. As such, I palmed the tab and pretended to be among the tasting deficient.

So is it with Grey's acolytes. Perhaps I would be overcome with beauty and purpose if I conceded to acknowledge Alex Grey as a prophet. However, there are sufficient examples of people diving head first into his patchwork ideology and becoming insufferably pretentious at best. Without a longitudinal study, I would guess some end up considerably worse and certainly as poor as an ex-Scientologist. With Grey, there is no tab to pocket-well, none that isn't LSD-but I will abstain and observe as I did in high school biology.

The house is up a winding road through woods, owned entirely by Grey or the church he has founded. My companions declare that we are all going to die. Following the unpaved road toward and beyond red and green light, I reply that we can't possible die, because he must have killed us upon trespassing onto his property. This is merely the beginning of our surreal afterlife, disappointingly similar to a plywood haunted house.

As we enter, volunteers or employees bearing Grey's symbol check us off and compliment us on the inventiveness of our last names. (Many people wear the sigil of Alex Grey, which is available for purchase in the gift shop at a steep markup given that it is only flimsy silver. Amber is confident that she could bend it given a moment. Once you are buying and wearing someone else's sigil, it's hard to deny you have fallen into worship.) Upstairs, where only "key holders" may go, are rooms one may rent out, though the website does not give prices. It is safe to say that, if one has to ask, one cannot possibly afford it. I do not think one pays for the amenities, little more than a bed (and Grey print on the wall) and a continental breakfast, but the boasting rights of saying one slept in Grey's home. However, as the calendar on the Chapel of Sacred Mirror's site makes clear, Grey is not commonly on the grounds. If one pays (again, I can imagine richly) for the chance to do an internship here, Alex Grey will personally meet with one for a whole hour a week. For some, who envision Alex Grey as a latter-day Picasso, this may be worth whatever dent it puts in one's trust fund.
Smile Revolutionaries  
Smile Revolutionaries

After removing our shoes and paying our fee for this revival, the blissed out people behind the desk affix blue wristbands to us and make clear to us that we will be booted off the property if we are seen without one of these. There was no visible fence driving in, so I imagine it would not be hard to sneak in if one were so inclined. I do not see anyone here who could serve as a bouncer, not that I wish to test this conjecture. Perhaps they would simply ask with exceeding niceness until one left.

Everyone within exudes a warm vibe that I, for once, do not suspect. Perhaps they are acolytes of Grey. Perhaps merely curiosity or drug seekers. Despite feeling I exist with my finger on the pulse of the local spiritual community, absolutely none of these people are familiar. Many people here are curiously photogenic, much more attractive than one would get at a cross-section of other supposedly spiritual organization. This place seems to cater to a certain appearance, though I am not certain how they dissuade the riff-raff, those who would not get the cover page of High Times.

There are a hundred and change people occupying every available seat and the borders of the room, gathered around a gong and speakers. It should go without saying that every vertical surface on this floor features Grey's psychedelic art. There are other artifacts of occult or spiritual significance-amethyst geodes like pointy crèches, ostrich egg sized lingams and crystal balls-packed together with more aesthetic than religious considerations.

It is impossible to wiggle into an alcove in the house where one is not watched. If not by the curious or vacant gazes of other attendees, then by those of Grey's art. I wonder if this isn't intentional. Let the acolytes know the eyes are always on them, judging their unworthy souls.

As I lean on tiptoes, I realize that all the paintings on the walls are prints, not originals. This makes sense, as I am sure his acolytes would otherwise scratch and lick them to pulp in hopes of communing more deeply with Alex.

Grey taps the gong repeatedly and with increasing force to silence us and set the tone. He dresses in black from his jacket to pants to fuzzy slippers. The only deviation is his silver medallion and gray-white hair.

Alex clutches the mic in both hands, close to his face, prayerfully but uncomfortably, as though he means to hide behind it. He is thin enough that he nearly could. If he is supposed to be as charismatic a cult leader as the internet would have him be, I would imagine he would be more comfortable among his paying flock.

He asks how we harvest, what we gather into ourselves, gathering divine experience of oneness winning out over the shadow. He speaks slowly, haltingly, like Jeff Goldblum. The crowd chuckles conspiratorially, as though they are in on a joke that wasn't told.

Though this is not the first time I have encountered him, I have never before seen him in his element. I don't think I am projecting, but I cannot figure out why he seems so awkward among this crowd he has gathered and by which he has profited. He is far from a televangelist in his fervor or confidence. Even in interviews of his I have listened to in preparation, he seems to wish to shy away from the interviewer, no matter how adulatory they are.

According to Alex Grey's orientation materials on his website, the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors worships the Cosmic Christ, a second coming of a green Jesus who will usher in a more environmentally sacred attitude. Many people interpret this as just worshiping Alex Grey, since the way to access the green Jesus is to take a staggering amount of LSD and dance around a fire on CoSM's property.

He tries to crack jokes in the midst of his sermon, mentioning that a particle of Jesus was statistically in the room, after which he snorts the air. He also attempt to quip as to Buddhism, saying, "The fourth noble truth is life is suffering... ow."

As he speaks, his voice dances through the octaves, never settling on one long enough to establish it as his native tone. His Ichabod Crane limbs waggle as punctuation when he hits his own manifold path:

  • Right View: we are all erotic splatters of beauty throughout the whole universe.
  • Right Application: Make art better than it was before. Come back to the wheel [of reincarnation] and reveal heaven here.
  • Right livelihood: What you would not be ashamed at doing for money.

These statements are simplistic but superficially appealing, even if they are an odd salad of Christianity and Buddhism.

I can accept the Greys' art and understand them through that, because it is their domain and I would not be so cocky as to interject myself. When they verge on words-my realm-I want them to shut up and stick to their lane. Alex Grey has claimed that LSD, a substance not synthesized until the vast bulk of her work was on shelves, inspired everything Anais Nin wrote, for example.

I do not know how much of this I can paste solely on Alex Grey. Often, Allyson stops him from speaking and reinterprets what she is sure he means. I gather from his posture, from his immediate backing off, that this is their relationship. To me, it makes Allyson seem like the mastermind and Alex, a cowed puppet. He defers to his wife so conspicuously, going so far as to asking her permission to end their portion of the evening, that I refer to her as Lady Macbeth. Still, Alex is the figurehead. Alex is the core artist, however often he shrugs that drugs and aliens made him do it, however often Allyson says she doesn't even remember who painted what and thereby by implication retroactively claims ownership of his work.

According to Allyson, she met Alex at a college party. He was a severely depressed art major. She drugged him with a cup of Kahlua spiked with LSD. He vomited prodigiously. From then on, he was her pet. He does not contradict this story. They were two broken people who fused at the ragged edges. In lieu of therapy, they clung to psychotropic and a buffet of spirituality.

To kill a bit of time in transitions, Allyson Grey orders us to turn to a stranger, introduce ourselves, and tell them one thing about us. I ask Amber if there might be juice and cookies later, followed by naptime. Such is the atmosphere tonight that she takes this as a serious inquiry.
floor acolytes  
Acolytes, on the floor

All this takes place in one of the homes on his property because the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors does not exist in this world, though Allyson gives a Wizard of Oz line about it being inside of us the whole time. The models of the eventual chapel, fat cylinder walled by interlocking faced topped with inverted rutabaga domes, are available for purchase at a premium. They intend to 3D print the chapel just as they have the models. It doesn't appear to be architecturally sound or wise, but I don't know how much they actually intend to use the money of their followers to build this. They might as well make this pipe dream outlandish, so long as someone else is funding its impossibility.

After ordering us to close our eyes to meditate or trance dance in place, Allyson asks were we are all from. People shout that they are from Bali, Ecuador, and Kentucky, but I would be shocked if anyone genuinely came from further than New York City to attend this meeting.

Then, they invite their guests to speak. One man rambles about permaculture, looking to a T how you imagine someone rambling about permaculture at the Grey compound would look. After him come the Smile Revolutionaries, essentially clowns who play tuneless music. The founder of their group, a woman name Mindy, has the sourest expression I have ever seen on someone, let alone someone who is advocating the necessity of mirth while in a pink wig. I do not know how anyone can manage this while tapping an LED tambourine. Angela thinks this is intentional, a sort of hilarious irony. I am sure it isn't, as Mindy does not smile on or off stage for as long as I see her.

Next comes up Joness, a young devotee whom I gather lives here. She dresses all in black, including a floppy black hat that makes her seem even smaller than she is. She could pass for a character from American Horror Story: Coven without any adornment. I wonder at her role here, beyond watching the Greys and absorbing their prana. How did she end up in this web of theirs?

The website is clear than anyone doing or distributing drugs on the premises will be escorted off the grounds. However, this is clearly just to cover their asses. If people were not tripping when they entered, many are within five minutes of the sermon ending. It is disingenuous to imply that he does not condone and outright encourage the use of drugs for mind-expansion, though I know lawyers would urge him to never say so in writing.

Some people gather around a ten-foot circle of paper and proceeded to use markers to draw pictures. Others, including Joness and a man with subdermal spikes, paint on easels, which is apparently a form of entertainment. Other artists appear and begin their work for an audience. A table appears for people to get henna done, possibly at an additional charge. The pulse of techno music wafts form the other side of the house.

We wander out to the bonfire, where a woman with a fanny pack dances to music that seems to come out of her ass. She is not doing this for the benefit of anyone else. Though I can hear and appreciate "In Bloom," her glare makes clear that she does not care that I can hear it and I would not be welcome to compliment her taste in music or her means of foisting it upon everyone else around the fire.

Amber wanders from the fire, curious at the scrim of Egyptian gods dozens of feet away. I do not doubt that we could stumble around the ground without anyone noticing or caring. On the other hand, I am a student of horror movies and my Scream-sense assures me that we will be horrible killed if we go much further, if we try to suss out what the purpose of these other buildings on the property might be.

I dance at the rave, but Angela seems more embarrassed for me than anything else. We last maybe ten minutes, watching a shirtless boy writhe about almost but not quite to the beat. He may hear different drummers. He is the sort of person who just shows up at a place calling itself the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. You buy a house, call it something with spiritual import, and people like him simply appear one day, possibly sleeping in one's basement. You cannot really rid yourself of them, not unless you want to call your place a corporation and talk of tax annuities. These Supertramps are the cost of doing business in the pseudo-spiritual realm. Or, just as likely, they are the most fervent members of one's cult. These are the fellows passing out the Kool-Aid and buying the Nikes for the trip on Hale-Bopp.

Do I recommend going? Honestly, yes. CoSM did not instinctively rub me the wrong way. They were silly at times, but I do not recoil into myself. I feel that I can participate to a limited extent. Perhaps this is what the admission fee grants me: the ability to see this as a production rather than a holy site, whatever Grey's actual intention. I may have too much baggage and foreknowledge of the Greys to personally allow myself ecstatic connection to their hive-mind, but it is difficult to deny that those who have seem delighted. Overall, if one can restrain rolling one's eyes too badly through the initial proselytizing, these small groups of avid devotees might alone be worth the price of admission.

Soon in Xenology: Work. Deaths.

last watched: The Shining
reading: The Time Traveler's Wife
listening: Mindy Gledhill

Holly Warming | 2014 | Wake to Answers

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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