Arthur contributor Erik Davis on WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM for Slate

Deep Eco-Metal

Delve far enough into heavy metal, and you’ll find environmentalists.

By Erik Davis
Posted Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007, at 1:44 PM ET

After 20 minutes of driving around in the dark near Santa Cruz, I found the right road and pulled up in front of a cemetery. I was looking for a rock band called Wolves in the Throne Room, whose gig tonight was advertised as occurring “somewhere in the woods.” Stepping into the chilly evening, I slammed the car door and started walking down an unlit lane toward a forest of cypress and eucalyptus. Where the asphalt gave way to dirt, a scruffy kid with a lantern led me and a few others along trails and over streams. A sign asked us not to smoke, to turn off our cell phones, and to try to refrain from talking. Nobody asked me for any money.

Stumbling through the weeds, I came across 30 or 40 young folks gazing at a black-and-white film loop of ravens and ravaged forests that was projected onto a sheet pegged to a massive conifer. The crowd shuffled and stared and occasionally burped and giggled. Then we lumbered through the bushes toward a nearby clearing marked by a few antique hanging lanterns, a drum kit on a carpet, and a couple of amps and guitars. There was no stage, no risers, no proper lights. A massive tree limb stretched over the clearing, and a few people had clambered up for a better view, young gents with furry hats and Rasputin beards passing around bottles of nameless homebrew. Waves of ambient electronica began flowing out of an old analog synthesizer, merging with the groan of a nearby generator. After 15 minutes of this, three rather nondescript guys shuffled out of the crowd and took up their instruments.

Given the setting, you might think that Wolves in the Throne Room was some West Coast jam band or a freak-folk combo. But what these three fellows played was melancholic and often brutal black metal. READ MORE…

"The Crazy Wisdom of Philip K. Dick" online course by Erik Davis

The Crazy Wisdom of Philip K. Dick
An online course by Erik Davis
Maybe Logic Academy (
Sep. 17 – Nov. 11

Once a purely cult figure, Philip K. Dick ( 1928-1982) is now widely recognized as a pulp visionary of the highest order. This course will approach his work not so much as science fiction but as crazy wisdom. We’ll explore how his texts seem designed to illuminate our posthuman problems and our most ancient philosophical questions — and to then scramble those insights with a cheap ray gun. We will read two of Dick’s major novels, _The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch_ and _VALIS_, both chosen for their heavy gnostic themes. We will discuss drugs and archons and machines that break down, including, possibly, yourself. We will also explore the two greatest examples of the many PKD movies to date, the “new” _Blade Runner_ version and _A Scanner Darkly_—further evidence that Dick’s spirit will only continue to permeate the culture at large.

Please check out
and consider signing up!

"Druids and Ferries: Zen, Drugs, and Hot Tubs" by Erik Davis (Arthur No. 16/May 2005)

Druids and Ferries: Zen, Drugs, and Hot Tubs

by Erik Davis (

(This adaption from the author’s 2006 book Visionary State appeared in Arthur 16/May 2005 edition of Arthur.)

I first heard about Druid Heights a few years ago, when I began doing research for a book about the history of alternative spirituality in my home state of California. A musician, Colin Farish, described a gorgeously constructed round wooden building hidden in the woods of Marin County that once served as a library for Alan Watts. Farish told me that the building was condemned, and that he was working hard to save it, perhaps by transporting it elsewhere. It turned out that Farish had lived on the property where the library stood, a hidden bohemian community that went by the intriguing name of Druid Heights.

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“Nearer the Heart of Things”: Erik Davis profiles JOANNA NEWSOM (Arthur, 2006)

Always Coming Home

How California harper JOANNA NEWSOM’s masterpiece album Ys grew from a time of personal turmoil, ambitious collaboration and eating hamburgers again.

Photography by Eden Batki


Last February in Los Angeles, Joanna Newsom took to the stage at the ArthurBall and performed, for the first time in their entirety, the five loonnggg songs that make up her new album Ys. Many folks present were already chest-deep in the cult of Joanna, a fandom that made 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender a leftfield indie hit and turned Newsom herself into the sort of music-maker who inspires obsessive devotion as well as pleasure. At the time I admired Mender, but was, as of yet, no acolyte. I dug a handful of songs, but like many listeners, I found Newsom’s eccentric voice sometimes grating. I also feared that the outsider waif thing was just an underground pose stitched together with lacy thrift-store duds and an iPod stuffed with rips of the Carter Family and Shirley Collins.

My bad. The performance I saw that night was preternatural: a young artist stretching beyond her art towards something even more essential, simultaneously in command of her craft and caught in the headlights of her own onrushing brilliance. The song cycle she played was to Mender what, I dunno, Astral Weeks is to Blowin’ Your Mind, or what Smile is to The Beach Boys Today! She sang of meteorites and bears and ringing bells, of her and him and you, and she played not for us, it seemed, nor for herself exactly, but for the very presences her music conjured. Her songs were not performed so much as drawn from herself like nets dredged from the sea, heavy with kelp and flotsam and minnows that flashed before darting back into the deep. When she occasionally stumbled and lost her way, the material itself would pick her up again and carry her forward.

None of us standing there in that rapt crowd had ever heard music like this before. Newsom’s wild Child ballads seemed loosed from some location heretofore unseen in the realms of popular song, a secret garden lodged between folk and art music, or an unnamed island lying somehow equidistant from Ireland, Senegal, and California’s redwood coast. The music fluttered and leapt, and though there were few obvious refrains, the patterns she played circled round some magnetic core of return, at once familiar and strange. Yes she was genius. But genius has become such a throwaway word, a thumbtack of muso claptrap that marks the person rather than the source that lies behind the person. And this music was all source. And yet, it was she and not the source we heard—this charming young harper with the arresting voice and the awkward stage patter and the lacy thrift-store duds.

Sorry to keep the tankards of Kool-Aid raised high, my friends, but Newsom’s album is also pretty dang nifty: the cult disc of the decade, like the aforementioned Astral Weeks or In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. She is supported on the album by Van Dyke Parks, the sometimes Brian Wilson collaborator who feathered four of Newsom’s five songs with vivid and sprightly arrangements. The orchestration adds another dimension to Newsom’s already evocative ramble through memory and desire, a journey that goes in turns intimate and cryptic, like the alchemical meanderings of a deep dream.

Faced with music as singular as Ys, it seems almost churlish to try to pin the butterfly down. (Or is that a moth?) That said, there is no denying that the spirit of prog has moved across the face of its waters. The album, after all, has an allegorical Renaissance portrait for a cover, features oboes and French horns, and draws its odd, difficult-to-pronounce title from the Celtic folklore of France. (It sounds like ees, as in “Oui, Serge Gainsborough ees very heep.”) And indeed you must return to Van Der Graaf Generator or Trespass-era Genesis to find this sort of dramatic and, sorry, literary fit between highly wrought lyrics and the dynamics of long, intricate, tempo-twisting songs. However, I would urge you even farther back, to the great songs on the great Incredible String Band records, which also embroider earth visions onto patchwork tunes that combine heavy insights and bucolic play. For though the landscape of Ys is not particularly psychedelic, its peaks are very high, from “Emily”’s invocation of the cosmic void to “Cosmia”’s final ascent through the moonlight.

Happily for all, Newsom approaches such high-fallutin matters with a demotic American spirit and a folk fan’s love of homespun melody and pastoral grit—not to mention a canniness that makes her at once too young and too old for the truly pompous. Ys may be precious, but it is precious because the spirit behind it is rare. It does not rely on sentiment, nor does it make Great Statements. It is, rather, a Great Work: an organic but deeply intentional labor from start to finish, from the inspiration through the cover art, from the arrangements through the final, analog mixdown. Newsom gathered a stellar cast of characters around her, including Steve Albini, Jim O’ Rourke, and Van Dyke Parks, who contributes some of the best work in his career. But it is Newsom’s own visionary ambition that makes this record the very opposite of a sophomore slump. A lesser artist would have simply ridden the quirky crest of The Milk-Eyed Mender, but Newsom glimpsed a golden ring glittering on the far horizon, and she stretched beyond herself with pluck and hooked it good.

The house that Joanna Newsom recently purchased is, well, rather Joanna Newsom. The building lies in the outskirts of Nevada City, an old mining town nestled in the western foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range. It has a small circular driveway, rose bushes, and a broken fountain with two cherubs smeared with mud up to their necks. The one-acre property is fringed by sycamores and pines, and two massive ivy-swaddled conifers loom over the patio out back, dripping gobs of sap onto a weathered table. The firethorn bushes that cloak the breakfast nook and the porch haven’t been trimmed in a while, deranging the otherwise orderly air of a proper British cottage. Past their plump clusters of golden berries, you can glimpse her old, worn-out pedal harp, peeking through the window like a stage prop.

Newsom answers the door with a smile and invites me in. She is dressed in a knitted brown skirt, a low-cut sleeveless shirt, chocolate brown knee-high socks and moccasins. The wide leather belt tugged snug around her waist looks a lot the belt she wears in her portrait for the cover of Ys. The bangs are gone, and she’s cute as a vintage button.

“I’m sorry. I just moved in and I haven’t really been here much.” There is not much furniture beyond a couch and, alongside her harp, a gorgeous Craftsman wooden stool inlaid with turquoise. There is hand-written sheet music scattered on the floor and one large decoration waiting to be mounted on the wall, a nineteenth-century funereal display scavenged from a San Francisco thrift store. “It was there for years, and finally I had to have it.” Having spent the last few weeks obsessively listening to Ys, I can see why, so crisply does the thing reflect some of her major themes and images: inside the large glass case, two stuffed doves face off over clusters of dried wheat, neatly arranged over a fat and faded ribbon printed with condolences.

We settle down on the table outside, and dig into the past. Newsom grew up around Nevada City, but she lived for years in the Bay Area, where she studied composition and creative writing at Mills before dropping out, writing some songs and recording them with her first boyfriend, the musician and producer Noah Georgeson. Even then, she kept returning to the nest on weekends, but feared the phenomenon an old Austin friend of mine referred to as the velvet rut. “It’s a real easy place to get kind of stagnant in your head, to get overly comfortable and have the years pass by.” Now that her career has taken off and she is constantly traveling, she decided to return to the place that, in her words, makes her feel happiest and most at home.

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Erik Davis on "the mystic undertow of vinyl toys"


Chasing the Tengu
The Mystic Undertow of Vinyl Toys

I have the great good fortune to live near Kidrobot, a cozy vinyl toy boutique in the Haight-Ashbury. A few years ago, I wrote one of the first overground pieces about the vinyl toy subculture, which began in the 1990s when Hong Kong fabulists like Michael Lau and Eric So decided to apply their figure-making fu to their fantasies about American street culture. Japan, with its own delirious toy culture firmly flaming, soon got into the act, as well as lots of Westerners—from old-school hands like Futura to Super Furry Animals artist-in-residence Pete Fowler. Now urban vinyl figures are global tokens in a cross-culture game of pop fetishism that would make Andy Warhol (and probably Vaughn Bode) proud.

I’ve picked up a few of these things over the years, but I do not collect them. With Kidrobot serving as a neighborhood museum, I don’t need to. Popping into the shop, I can enjoy the constant fluctuations of fashion and fun, the “bad infinity” of pop novelty, without cracking open my wallet. Resisting the desire to own the coolest toys is, for me, part of the pleasure, because this resistance sustains the circuits of virtual desire that enchant the thing in the first place. After all, these are objects whose seductive power lies principally in the incorporeal world of the graphic image, and such things cannot be “possessed” the same way you own the junk in your basement. Products of a (usually digital) design process, vinyl toys invoke the cartoon continuum of anime more than the material legacy of Barbie or GI Joes, and they are largely hawked and traded through the screens of the Internet. Only when you finally acquire them do these tantalizing graphic beings “come to life” as actual objects—ie, as motionless, environmentally suspect chunks of plastic crowding your already messy desk. But there is usually something inherently boring and banal about them at this point. In fact, many collectors never take the figures out of their boxes—not just to preserve their value, I suspect, but to sustain the unrealized promise of quasi-animated presence.

On occasion however, resistance is futile. Earlier this year, I could not buck the siren call of Tengu, the creature you see above. Tengu is the artist Damon Soule’s mutant twist of the Kidrobot mascot, which was originally designed by a creative young fellow named Tristan Eaton. I was drawn to the figure’s distinctly Pacific Rim fusion of cute and sinister, to the mushroom iconography, and to the obscene mask that I took to be a swollen reference to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, that now ancient source-text of visionary anomie. With its Japonisme both celebrated and concealed, Tengu seemed to concretize the hybrid fusion culture that now circulates between east and west. Without being obviously “dark,” like some gothic or slutty vinyl figures, Soule’s piece seemed more soulful and substantial than the usual fare, a chthonic robo-gnome with more than a hint of blasphemy and spectral power. I had to buy one for my friend N___, a twisted teddy bear of a fellow, who adored the thing. But then I had to snag one for me as well. And now he takes up the pride of place in the slacker shrine that sits on top of my fridge, where he lords over a gathering of psychedelic idols, travel detritus, and sacred profanities.

One late and loopy night, N___ and I chased the Tengu down Google’s rabbit hole. For once, the hyperlinks deepened our experience rather than just deferring it, and we discovered just how far a chunk of global pop detritus can lead you into the dark heart of the Mystery. Right off the bat, we learned that the tengu is the Mr. Punch of Japan’s supernatural pantheon, an impish demon of the mountains usually described in English texts as a “goblin” (itself a marvelous and ancient term; the 14th century Wyclif bible contains this spooky verse: “Of an arowe fliynge in the dai, of a gobelyn goynge in derknessis.”) The original tengu were malevolent crow-beaked shape-shifters who liked to raise havoc, tempt priests, abduct children, and stir up war. Probably derived from Chinese mountain lore, and then fused in Japan’s Buddhist climate with the Indian figure of Garuda, the tengu later became intimately associated with isolated mountain priests known as yamabushi. These dharmic hermits practiced esoteric tantric Buddhism and, later, served the role of herb-wielding witch-doctors for the local peasants—a development that is usually described as a degeneration of their religious practice, but may have reflected the deepening embrace of the forest’s shamanic undertow.

The Kidrobot mascots’s long nose, it turns out, has nothing to do with Stanley Kubrick’s droogs. The John Holmes schnozz is a later permutation of the goblin’s originally avian visage. Its popularity during the Edo period roughly signifies the transformation of the tengu into less evil figures—as with Mr. Punch, the phallic mask offered a funny and erotic twist on what was originally a rather disturbing character. Great samurais were said to have learned their martial moves from friendly tengu, who were also propitiated as representatives of certain Shinto gods. Tengu became regular features of popular art, including Noh drama. The great Yoshitoshi, the haunted Sam Peckinpah of ukiyo-e artists, crafted a number of remarkable tengu images in the nineteenth century. In more recent decades, tengu have popped up in anime and literate porn, includinga Toshio Saeki’s classy and shockingly perverse images of tengu thrusting their proboscises deep between teenage thighs.

Far from being a cyborg fantasy, Damon Soule’s Kidrobot toy is therefore a deeply old-school figure. The mask and fan are totally traditional, and even the jetpack wings recall the supernatural flights of the feathered tengu. But what about the mushroom? The Kidrobot Tengu is not only clutching a juicy fungi, but has a mushroom emblazoned on his chest armor—a fungal twist on the stylized flora that often served as clan totems in medieval Japan. N____ and I kept digging for connections but found none, partly because N____ kept directing the search to more tengu porn, convinced that we hadn’t yet gotten to the bottom of the issue.

Then we mentioned the mushroom to E____, who is most wise in psychoactive lore, and he plucked from his voluminous brain the fact that in Japan a certain mushroom species is known as tengutake. But not just any mushroom. This “goblin mushroom” is none other than the notorious fly agaric, the Santa Claus-topped hallucinogen gobbled by Siberian shamans and responsible—according to some but by no means all psychedelic historians—for ancient Indo-European door-cleansers like soma, hoama and the brews of Eleusis. And if you buy Clark Heinrich’s art history lessons, nearly every religious mystic in the Western tradition has munched on these noxious fungi. Taken by only the most intrepid psychonauts today, the fly agaric nonetheless stands (or fruits) as perhaps the most enigmatic signifier of ancient psychedelic wisdom in the nature’s pharmacopia.

N____ and I found little speculation about the psychedelic dimension of the tengu myth, despite the connection between the goblins and the yamabushi, the herbalist mountain shamans who were in the position to know something about the effects of red-capped Amanitas. The tengutake connection does, however, help illuminate one particular fragment of the lore. Like faeries or ETs, the tengu were sometimes believed to kidnap human beings, and especially kids. After being released, these abductees often returned to civilization in a state of dementia known as Tengu kakushi. Hmmm.

Damon Soule, a graffiti writer and visionary artist now living in the lower East Side, first discovered the tengu on a trip to Japan, and he knew something about the Amanita connection when he desiged his piece for Kidrobot. Given that “it seems to fit with the character’s behavior quite well,” Soule was happy to slip the psychoactive referencea in. Elements of the tengu appear throughout Soule’s work, especially the long noses that grace many of his robot dudes. For Soule, a mythology nut, the tengu resonates with other long-nosed trickster figures in world myth. It taught him “how interconnected all ideas are, even when they aren’t so obvious.” Like all tricksters and travelers, the tengu express a world of ruptures and transitions—a perfect mascot for a world where even a chunk of global pop detritus can carry an ancient and uncanny trace of shamanic encounter.

Kidrobot has no more Tengu to sell, but for those of you who cannot resist, Soule still has a few figures available on his website.

The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape

By Erik Davis
Photographs by Michael Rauner

Chronicle Books, June 2006
80,000 words, 272 pages, 164 photographs, 9 5/8″ x 9 5/8″

‘California is famous for its diversity, its eccentricity, and its prophetic influence on popular culture. Since the 19th century, the Golden State has also been one of America’s most fertile climates for spiritual and religious movements. Beautifully weaving together text and image, The Visionary State is the first book to address the full story of “California consciousness.” Ranging from Yosemite to Esalen, from televangelism to Neopaganism, from Mormon pioneers to contemporary Kali worshippers, acclaimed culture critic Erik Davis weaves together the threads of California’s religious history into an enchanting and vivid tapestry. Michael Rauner’s haunting iconic photographs ground the book’s many stories in the sacred landscape and architecture of the Golden State. Together Davis and Rauner map the peaks and faultlines that characterize the place that is both the nexus and far frontier of American religion.’

(Note: An expanded version of one chapter from this book was published in the May 2005 issue of Arthur.)

Book reading
June 21
7:00 pm
1644 Haight Street, San Francisco

Gallery opening
June 22
5:30 – 7:30 pm
The Visionary State: Photographs by Michael Rauner
Scott Nichols Gallery
49 Geary Street, San Francisco
(Exhibition runs through August 5)

Severe discount via Amazon!!!:


“Ecstasy: In and About Altered States”

Erik Davis

THERE IS A MOMENT in Talo/The House, 2002, a video installation by the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila currently on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, where the furtive glimpse of a dog triggers an altogether different kind of vision: “Outside a new order arose, one that is present everywhere. Everything is now simultaneous, here, being.” The monologue is derived from the artist’s interviews with schizophrenics and other people suffering from mental disorders, but we have all known moments like this, when we harbor intimations of a deeper design, of a dream logic beneath the surface of things, of an incandescence in the mind. These intensitiesóperhaps nothing more than shivers of the brainóare the grace notes of consciousness, known empirically before they are known conceptually. But even the most direct experience of trance or intoxication is refracted through cultural artifacts, through storybooks or pills or paintings. Despite their intimate character, in other words, we know altered states partly through mediated ones.

At its best, “Ecstasy: In and About Altered States” (curated by Paul Schimmel) foregrounds this tension between experience and mediation, a tension carried in the very resonance of the word ecstasy. The Neoplatonist Plotinus used the term ecstasis to describe mystic transcendence, the “flight of the alone to the Alone”; later Bernini famously incarnated a more devotional sense of transport in his trembling St. Theresa, which few of us can observe without imagining more carnal forces than God parting the saint’s lips. This is what happens to ecstasy, for usóit moves from God to orgasm. And now that Ecstasy is the name of one of the most popular recreational drugs on the planet, a phenethylamine capable of delivering its own beatific intensities, we can see how far we have come. Rather than Plotinus’s flight from matter, ecstasy has become a controlled substance.

Carsten Hˆller, Upside-Down Mushroom Room, 2000, polystrol, polyester, wood, paint, metal, electrical motors, plasterboard, neon light, and glass, 14′ 9″ x 19′ 9″ x 41′.

The wall text that introduces the MoCA show nowhere mentions drugs, although terms such as altered, intoxicating, hallucinatory, and the more classical bacchanalia let us know where we stand. On one hand, this ambivalence is key: The question of how the experience of psychoactive substances such as MDMA or LSD relates to other unusual mind states is a vexed issue, one that echoes crucial contemporary concerns about simulation and the manufacture of subjectivity. But by loosely jumbling drugs with a wide variety of altered statesóhypnosis, sleep, madness, perceptual illusionóthe show seems muddled from the onset.

Certainly there are drugs throughout the show, or rather, “drugs.” Psychoactive mushrooms, either the Santa Claus caps of fly agaric or the more commonly consumed Psilocybe cubensis, are scattered throughout the museumóa scattering that becomes, in Roxy Paine’s 1997 Psilocybe Cubensis Field, at once exuberant and creepy. More than two thousand impeccably hand-painted polymer casts run riot across the floor, uniting Paine’s long-standing concerns with the copy and the interpenetration of the artificial and the organic. All fungi are essentially replicants, after all, since a given patch of individual mushrooms will generally share the same DNA. Their sculptural multiplication across the gallery floor generates an uncanny quality common to both organic and technological modes of replicationóan almost animistic sense of iteration that also enchants psychedelic perception, which can make the most innocuous floorboards seethe and sprout to multitudinous life.

Of course, that a collection of actual Psilocybe cubensis in a gallery would constitute felony possession makes Paine’s simulacra more safe than subversive. You will not get high from these objects: They are all surface; they only remind. Ditto for Tom Friedman’s 1997 Untitled, a pile of pills whose obsessive and accurate fabrication from Play-Doh twists the knob up on Paine’s piece by skipping nature and just simulating the synthetic. Friedman’s empty fetishes, though, are juxtaposed with his 1992ñ97 piece 1,000 Hours of Staring, a square piece of white paper whose status as an art object rests with the artist’s claim that he stared at the thing off and on for a thousand hours. Despite its surface cleverness, 1,000 Hours is one of the rare pieces in the show with an inside. In other words, in the midst of knowing mediation, Friedman provides a trace of raw experience: a Duchampian gag that actually imbues the object with a state of mindóeven if that mind is just sitting in a room, bored out of its skull.

Perhaps the show’s most perceptive framing of this Mobius strip of mind and object lies in the three-tier water fountain that forms the central element of Klaus Weber’s proposed Public Fountain LSD Hall, 2003. The water cycling through the delicate glass structure, made of scavenged Victorian crystal, carries what a framed certificate assures us is a homeopathic trace of LSD-25. Homeopathic remedies, widely embraced in the artist’s native Germany, rely on dosages so subtle that in the eyes of conventional science they don’t even exist. Besides gesturing toward the tiny scale of the LSD molecule (with active doses measured in micrograms, LSD is one of the most potent psychoactive substances known), Weber’s invocation of homeopathy suggests an alchemical perception of the signatures and subtle energies that skirt our conventional understanding of matter. In addition, homeopathic remedies work by introducing a trace of the offending disorder. Weber, then, is suggesting that we are already tripping and that we can only be cured by what already ails us. And as you lean toward the fountain, you understand what he means, for the dripping water falls and plays with such plangency across the glass that you could swear a music box is concealed somewhere. But it is only a singing crystal you hear, or your mind tuning to a singing crystalóas fit a metaphor as you need for the visionary potential of crystal solids such as LSD. By switching sensory registers from vision to sound and from sound to music, the fountain stages the sort of perceptual surprise that lies at the heart of psychedelic experience.

Naturally, you are prevented from dipping your finger into the fountain by a surrounding cage of Plexiglas, and even leaning in too closely will rouse the ire of MoCA’s persnickety guards. These conditions are not incidental. One of the core maxims of postwar psychedelic culture is “Set and setting”: The trip is contextual, dependent on personal attitude and environment as much as on the substance swimming in your brain. In a museum, the set is as varied as each person, but the issue of setting raises some sharp questions about the limitations of the institution when works of ecstasy or transport or visionary experience are on the lineówhen we are in as well as about altered states. It is one thing to follow a dark and mazy corridor into a white room where rotating fly agaric mushrooms dangle from the ceiling; it is another to enter the space with a gruff guard staring you down. You police the obvious impulse, which is not just to appreciate Carsten Hˆller’s playful interrogation of perception, with its Eleusinian echoes, but to run around and take snapshots of your companions. Yes, there is serious inquiry in the piece, but there is also celebration, and the impossibility of celebrating in MoCA made me long for a blank void very different from the white cubicles of the museum. It made me long for Burning Man.

It is perhaps unfair to compare a downtown museum of contemporary art with the dry alkaline lake bed in Nevada that annually provides home to a hedonistic freak festival, but the freak festival in question has also established probably the most creatively sustained counterhegemonic site for mass public art production and consumption in the developed world. It is true, of course, that a lot of art at Burning Man is bad and that a lot that is good on the playa would be bad elsewhere. But the strongest sculptors and installation artists at the event drink deeply from Weber’s fountain, taking on the conundrums of “altered art” with fierce joy. Indeed, frequent habituÈs of Burning Man’s Black Rock City will experience a number of flashbacks visiting the MoCA show. Erwin Redl’s matrix of green LEDs, Sylvie Fleury’s glitzy space pod, the profane neon illuminations of assume vivid astro focus’s porno disco, even Olafur Eliasson’s quietly sublime strobing rainóall rely on tricks and rhetoric that have, simply put, been executed with more playfulness and greater formal power on the playa.

The point is not that Burning Man is better but that the art of altered states depends in part on a lack of temerity before the exuberance of visionary experience. One oblique way into this breach, of course, is through the wonder-working powers of popular culture, which in today’s art world frequently means Japanese popular culture. Inevitably, “Ecstasy” includes some of Takashi Murakami’s silly mushrooms, so flavorless in comparison with the immensely popular organic fantasies of, say, manga and anime master Hayao Miyazaki. Of greater interest is a gorgeous and crafty piece of animation by Chiho Aoshima. A single seven-minute reverse tracking shot distributed across five plasma screens, City Glow, 2005, unfolds like a trip or a myth: We fall away from a wormlike cityscape and move, at a child’s height, into the transformations of nature and season and death. Crossed signals ariseófish float through the air, a bunny caws like a crowóbut the goofiness is undermined by a graveyard populated by Aoshima’s patented horror-show nymphets, who are themselves replaced by a no less disturbing Tinkerbell heaven of fairies and rainbows. The key element is the long pullback. We are looking in the rearview mirror at a way of seeing that lies behind usóin the long-ago of childhood, but also in the history of visual expression, in that visionary capacity now largely swallowed up by commodified technological fantasy.

And yet many contemporary artists produce visionary material without leaning on pop culture. Whatever its satiric undertow, Ye Olde Ruin, 2003ñ2004, one of two immense Paul Noble drawings included in “Ecstasy,” offers an unabashedly fantastic otherworld of abstract machines, hermetic eggs, and Boschean play. But the show’s most explicitly visionary art belongs to the Brooklyn artist Fred Tomaselli, who continues to refine and intensify his bold explorations of collage, visual rhythm, and pinwheel psychedelia. Like Paine and Friedman, Tomaselli draws attention to the actual thingsóthe pills and organic materialsóthat mediate psychoactive experience. But as he painstakingly arranges these things and others into the thick resin that coats his hybrid collage-paintings, he dematerializes them as well, revealing their potential to become elements of mind and pattern, like the string figures in Harry Smith movies or the inner-eye whirligigs captured in his recent Millennium Phosphene Bloom, 2005.

Another remarkable new work by Tomaselli, 2005’s Organism, shows a man with transparent skin plunging headless into a crystal chaos of stars, spiderwebs, and fractured mandalas. The piece seems to literally embody the difficult human transition between meat and mental ecstasy, but its full resonance only becomes clear when compared to the similarly semitransparent bodies in the work of Alex Grey, another Brooklyn artist and one of the most dominant painters in the largely marginalized world of contemporary psychedelic art. Though Grey’s art graces rave fliers and New Age calendars, he is no naÔfóthe declarative intensity of his strongest paintings depends in part on his sly appropriation of textbook medical imagery, whose hyperreal rhetoric paradoxically lends an air of actuality to his visionary bodies. But Grey is too much of a mystic literalist for his work to ever make it to the walls of MoCA; transcendence, even if it is just a trick of immanence, is still taboo. Whereas Grey’s transformed figures confidently ascend into rainbow mind-lattices, Tomaselli’s organism plunges into the fractured rag-and-bone shop of the head, delivering the more assimilable message that ecstasy is rarely far from the abject.

Erik Davis is a San Francisco-based writer and author of the forthcoming book The Visionary State (Chronicle Books, 2006).