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Divine Rites

Local photographer Michelle X gives tarot cards a frighteningly beautiful update


Tarot, the fortune-telling cards so supreme in the collective memory of pop culture that they've been mocked by both Steven Wright ("I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards; I got a full house and four people died") and Bobby Hill ("They're like baseball cards for hobbits"), is actually much older than you might think. Depending on whom you choose to believe, the tarot has existed since either the height of the Egyptian dynasties or the middle of the fifteenth century. Either option makes it old, and anything that old is open to interpretation and reinterpretation as the knowledge is passed on to the next generation. But the basic makeup of the deck remains the same: the Major Arcana of twenty-two cards with unique names and meanings (you know number nine, "The Hermit," from the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin's IV), and the four Lesser Arcana that correspond to the four suits of non-divining card decks. Through careful interpretation of the cards, one can supposedly scry the future. Regardless of personal belief in the cards' prophesying prowess, tarot scholar Arthur Edward Waite noted that "the true tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs." And it is the mutability of the tarot's symbolic language that continues to inspire artists to try their hand at updating the mysterious deck.

Michelle X is the latest to take a stab at the art form with her Savage Tarot. The St. Louis-based photographer, who cites a fascination with both the macabre and pin-up art, has combined those two interests in glorious/gruesome fashion for her tarot. X's aesthetic leans toward representing "that which makes beauty filth and the light dark," according to her official artist's statement, and her Major Arcana indeed reveal a dark undercurrent at work. Naked flesh, darkness seeping in from the corners of the cards, stark images that strike at the primal centers of the brain -- X's tarot is not the bloodless parlor game of a Victorian tea party. This is a very personal and iconic tarot that will no doubt speak to other souls who find solace in things terrible and seductive.