A guest post by Alexander D’Agostino
I am an artist working with queer histories and images, through performance and visual art. During my Artist Research Fellowship with the Folger, I am creating The Fairy King’s Grimoire: a reimagining of the magic and rituals outlined in Manuscript V.b.26, The Book of Magic with instructions for invoking spirits, etc. while considering needs and beliefs of queer people today. This book presents Oberon (spelled Oberyon) the Fairy King, a central figure that links this manuscript to literary and theatre culture including many of Shakespeare’s works.
With several pages of the original book still missing, it is currently two joined fragments, written by multiple authors. Its magic makes use of biblical scripture, prayer, and methodology without the authority or green light from a priest. Manuscript V.b.26 is very punk. I don’t think Shakespeare practiced, feared, or moralized the unseen arts as King James and his bible or demonology book did, but I am certain he admired and understood the occult’s hold on the collective imagination of his times and beyond.
So far, The Fairy King’s Grimoire consists of pages printed on leaves and paper using solar reactive processes. I source my leaves from morning glory that grows up an ivy-covered wall of my house, plants from my mother’s garden, and other Baltimore City gardens. To charge the paper, I left it outside to be soaked in the rain and charged under the moon. The book is a spell in of itself, composed of images pulled from Manuscript V.b.26 along with other magical content from the Folger’s collection and a collection of vintage gay porn my neighbor gave me after she discovered it in her late uncle’s treasure trove of an antique store in Baltimore.
Like grimoires, gay porn has a complicated history of being taboo, condemned, and erased from public eye. It is not uncommon for a stash of gay porn to be hidden away in boxes, much like the grimoires of occultists who feared persecution for their witchcraft. I am weaving together the hidden nature of magic and queerness through this project.
Through my performance research, I am discovering Oberon to be a crass playful creature that appears in nightclubs and liminal spaces. Much like Shakespeare’s Oberon, my understanding of this fairy king is that he is amused and delighted by mortals, although my king is highly unlikely to take advantage of them while they’re sleeping. That seems unsavory and violent in my fairy realm.
According to Manuscript V.b.26.:
Oberyon a king; he appeareth like a king with a crown on his head. He is under the government of the sun and moon. He teacheth a man knowledge of physic and he showeth the nature of stones, herbs, and trees, and of all metals. He is a great and Mighty King, and his is a king of the fairies. He causeth man to be invisible. He showeth where hiding treasure is an how to obtain the same. He telleth of things present, past, and to come, and if he be bound to a man, he will carry or bring treasure out of the sea. His burden is 1000000 pounds (of treasure). He holds the waters and the low parts of the earth. p.80
(Seems Ideal for weaving together queer clues and fragments in pursuit of the unknown.)
Oberon, as depicted in manuscript V.b.26 is a personal fashion icon. In his images I see a fishnet body suit, harness and fabulous crown. As someone who used to dance and perform at queer nightclubs, I am beholden to create a series of gogo dancer looks in his likeness. Like any proper Fairy, Oberon stands on his toes.
In my work pointe shoes open the door for gender subversion, as they are typically used for female roles (unless of course you are dancing the role of Bottom the Weaver in certain iterations of the classical ballet The Dream). My pointe shoes often become hooves. They also function like my own bodily grimoire. Grimoires eliminate the role of the priest and church in spiritual matters, empowering the individual to take action. Similarly, I didn’t take ballet classes or ask a teacher if I was ready for pointe shoes. I saw them in a performance that unlocked an obsessive need to use them in my own art. Breaking the rules in order to fly, without the ecclesiastic approval of a formal ballet teacher has provided a direct path towards engaging with the dance vocabulary of the fairies. I train and rehearse for my performances in my house and outside where I also make the pages of the Fairy Kings Grimoire. I store the pages on my altar, an old table also inherited from the antique store where the gay erotica was discovered.
This table, my pointe shoes, and book came alive in my recent performance “the Calm before the Storm/Prospero’s Last spell.” Performed at sunset before the fool moon by the ocean in Asbury Park through Siren Arts, I was considering that final moment in The Tempest when Prospero bids his magic and fairy companion Ariel farewell. During my performance the pages printed on leaves were pulled from a signature of The Fairy King’s Grimoire, placed on my body (not unlike a dollar bill on a gogo dancers jockstrap) and given to audience members to scatter and throw into the ocean. When the “spell was complete” I broke apart my staff, took off my crown and walked into the ocean with the remaining leaves attached to my body to be tugged and pulled deep into the unknown under the full moon.
But this rough magic I here abjure; and when I have required some heavenly music (which even now I do) To work mine airy charm so far, I’ll break my staff, bury it in certain fathoms of the earth, And deeper than that did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book. (5.1.59-66)
This element of magic and queer world building for my performance made full use Oberon’s powers of sun and moon, earth and water. The next phase of my work is to transcribe various ritual practices from the Radical Fairies, a queer counter-cultural movement, onto the pages of the book. This process is somewhere between graffiti, annotation and most certainly witchcraft.
Alexander D’Agostino is an interdisciplinary artist based in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009 with a BFA in painting. Heinvestigates the queer and otherworldly through dance, ritual, teaching, and visual art. His work has been presented at Vox Populi in Philadelphia, VisArts in Rockville, theCenter for Contemporary Art of Afghanistan in Kabul, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Chashama’s summer performance series in Manhattan, Itinerant Performance Art Festivalat the Queens Museum, the Walters Art Museum, Transformer DC, Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington Spring 2022 Solo Exhibitions, and most recently Siren Arts Summer Performance Series. He is currently Artist Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.