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music film art nexus

led zeppelin: art at the crossroads

helen stuckey looks into the band’s dark side

Helen Stuckey is Games Lab curator at the the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Zoso, A ritual of rock, runes & magick (detail) Zoso, A ritual of rock, runes & magick (detail)
photo Andrew Barcham, Screaming Pixel

Rock and roll is all about myth. And Led Zeppelin is a band of mythical stature. They are remembered as the band that set the bench-mark for three hour sets and 30 minute solos, for misbehaving with groupies and the art of hotel trashing, for excessive consumption and death by rock and roll. They helped define the music of the 70s till the arrival of punk, with its preference for three minutes of musical mayhem, stamped a use-by date on Zeppelin’s epic ballads, consigning the band to rock dinosaur status.

Zoso is an incarnation that once more unleashes the spirit of Zep. Demonic drawings and arcane symbols and sounds summon the lost icons of rock and invite the mage who never speaks and the golden god to walk among us again.

The exhibition, created by Ian Haig, Philip Samartzis and Darren Tofts, is an exploration of the mythology that Zeppelin created for themselves and with their fans—not just their status as legends of rock but the myths of their own construction that became a vital part of the culture of the band. Zeppelin’s most famous album, their Untitled IV (Runes) is an exercise in mythmaking. The album has no title and the name of the band appears nowhere, not even on the spine. The gate-fold jacket opens to reveal a drawing of the Hermit from the Tarot, a symbol of wisdom looking down from a cliff top at the ascent of a young man on a spiritual quest. In a further act of significance the band members are identified not by name but by four arcane symbols. Zoso is the timeless and sacred symbol that Zeppelin’s infamous guitarist Jimmy Page chose for himself.

According to rock journalist Simon Woods, Zeppelin had a “cool media image.” This draws on Marshall McLuhan’s theory of hot media as one “well filled out with data” while cold media requires the audience to “fill the gaps.” In contrast to the rich symbolic world that Zeppelin set out to create with their music and their albums, the band released very little information about themselves—rarely doing interviews or posing for photographs. Woods suggests that this helped create a mythology around the band. Fans imagined wild and fantastic lives for their heroes fed by the odd revelation, which would then be reverently shared; such as Jimmy Page’s purchase of eccentric British occultist Aleister Crowley’s legendary haunted castle, Boleskine House.

Zoso explores the codes of this secret society of fandom. Tofts is the hierophant of the group, taking pleasure in the language of Zeppelin—the borrowings from Celtic folklore, the pillaged blues lyrics and the curious marriage of the two. These, along with the ambiguous evocations of Page’s infatuation with the writings of Crowley and the promise of Tolkien’s imagined world without Christianity, create Zeppelin’s unique concoction of spirituality. The Boleskine Grimoire, the exhibition’s own sacred artefact, presents a text portentous with meaning. It is gleefully bubbling over with esoteric references, Zep arcana and laced with hidden messages for true believers.

Haig’s seven headed beast guitar (see this issue’s cover) is displayed in state within a private antechamber whose walls are scrawled with incarnations from Crowley and the names of demons, their unholy nature identified as the source of Page’s legendary prowess. The famous double-necked guitar was custom made for him so that he could perform multiple guitar parts at Zeppelin concerts and became both a symbol of his musical prowess and an icon of cock rock. The monster guitar complements Haig’s wall drawing of Page, which captures his uncanny feminine beauty in full thrusting rock glory.

Four lavish mock cedar record players, resplendent on crushed red velvet, symbolically support the six track recording celebrating Zeppelin’s generally overlooked importance as innovative experimental musicians. Zeppelin’s guitar virtuosity and their role in spawning Heavy Metal are common lore but their genuinely avant-garde experiments have been under acknowledged. These include the marriage of Page’s theremin playing with the Robert Plant’s vocal stylings. Also significant was Page’s bowing of the electric guitar. Samartzis reclaims Zeppelin for the avant-garde in a composition featuring gongs, cowbells, theremin, chanting and what could even be something played backwards. It is a ceremonial soundscape that is not for the faint hearted. A theremin in the gallery offers the believer an opportunity to partake in the ritual.

Zoso is an intriguing exhibition. It is first and foremost a celebration of the rich language of Led Zeppelin’s mythology and the importance of their fans in its construction. While the artists’ work is undoubtedly ironic, they have not forsaken their primary relationship as fans. Embracing the rich transformative possibilities of rock and roll, Zoso revisits adolescent dreams of Zeppelin’s promise of a world of sexuality, power and magick. This is not a dry academic reclamation but an honest fan boy confession of guilty and undying passion for the dreams of excess and dragon pants, of arcane secrets and words with two meanings and, most importantly, the pleasure of music and myth. It is an exhibition that can only be truly appreciated by the members of a secret society who rejoice in a playful nostalgia that not all its audiences will understand. In reawakening our awareness to these impulses in the confines of the gallery, Zoso also raises interesting questions about contemporary art practice, its mythologies and elite codes and the act of encryption within the gallery space.

And it makes me wonder.

Zoso, A ritual of rock, runes & magick, artwork Ian Haig, sound design Philip Samartzis, concept design and text Darren Tofts; Project Space/Spare Room, RMIT University, Melbourne, Oct 29-Nov 16

Helen Stuckey is Games Lab curator at the the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 19

© Helen Stuckey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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