My first meeting with Ellen Cantor was in her North London studio at Cubitt, in early spring of 2004. She showed me a film she had made. I was struck by a particular sequence in this film, and by the way she had the audacity to juxtapose the high modernist cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura with the poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s Medieval Persian epic The Conference of the Birds, effectively transmuting the Antonioni film into an alchemical Sufi glamour tale. In this particular sequence, a voice over of Ellen reciting passages from The Conference of the Birds in her hypnotic and equally melodic Detroit dialect, amplified a sonic trans-dimensional tone to the bleakness of the domestic tension in the Antonioni scene, and instilled Monica Vitti’s blank expression with cosmic mystery. Sufism and cinema were, by some bizarre coincidence, a shared transmutation that we were both fond of — an ecstatically erotic form of the sacred ruptured by the rhapsody of images in movement.
I had recently read The Conference of the Birds and was haunted by this bird parable. And like Ellen, I was a longtime reader of Jalaladdin Rumi, and was seduced by his sensual form of sacred contact — in particular, by the homoerotic love poetry for his beloved friend Shams of Tabriz, who disappeared mysteriously without a trace. Ellen and I spoke of these matters long into the evening, and when we noticed that day broke, we effortlessly entered into a parallel dialogue, knowing well that it was the power of the glance that had set the beloved friendship of Rumi and Shams free. In Sufism, the glance is a gateway to knowledge — the silent glance between friends breaks open a virtual space of lucid revelation and erotic contact. Mutually enraptured by this line of flight, and the shameless determination to seek out the Friend through strange means, we entered into a second trance together — this time, with the aid of magic mushrooms.
Ellen spontaneously called me on a July evening, inviting me to the Colony Room in Soho for a drink. I accepted immediately, feeling a strange intuition that this would spell out another epiphany, or perhaps expand the trance-dialogue-encounter we entered into at our first meeting.
The Colony Room was packed on this hot evening with an eclectic crowd of people, mostly Ellen’s artist friends and significant acquaintances. It was the summer, when psychotropic plants and psychedelic herbs were freely available, and appeared to be momentarily authorized by the state. They were passed around generously that night on a silver platter. There was something unusual about entering into a collective state of psychedelic euphoria with this crowd, in this enclosed space at this particular time and place. There was something ritualistic about it. Instead of the usual drunken art world brawl, we were entering into deep rapport with friends and strangers, exchanging metaphysical insights about the nature of the world, and expounding detached, trance-like comments about the down sides of ordinary reality. And then came the “Cosmic Laughter.” This was no ordinary laughter. I theorized it with Ellen as laughter that came from the point of view of the cosmos, rather than subjectified, human states.
Walking through Soho and Oxford Street at night with Ellen Cantor became more intense and vividly labyrinthine than the experience of watching The Wizard of Oz, and more lucid than Alice’s epiphanies in Wonderland. This is when I understood the utter significance of these tales through Ellen’s own eyes, the relationship of these magical tales to everyday reality, and their rapturous impact on our experience together at this particular moment in time, in London, walking through Oxford Street, like two stray, unrestrained Mrs. Dalloways. We were traveling in bliss into the night air, and the urban jungle of London became an opportunity for a fluid ride into other dimensions, as childhood folk tales of miraculous wonder and dark perversion resurfaced and broke free from the recesses of our unconsciouses. I recall my sudden determination to understand the mystery of the midrashic tale of Rabbi Akiva, in which he seamlessly turned a stone into a fireball to teach his students about the power of intent. Together we transformed into Talmudist scholars arguing over the significance of this midrash, re-enacting centuries of imaginative discursive debate. We walked passed the British Museum shivering, haunted by the sickly glow of colonial rule illuminating the colossal building, eventually coming to the University of London’s SOAS gardens where we sat unharmed under an unobtrusive Elm tree to proceed our dialogues into the early hours of the morning.
After our walk back to Ellen’s place, we threw ourselves down on the sofa, and lay there, exhausted. I remember being taken aback by her attentive questions about my sex life and deep interest in the nature of romantic intimacy I had experienced, and blushing naively at her curiosity in my response. It occurred to me that the question of eroticism and love in all its dimensions lucidly threaded all of her work, and her life. I also remember being shaken by her affirmative, shameless declaration that entering into a connection with someone is the equivalent of discovering another universe, and has to be treated with reverence and majestic awe. This was a genuinely lived insight on Ellen’s part, and when I visualized the cosmonaut found footage film sequences in her film, laced with intimate soundtracks and rapturous Hollywood explosions, the cosmic thread to her words lit up. Ellen was the first person to actually reveal to me through her extraordinary art that love is a form of cosmic sorcery. I want to thank her for waking me up.