Through research and found archival material my action examines the relationship between the guru and the devotee as informed by the material culture associated with contemporary spirituality. The dual roles of the guru and devotee represent human traits of altruism, vulnerability, optimism, utopian ideals and community. They also reveal human weaknesses such as dominance, desire for power, money, hierarchy and at times celebrity status. The individual search for spiritual evolution and adaptations of countercultures are a reoccurring theme throughout history.
This research investigates metaphysical and utopian impulses of the recent past such as the spiritual countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s on the West Coast of North America, its subsequent impact on the emergence of ‘New Age’ spirituality in the 1980s, and recent tendencies towards self-help and therapeutic philosophies. The motivation behind this research stems from my involvement in Evangelistic Christianity as a child and my Chinese father’s ritualistic practices as a Taoist. These lived experiences, which include my yoga practice, alternative ways of living and belief systems, are the foundation for my investigations into meta-spirituality (a set of common and universal principles or codes of ethics for living). Typically working in sculpture, my practice explores spiritual countercultures, utopias and esoteric practices to find healing from disconnection of community and the natural world. I aim to renew and reimagine a connection between nature and spirituality in which they can coexist. This research serves as a theoretical structure for my studio making and enables me to create an iconographic language that explores ways of understanding by critiquing these subjects and contemporary esoteric thought.
Min Wong is a sculpture and installation artist who is currently completing her MFA at UNSW Art and Design. Min has participated in international residencies in Spain, China and Los Angeles and recently exhibited at Housemuseum Galleries, Newcastle Regional Gallery, Verge Gallery, Hugo Michelle Gallery and Firstdraft. Min has exhibited in prizes such as Churchie Emerging Art Prize and the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize and in 2019 was the recipient of the Sculpture prize for the Ghost Fisher Art Award Prize.
When I was young, my father received a Churchill scholarship to pursue his microbiology research in America. We visited many Pentecostal churches and went to Oral Roberts’ mega church and university. I saw many people speaking in tongues, preachers laying hands on people and a lot of money being donated in the church isle.
Oral Roberts is the Pentecostal evangelist whose televised faith-healing ministry attracted millions of followers worldwide and made him one of the most recognisable and controversial religious leaders of the 20th century. Roberts was the founder of a religious, educational and communications enterprise based in Tulsa, Okla that managed a university, mounted healing “crusades” on five continents, preached on prime-time national television and published dozens of books and magazines. He was the patriarch of the “prosperity gospel,” a theology that promotes the idea that Christians who pray and donate with sufficient fervency will be rewarded with health, wealth and happiness.
Oral Roberts University estimated that Roberts, its founder and first president, had personally laid his hands on more than 1.5 million people during his career, reached more than 500 million people on television and radio, and received millions of letters and appeals. John Lennon wrote a letter to Roberts in 1972 seeking forgiveness for publicly remarking that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and asking him to “explain to me what Christianity can do for me.”
The devoted woman behind the evangelist
Tammy Faye Bakker was the elaborately coiffed gospel singer who, with her first husband, Jim Bakker, built a commercial empire around television evangelism only to see it collapse in sex and money scandals. In 1978 the Bakkers built Heritage USA, a spiritual theme park offering visitors a specific brand of Christian devotion and spectacle. Known as “health and wealth” theology, prosperity gospel ran through the Bakkers’ ministry, from their promises of divine healing on their daily talk show “PTL (praise the lord) club” to their flashy lifestyles. By the mid-1980s, the Bakkers had multiple houses and cars but their spending brought the couple scrutiny and criticism.
Tammy, who stood 4 feet 11 inches, was known for appearing on camera in overstated outfits and heavy makeup. She was openly emotional, whether praying for the health of a believer or for generous financial contributions. When she broke down on camera her tears and mascara both ran copiously, leaving long black streaks on her face.
Admirers say she was a resilient woman who also battled prescription drug addiction and multiple bouts of cancer. Jim Bakker cheated on her and went to federal prison before they divorced in 1989. Her second husband was sent to prison, too. Her fans say she never lost her faith in God; Bakker even appeared on national television to say so hours before losing her battle with cancer.
Ma Anand Sheela
In the early 1980s Ma Anand Sheela was personal secretary and spokeswoman to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru and leader of the Rajneesh movement. During a period when Bhagwan vowed silence, she was his voice. When Bhagwan and his followers were forced out of Pune, India, in 1981, they relocated to Wasco County, Oregon, and built a city called Rajneeshpuram, which included a shopping mall and an airport. Located in the middle of nowhere this was a place where Bhagwan and his followers could practise his mix of eastern mysticism, western philosophy and free love. Sheela was a powerful woman whose devotion to her guru has been criticised for being power hungry and manipulative. I always found her intriguing and her devotion to her guru inspirational and entertaining.
Tensions between the commune and local community increased with bitter hostility and legal conflicts over land ownership. The list of charges against Rajneeshpuram included an arms race, arson, immigration fraud and espionage. The city was found to contain drugs and luxury products such as private jets and a personal fleet of Rolls-Royces.
In 1984, Sheela coordinated a bioterror attack in which the salad bars of several restaurants in the county were infected with salmonella and dozens of people were hospitalised. Sheela ended up in jail.
Gurus, sex and power
I have practiced Bikram Yoga for the last 7 years and have co-opted yoga as a methodology for making in my sculpture practice.
Bikram yoga has become a way of life for thousands of people over the past four decades; 26 postures and two breathing practices that must be performed in a carpeted room at 40 degrees. Choudhury Bikram is the founder of Bikram yoga and was a powerful and respected figure/guru who abused that power. In 2016, he left the United States in the wake of multiple sexual-assault charges.
Bikram claims, he was mentored by the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh, won national yoga championships, and was an accomplished weight lifter. In 1973, after claiming to have cured Richard Nixon of Phlebitis, he moved to Los Angeles and opened a yoga studio in Beverly Hills.
Once Choudhury hit L.A., his profile skyrocketed, as did his yoga practice, his income, and his ego. Bikram understood how an association with American celebrities could bring him wealth, which he used to enjoy fast food, dancing to disco whilst wearing black speedos and a Rolex, and driving a Rolls-Royce.
In the 2000’s, Choudhury’s training sessions were held at resorts or hotels. Photographs show Choudhury’s teaching method has been compared with that of a megachurch as he was regularly seen teaching classes while wearing a black Speedo in front of hundreds of students. Choudhury was inspiring, grandiose, verbally abusive and sexist.
‘Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber, to kill yourself for next ninety minutes’
Jim Jones was an archetypal charismatic guru who facilitated the voluntary mass suicide of his 900 followers of the Peoples Temple in Guyana in1978. Jim Jones fostered the acceptability of ‘revolutionary suicide’ using this act as a devotional tool to coerce and persuade his followers to sacrifice and rescue human identity from a dehumanised capitalist, racist and fascist oppression in America. During ‘white nights’ of emergency mobilisation, Jones conducted rituals of proclaimed mass suicide, giving poison to all members and saying they would die within an hour. This was a loyalty test, ending in the ultimate spectacle.
Heaven's Gate was an American UFO cult based near San Diego, California. It was founded in 1972 by Bonnie Lu Nettles and Marshall Herff Applewhite, who believed the Bible foretold an extra-terrestrial rapture wherein some individuals would be saved from life on this planet and journey to the “Next Level” a realm in outer space where they would live as an immortal, perfected species of space aliens.
On March 26th, 1997, the members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka and secured plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. Authorities found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets, said to be for interplanetary toll. All 39 members, aged between 26 and 72 years old were dressed in identical black shirts and track pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team" referencing missions in Star Trek. Heaven's Gate UFO cult chose health goth aesthetics. Considering the current athleisure and wellness trends it is an interesting twist to see this look come back into vogue. In recent years, the Nike Decade has been seen for sale on Ebay for as much as $6000.
Started in the late 1960s as part of the anti-war and hippy movements the Rainbow Family of Living Light describes itself as "the largest best coordinated nonpolitical nondenominational nonorganisational of like-minded individuals on the planet. The flagship Rainbow Family Gatherings, which have occurred every year since 1972 in a different US national forest now take place all over the world. They have been compared to longer, more authentically weird versions of Burning Man bringing together upwards of 10,000 “Rainbows” from across section of fringe culture: bikers, Jesus freaks, computer programmers, naked yogis, and punks looking to escape “Babylon” (the Rainbow shorthand for the various evils of modern life). The gatherings are free and open to anyone. A Rainbow Family Gathering is experimental anarchy: no one is in charge, and nobody can tell anyone else what to do.
I spent a week at one of the Rainbow festivals in Far North Queensland on the Atherton Tablelands. It was an intriguing mash up of global hippies, locals, free food, drop pit toilets, acid heads, heroin users, Bajan drumming circles and all the contradictory east meets west alternative cultures in one free form, community focused, organised camp out in the bush. One of their daily rituals is to have a huge circle where everyone holds hands before you eat the evening meal together.
Shirley MacLaine is an American actress, author and activist who has spent decades expressing her deep-rooted beliefs about spirituality, from meditation to reincarnation.
In 1998, MacLaine made her first video, ‘Inner Workout’, selling more than 100,000 copies in seven weeks. The video is about open eye mediation. MacLaine explains at the beginning of the video that chakras are seven “wheels of light” that lie within each person, running from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Each chakra has its own corresponding colour and note on the musical scale and each is believed to be the seat of a certain aspect of the human soul. You can meditate on the red “base chakra" to get “grounded” and in touch with the Earth. Or on the yellow “heart chakra " to increase feelings of love, the blue “throat chakra " to aid expression, and so forth.