The Shaman’s New Mask
Revealing contemporary magic with Art and Science
While exploring the parallels between art, science and shamanism we see artists and scientists acting in the community as contemporary shaman. The essential role of the artist, like that of the scientist and the spiritual leader is to devote their life to developing understanding from atypical or extraordinary points of view, and then to offer the resulting knowledge to their communities. They are seekers of knowledge and experience, breakers of boundaries who experiment with our views of existence and our relationships to reality.
All three of these characters are explorers driven by curiosity and passion and each has a particular method of examining and interpreting life. The shaman is able to see spirits, the invisible forces that affect our behaviour. The invisible forces affecting our behaviour that the scientist recognises include microbes, light waves and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. The invisible forces that an artist sees include cultural symbols, political implications, poetic presumptions and innuendo.
Just as one cannot hear their own accent, one cannot perceive the zeitgeist in which they live. Some members of society are allowed to exist on the periphery of social norms and so are privy to abnormal perspectives. These people have the best vantage point to see their own zeitgeist and to reflect the intellectual fashion or dominant schools of thought that are influencing our culture. Generally people are irritated when others live in alternate realities; daydreamers are ridiculed, weirdos are ostracized but there are a few ways that a person can opt out of focusing on the consensual reality without being completely marginalized. It’s not cool to be smart, unless you are a scientist. It’s not admirable to ignore fashion and social etiquette, unless you an artist. It’s not respectable to commune with spirits, unless you are a spiritual leader. These social anomalies’ outsider perspectives give them the ability to point out the things that normal points of view cannot see and their exalted states afford them the ability to mediate information they receive from other realms.
The triad includes not only noisy paradigm pushers, conceptual catalysts and epiphany instigators able to bring previously hidden truths of our existence into the cultural consciousness such as Duchamp, Darwin, John Cage, Galileo, Joseph Beuys, Da Vinci and Aristotle but the quiet ones that perpetuate the flow of wisdom with the whisper of magic words like English earth artist Chris Drury who taps into the majesty of the material, Gyurme Dorje who translates Tibetan wisdom into English and Brian Cox who is teaching a new generation to be inquisitive of physics.
Science-Art, a move towards symbiosis
Historically Art has been used by Science to illustrate difficult concepts and to help show the world how it works. In recent decades Art has developed a sapiophiliac attraction to Science, not to mention a tool envy, and has recently leaned in further than the customary illustrations, in its flirtations, to appropriate the science lab, gaining access to its rituals and tools, even appropriating the scientific breakthrough itself.
In the 1960s video tape made moving image production accessible to consumers and video art became a popular art form. In The ‘90s New Media brought life to interactive, immersive installations. Now 3D printing and open source data bases are democratizing science, making it accessible to curious tinkerers, laymen and to artists interested in biotech. Citizen science laboratories like Genspace in NYC, Biocurios in LA and Brico Bio in Montreal are opening and attracting biohackers with backgrounds outside of science.
Although artists exist within the context of their cultural ecology and follow appropriate protocol, (the academic artist, the street artist and the activist each follow a specific set of rules) they are not obliged to follow the scientific method. The artist is not expected to made practical scientific discoveries and so takes licence to explore unchartered scientific waters without expectations. Science and industry acknowledge art’s ability to innovate. For example artist and technologist Maggie Orth engages in the development and research of electronic textiles for art and design in conjunction with her organisation International Fashion Machines and is often approached by private industries and the military who give her new tech to work with in hopes that she will reveal overseen applications before they expose their new products to their competition.
While large corporations produce experimental bioengineered consumer goods, artists use the same technology to investigate and discuss contemporary humanism and the ethical dilemmas related to allowing corporations, who may value money over ecological stability, to engineer life. Artists raise the question whether corporations can be trusted with the reputation of bioengineering itself. Critically thinking Bioartists apply their freedom of expression to biotech and the aesthetics of a remix culture to genomics. Their messages often warn of impending danger or encourage and dare society to pursue these new opportunities by offering insight into other ways of seeing our relationships to nature. ‘Transgenic art is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings’[i] represents ‘a broad scope of artistic opportunities offered by newly accessible techniques for synthesizing and working with genes’[ii] Transgenic art pioneer Edwardo Kac’s paradoxical piece Genesis, (1999), was an interactive installation that dared viewers to modify the genetics of a living organism themselves, presenting transgenics as a concrete reality to the faced personally. The organism whose genetic identity hung in the balance was originally synthesised by the artist. The letters of the genetic code was based on a passage from Genesis that states that Man was given dominion over all Life on earth by God. A viewer who disagreed with the sentiment of the passage could dismantle it by causing the DNA to mutate unnaturally; or they could choose to respect the nature of the organism and leave the offending message to encourage others to take dominion. Whatever the viewer’s choice, he was made a hypocrite.
Many of the world’s leading Bio-Artists have done residencies at SymbioticA, an artistic laboratory dedicated to the research and critique of the life sciences. It is a research laboratory in the biological science department of the University of Western Australia that enables artists to engage in hands on biology practices. This is the lab where Stelarc, who famously experiments with identity and humanism grew his EAR ON ARM, (2003-ongoing), a living fleshy ear-shaped appendage on his arm that will mic and broadcast sound via Wi-Fi. About the project he suggested that “Engineering an alternate anatomical architecture might mean adjusting its awareness”[iii]. SybioticA was founded by Oron Catz who collaborated with other Universities to produce The Pig Wing Project, (2004) –where wing shaped objects grown using living pig tissue addressed ethical questions and the popular misconceptions related to tissue engineering. His work exposes the politics of science and he continues to lay the groundwork for the production of cruelty free meat grown in vitro.
Art is in a position to look critically at science from an anthropological point of view: to deconstruct it and to question its methodology, its politics, and the roles of the lab, the museum and the journal. Now thanks to SciArt-collaborations artists are gaining access to science institutions. Since 2011 CERN has hosted artists in residence who work in the laboratory alongside particle physicists. “Collide@CERN Artists Residency Award is the flagship programme of Arts@CERN. By bringing world-class artists and scientists together in a free exchange of ideas, the Collide@CERN residency programme explores elements even more elusive than the Higgs boson: human ingenuity, creativity and imagination.”[iv] Laurie Anderson was NASA’s artist in residence where she created her performance and film entitled The End of the Moon, (2004). Exploration geologist and audiovisual installation artist Charles Lindsey applied his knowledge of inter-species communication and encrypted signals to created CODE-HUMPBACK, a mutli-sensory experience reflecting on the limits of human perception based on his residency with the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute from 2011-2015. “The mission of The SETI Institute’s Artist in Residence Program is to encourage cross-disciplinary artistic expression in order to explore and illuminate the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. This program seeks to foster a cross pollination of ideas between artists and scientists, where these disciplines may influence each other through personal interaction and the shared adoption of new technologies..”[v]
The NYC Sci-Art Society facilitates intimate new relationships between artists and scientists by hosting events and virtual residencies where they act as matchmaker between artist and scientist in the spirit of instigating new collaborations. Together Art and Science presumably will give each other permission to step over the edges of science and to break free from the constraints of traditional aesthetics. Art can give Science the freedom to explore without industrial goals, to experience elements of life and our world unanchored to contemporary values, biases and belief systems. What they might find together could instil a collective human respect for all things that could lead to true sustainability in an age of disposable lifestyles.
The word shaman translates to mean “the one who knows”, or “the one who sees in the dark”. It is a Siberian word but the concept is seen on every continent and has existed in various forms in all eras with some forms still being practiced today. The oldest know shamanic practice is Siberian. The Siberian nomadic lifestyle has changed little over the centuries and continues to include shamanic practices.
What all shamanic practices have in common is that they are rooted in animism, the belief that we are part of a larger whole, that everything, animate and inanimate, has spirit and that this spirit is responsible for making things in the physical world happen. A shaman’s job is to communicate with these spirits for the benefit of the community by making alliances with the spirits to use their powers to heal and protect the community. ‘Individual shaman often specialize in various aspects of spiritual work. The shaman can be a spirit doctor, healer, diviner, seer, prophet, negotiator, ancestral intermediary, and ritualist among other roles”[vi] but they are sworn to serve others. A contemporary Mongolian shaman named Ghoste stated “It is not easy being a shaman…A shaman receives many people who are struggling with sickness. I cannot refuse. If I do, the spirits get weaker.”[vii]
The Inuit also still have shaman, who call upon the spirits to set free souls of animals so that hunting them can proceed humanely. In many indigenous cultures plants, animals, geologic features, weather and bodies of water are believed to have souls equal to those of a human. It is commonly believed among indigenous cultures that these entities are able to change form into humans and have often been depicted in human form or in a liminal state of transformation. Since there is “no cognitive difference between any living creature”[viii] perceived, being able to relate to and respect other organisms is common but is the speciality of the shaman, who is able to communicate with the spirits and to translate their wisdom to the community for health and guidance.
It is common for the shaman or diviner to be selected by the spirits to convey important lessons. The selection often manifests as a dramatic possession or period of illness and is followed by an apprenticeship that can last years. Shamanic practice famously involves a kind of journeying to commune with the spirits where the shaman leaves the ordinary world and becomes aware of the spiritual realm. This trance can be achieved with the aid of a sonic driver (drums and shakers), breathing techniques, mind-altering plants, song and dance which are used as vehicles to travel to the other worlds. Traces of shamanism can be seen in the Celtic bards who “dealt not only with poetry, but with prophecy, vision and divination through invigilated sleep or trance. “[ix] The last three years of their long training was devoted to spiritual healing, ancestral wisdom and the sacredness of all life.
It is the job of the shaman in many cultures, like that of the South African Sangoma tradition, to keep track of genealogy and to hold the wisdom of the ancestors, to remember the role and the relationships between the members of the tribe and to “teach and encode an official history (…) while at the same time subverting historical absolution by allowing for transmutation and refabulation with every narrative telling from one political arena to the next”[x].
All shamanism is anchored to the land on which it is practiced. Australian Aborigines believe that the Universe was dreamed into existence by all powerful ancestors of humanity. When the first man and woman walked hand in hand on the land He dreamed of the rocks, rivers and forests and She dreamed up the rituals and laws that govern life. Because these things were created together the rituals are inseparable from the land. Tibetan shaman work to heal the energies of the earth that are believed to cause illness and bad weather when they are not harmonized. Andean Q’ero shaman connect to the spirits that dwell in the mountains who kept them sheltered from the rest of civilization until 1949. They believe that they ‘hold the key to future survival of mankind’[xi] and are open to sharing their ancient knowledge with the rest of the world.
The Shaman leads formal transitions of social status, for example, a ritual where a person moves from childhood to adulthood or from life to the afterlife. In the Congo shamanic masks are used to make the transition to adult life. The yearlong ordeal symbolises the boy’s death as children and rebirth as men. In contrast, Science shapes how we see the workings of the universe, Art changes how we see our society, but the Shaman shapes how we see the individuals within the society. Science strives to find a single truth, art accepts multiple points of view and the shaman’s ambiguous reality changes fluidly.
Masks and transformation
Just as an animal can flow into human form a shaman can pass from ordinary reality to the spirit world to meld with a helper spirit. Shaman of the Amazon ‘above all, must be willing and able to shapeshift, transforming himself into the shape of an animal, bird or fish, for only in this way can he communicate with higher powers that enable him to heal and to find true vision’[xii]
It is comon for a shaman to have sacred objects to help him journey to the spirit world. One of the most common is a mask. A mask is sometimes used in a performative ritual to help the shaman become someone else, to empathetically merge with a spirit in order to make it visible. In ritual context mask wearers are considered to embody the spirits they represent. “In the west the word “mask” has come to connote something disingenuous, something false, but in many other cultures, such connotations do not pertain”.[xiii] A westerner can easily get distracted by semantics, trying to ascertain if a mask wearer is a true incarnator or a dramatist. The shamanic mask allows the wearer to behave in a manner impossible without it and for the viewer to perceive a character invisible without it. When a wearer’s identity is masked (just like an actor on stage) their persona is suspended and replaced. So in this sense the wearer is a true incarnator as well as a dramatist.
The Mask is a universal shamanic object. Some of them are used in ritual to evoke or please helping spirits. They are important because they “seduce spirits and induce them to divulge insights into the human condition”[xiv] Masks and other shamanic objects are ritually empowered before use. As with many divinatory objects, it is the skill of the artist who makes the mask “before its preparation and use by the diviner-that gives the ritual artifact its conceptual significance.” [xv] Similar to an art object the value of a spiritual object “often derives less from its physical form than from its history: where it resided, what ceremonies it has been involved in, who has seen it or handled it. In many cases, though, it would be difficult to separate spiritual content from aesthetic form”[xvi] As with some Bamana masks of West Africa, ritual objects are often encrusted with spiritually powerful materials like blood and magical plants.
During the Second World War in, New York City Max Ernst noticed Northern Native American shamanic masks in a shop and showed them to European surrealists, including Duchamp, who were deeply impressed with the exceptionally refined works of art of the T’lingit. This no doubt influenced the aesthetic development of Western Art. [xvii]
Art and the divine
Historically the artist had an “essential role in elucidating and visually articulating the faith that forms the core of a people’s world view”[xviii] Hieronymus Bosch for example was a deeply religious, visionary artist who interpreted his spirituality visually in a way that no one had seen before, catalizing the spirituality of the time. Contemporary visionary artist Alex Gray uses his imagery to evolve consciousness and modern knowledge of unity and nature. He presides over the field with his Entheon Project, a sanctuary for visionary artists to journey to the sacred inner dimension, with the intention of encouraging positive, transformative action in the world.
It is likely that Art and Spirituality were once much more closely related than today. Some believe that the cave paintings of the last Ice Age were not decorative but divinatory; that the images were created as part of a performative ritual to aid in visualizing and manifesting a successful hunt. But just like digital files that have outlived the programs or devices needed to open them, the meaning and function behind these paintings are lost to obsolescence.
The artist and the shaman are manipulators. They maneuver and arrange materials and perform actions to shape their audiences’ frame of mind. The shaman is committed to aligning his subjects’ minds into a healthy model, using faith and ceremony to strengthen and focus his community to be successful hunters, to beat disease and ultimately to survive. The artist, although not sworn to serve the community, also puts her audience into a frame of mind to confront contemporary issues whether political, personal, or other worldly. The Shaman manipulates the spirits, the artist manipulates culture.
Joseph Beuys treated his role as artist synonymously with that of a teacher or shaman who could guide society in new directions. According to Cornelia Lauf, “in order to implement his idea, as well as a host of supporting notions encompassing cultural and political concepts, Beuys crafted a charismatic artistic persona that infused his work with mystical overtones and led him to be called “shaman” and “messianic” in the popular press.” As a teacher Beuyse used his lectures to give sermons on spirituality. In Beuys’ words: “Our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact.”[xix] “It was thus a strategic stage to use the shaman’s character but, subsequently, I gave scientific lectures. Also, at times, on one hand, I was a kind of modern scientific analyst, on the other hand, in the actions, I had a synthetic existence as shaman… It was a kind of psychoanalysis with all the problems of energy and culture.”[xx] Many artists take the role of shaman to steer popular mind frame away from the status quo. Rafael Lorenzo Hemmer added to the contemporary discussion of post humanism and artificial life while acting as ritualist when he created the installation The Last Breath, (2012). He offered his subject an escape from the normal concept of life span and offered immortality to singer Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club by capturing her breath, an invisible extension of her body and spirit, and circulating it continuously through an artificial respiratory machine. The piece will go on to extend her life in the realm of the gallery as a physical manifestation of her immortality in the eye of pop culture. Picasso offered himself as intermediary between man and the gods. The New York Times called him “a Nietzschean shaman who regarded art as a mysterious, magical force, offering the possibility of exorcism and transfiguration … a wily, self-mythologizing sorcerer who inhaled history, ideas and a cornucopia of styles with fierce, promiscuous abandon — all toward the end of exploding conventional ways of looking at the world and remaking that world anew. “[xxi]
Brian Jungen’s series Prototypes of New Understanding, (1998-2005), consists of aboriginal masks assembled from parts of Nike Air Jordan shoes. Jungen writes: “The Nike mask sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ native artefact.” These hybridised objects attack contemporary consumerism by representing it as having replaced native spiritual values and blasphemes capitalism it by dismantling expensive, sought after fashion objects. Jungen simultaneously elevates these consumer products by immortalizing them in a political and spiritual context.
While some art is diagnostic, some acts as treatment. Mathew Barney turns the gallery into a temple and his films are rich with ritual. New York Magazine declares “Barney could be the reincarnation of a shaman: His art has the otherworldly clarity of a trance.”[xxii] Experimental film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger’s influential work contained themes of ceremonial magic. He said “making a movie is casting a spell.”[xxiii]
An artist can articulate invisible forces that cannot be expressed in the vernacular. Supernatural transformation is a consistent theme in David Altmejd’s work. Hybrid bodies take center stage in such work as Man 2, (2014), a business man with a bird head and Werewolf No. 2, (2001) where he depicts the challenges of change. In his work disembodied parts crystalize rather than rot underlining the magic of metamorphosis. In Flux and the Puddle, (2014), as with many of his Plexiglas pieces, sculptural elements are connected by colored threads representing the flow of energy that connects everything in the cosmos. “Altmejd’s bronze angel with a hole through its chest — through which the energy of the universe flows — stands in front of Bourgie Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts on Sherbrooke St.”[xxiv]
Just as art is used by shaman, in Navaho sand paintings and Sami metal smiting of charms, shamanism is a powerful device in art.
The black magic under the white coat
Science diverged from magic. Alchemy turned to chemistry. Ritual use of sacred plants for healing developed into pharmacology. Mythological cosmology laid the foundation for modern astrophysics. Today the dialogue between science and religion is often based in such abstract and profound discussions as where did we come from? What ethical responsibility do we have towards reality and our surroundings? These are questions that Science and Religion are both accustomed to addressing but their interpretations and explanations are so different that it is unusual that they find kinship in their common curiosities. These siblings do bicker, but a physicist and a shaman would agree that we are all one, we are all connected parts of the same whole.
Modern science and religion seldom work together but they do practice some of the same magic. Both fields are concerned with influencing invisible forces, like energy. Nikola Tesla said “the day science begins to study the nonphysical is the beginning of the decade we will advance further than the several centuries previous.” In an age where the human genome has been decoded, life has been synthesised and the human micro biome is being studied, Science has a lot of power over how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Scientific thought is edging closer to the singular and understanding how we are not separate from nature but a part of it. Vital materialism, similar to shamanic animism, declares that all matter, animate or not has an experience[xxv]. As we reach the edges of scientific exploration, the parallels between physics and eastern mysticism become clearer. “There are some Scientific fields in which the frontiers have been pushed so far forward that scientists have found themselves asking questions that have always been considered metaphysical, not scientific in nature. “[xxvi] The study of consciousness is possibly the last frontier in physics. Biocentrism uses quantum physics to suggest that without the consciousness of living beings to be aware of the Universe it would exist only in a state of possibility and that it is our awareness that made everything snap into existence billions of years after the beginning of time.
Science has always been in the business of divination. From the meteorologist’s weather forecast to mathematical algorithms applied to large data bases that make predictions on consumer trends, science has always been inclined to foretell the future.
In a step away from the physical, artist and scientist Ariel Garten designed a device available to consumers that acts as a brain controlled computer interface. Muse, the brain sensing headband is marketed as an empirical meditation aid, but has been used to control the lights on Canadian Parliament from the other side of the country. Scientists develop techniques for brain to brain communication that could eradicate the need for language. In 2014 researchers at Starlab sent the first brain to brain email between 2 people separated by an ocean. Neuroscientists and computer engineers at the University of Washington were able to control each other’s hand movements with their thoughts.[xxvii] As Arthur C. Clark put it in his Three Laws, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[xxviii]
Cultural appropriation vs aesthetic plagiarism
Synchronising our behaviour is a natural part of being human, yawning and disgust are contagious. We feel each other’s emotions by copying facial expressions and subconsciously copy how each other talk and laugh. We reflexively mimic funny accents or jingly alliterations echoing them without the meaning, able to drop the signification from a word to hear only its sound just for entertainment. Films and books make reference to each other. We knock off fashion. Cultural memes flow through political borders. It is inevitable that neighboring cultures influence and reflect each other. The Cake Walk, for example, which was danced by black slaves in the late 1800s as a mockery, satirized white mannerisms and customs and was in turn adopted and danced by minstrals in the early 1900s.
In Art, appropriation is when an image or symbol is taken in its entirety out of its original context and placed in a new context as a device to comment on the original as in Duchamp’s Readymades, (1914) which showed manufactured objects in a gallery context. It is an important element in bricolage and postmodernism. Appropriation is often used in activist art and culture jamming, for example Ron English’s paintings of morbidly obese junk food icons appropriate imagery from corporate advertising to challenge problematic ethical values of capitalism and to encourage positive social change.
Over the years there have been many accusations of misappropriation of valuable cultural symbols. Generally the people accused of cultural appropriation are privileged people not trying to think critically about a social institution, but taking it for their own because exoticism itself is fashionable. They plagiarise the aesthetic and ask that the significance associated with the symbol be ignored. This should be called aesthetic plagiarism and is not always offensive, but it is undeniably disrespectful and problematic to copy the aesthetic of a symbolically powerful cultural icon in an abstract way while ignoring the symbolism in the presence on anyone who subscribes to the original meaning.
It is surprising that an artist would inadvertently do something so philistine as to deny the significance of a cultural symbol, but there is a tradition of cultural appropriation being used to introduce exotic new ways of looking at things into western modern art. Monet was deeply inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e wood block prints and assimilated aesthetic devices from this genre of printing into his own compositions. Japanese influence in Monet and other impressionists’ work went on to dramatically transform western aesthetic. As pioneers returning home with exotic ideas from abroad, their entire audiences were unaware of the significance of the aesthetics they were using so it was safe to present plagiarised aesthetic as an abstraction. Now that East and West are familiar with each other and connected in many cultural ways, a kimono in the West no longer represents the faceless exotic but is part of a recognizable convention. Recently Monet’s Painting La Japonais, which pictured his Europeanised wife dressed up in a kimono traveled around Japan with a replica of the painting’s kimono for gallery visitors to put on. (Japanese dressing up as Europeans dressing up as Japanese) The exhibition caused a scandal when it came to Boston because inviting Westerner’s to dress up as Europeans dressing up as Japanese was seen as encouraging inappropriate exoticism of Japan.
When a kimono, a native headdress, a rosary or the image of an eastern deity is appropriated as a fashion object, denying it of its spiritual power or a status symbol it is the appropriators’ inability to see the original value that is offensive. Cultural appropriation is an assault when a member of a dominant culture takes ownership of a sacred symbol and denies its significance for an audience that includes members of the original, oppressed culture. This has been seen in music festival culture with party people wearing native headdresses as dance floor costumes, a practice that has been banned at an increasing number of progressive Canadian music festivals. In response to the ban cultural appropriators insist that there is no symbolic meaning behind their actions. Standing on native land, declaring that a sacred symbol has no meaning is more offensive than the victorious display itself. Their mockery devalues the sacred in the same manner as those before them who legislated against participation in spiritual rituals like sweat lodges and potlatches.
Shamanic masks have often been seen to be so powerful and to be useful to only a specific shaman or ritual that they were commonly burned, buried or send far away after use so not to burden a community by causing harm to anyone who came into contact with them out of context. When a ritual object is decontextualized by placing it in a gallery to showcase its aesthetic power, its spiritual power is denied. The ethnographer and collector of T’lingit shamanic masks George Thornton Emmons is seen today by some as having looted T’lingit shamans’ grave houses. In his book Emmons describes the danger associated with ritual objects that are not passed down to the next generation of shaman. These objects were secluded in grave houses and given a wide birth because it was believed that contact with them would cause illness and death so it was advantageous “to have a white man, who apparently could not be injured by the spirits, take away the dangerous ritual paraphernalia from the gravehouse just as one would clean up a toxic dump.” [xxix]
In The Shaman’s New Mask, a series of shamanic masks that embody contemporary magic, I have tried to appropriate the spiritual power of the shamanic mask rather than the aesthetic. I have appropriated objects from my own culture and transferred them to the gallery in an attempt to empower them spiritually and to point out our existing faith in many magical forces: electronics, language, biology and medicine that are not typically acknowledged as having spiritual power. I have appropriated the conceptual significance of the VHS tape, dictionary, fireworks, pinecones and x-rays, arranged them according to a universal shamanic impulse and given them power by putting them in the gallery.
The Shamans New Mask
The Shaman’s New Mask is an exhibition that consists of five masks that embody contemporary magic. Each mask relates to science or technology and draws from universal shamanic practices and is made of found objects that empower the spirit.
Abracadabra: The Spirit of the Written Word is made of typographic objects like typewriter parts and pen nibs. Her face is covered with the gilded edges of pages from a dictionary. When the titles of the books in her headdress are read in sequence a poem emerges. Hidden in her headdress are letterpress type that spells Abracadabra, a magic word with ambiguous etymology. It translates from Aramaic as “I create as I speak“ or “I create like the word”. In Hebrew it translates as “I will create” and “As spoken”.
Opposite Abracadabra is AV: The Guardian of Light and Sound. AV is built from vinyl records, camera bodies and other devices used to record and save audio visual information. The mask form is based on Banda masks of the Baga peoples, Guinea, in that it is worn horizontally and is a full body mask rimed with a long skirt of over 30 hours of magnetic tape.
Rubatosis: The Spirit of Introspection and Medical Imaging is skull shaped x-ray illuminator made with medical images of human ribs and pelvis. The eyes are prints of the inside of a human eye and represents the desire to look within ourselves and the discomfort related to seeing inside ourselves. The skeleton is a symbol commonly found in shamanic regalia as it represents the shaman’s visionary disembodiment, a traumatic initiation into shamanic practice.
Ignition: The Spirit of Combustion is build form materials related to controlling fire. The mask form is a jerry can and its headdress is made of fireworks, birthday candles and shot gun shells. Tucked inside the mask is a working smoke detector which was set off during the masks empowerment ritual.
At the head of the collection is the transformation mask Boom: The Spirit of Evolution. The base of this fertility mask is shaped as a houbara bustard, a bird whose remarkable courtship display has fueled the myth that its meat has aphrodisiac properties. The mask’s antlers, a quintessential symbol in northern shamanic masks, are made of pine branches representing the tree of life. The mask is made with seedpods pressed into clay and wears a necklace of eggs. The mask will transform slowly over the course of the exhibition when the seedpods open, seeds germinate and grow in a celebration of generational continuity.
At the center of the gallery is an altar with a block of salt and a circle of sugar. Instructions invite viewers to place their cell phones on the block to clear it of bad energy.
Artist and Scientist as the new Shaman
Assigning spiritual value to mass produced, disposable objects, as I have done in The Shaman’s New Mask, may be a desperate gesture but we seem to have lost our connection to nature and do not observe its spiritual value. We are accused of cultural appropriation when we look towards eastern philosophy or aboriginal ritual for guidance. It’s hard to see the magic in the everyday when our environment is so processed and mass produced. We know that the corpocracy that drives this mass production is not a force of good, but a market driven greed, ready to take advantage of any natural resource or person. Environmentalists warn that something is wrong, but just as we accept the synthetic in place of anything real, we have grown accustomed to living in a state where things don’t feel right. As a westerner raised to reject, suspect and ridicule dogma it is difficult to know how to connect spirituality but I manage to find it when I study Biology, Physics and Art.
Ironically the very things that disconnect us from nature are our magic: electricity, lights and networked systems powered by unseen algorithms. We are distracted by incantations in the form of pop music on the radio and we religiously engage in collective visions and journeying through film and literature, celebrity gossip and scientific paradigms. We no longer need a magical person to remember our heritage as we did before home movies and medical records because it’s all magically digitized and accessible.
Of all human generations this one may be the most out of touch with nature and also the most connected with each other. Our impulse to connect by internet is homogenising our cultures. This mass produced synthetic age could be a symptom of our evolution towards a singular collective identity. This time of convergence calls for a Shaman to oversee the transition. This shaman will commune with the spirits of contemporary magic to use their healing powers, to protect and to divine knowledge outside of the vernacular and ensure safe passage into the future. An Art/Science symbiosis could facilitate popular empirical study of the nonphysical. Together the Artists and the Scientists, those seers of invisible truths, are our Shaman.
[i] George, Gessert, “Notes on Genetic Art”, Leonardo, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1993, p. 205
[ii] William Myers, “Bio Design Nature.Science.Creativity” The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, 2014, p.197
[iv] CERN’s website: arts.web.cern.ch/collide
[vi] John Matthews, “The Shamanism Bible. The Definitive Guide the Shamanic Thought and Practice”,2014, p.11
[vii] Allan Coukell “The Face of the Shaman”, Worlds of Difference, NPR, Nov 25, 2004
[viii] Patricia Rieff Anawalt, “Shamanic Regalia in the Far North”, 2014, p.79
[ix] John Matthews, p.20
[x] Roberts and Roberts, “Memory in Motion,” 1996, p.180
[xi] John Matthews p. 120
[xii] John Matthews p.123
[xiii] A. David Napier, “Masks, Transformation and Paradox” 1984, p.xxiii
[xiv] The Metropolitan Museum of Art , “Art and Oracle; African Art and Rituals of Divination”, 2000, p23
[xv] John Pemberton III, “Divination in Sub Saharan Africa, Art and Oracle; African Art and Rituals of Divination”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, p.20
[xvi] Holland Cotter, “Remnants of Tibetan Splendor, Divine and Intimate,” New York Times, October 29, 1999, p.E38
[xvii] Patricia Rieff Anawalt, “Shamanic Regalia in the Far North”, 2014, p.116
[xviii] John Pemberton III, “Divination in Sub Saharan Africa, Art and Oracle; African Art and Rituals of Divination”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, p.9
[xix] Tisdall, Caroline “Joseph Beuys”, 2010, p. 37.
[xx] Rosental, Norman “Joseph Beuys: The Secret Block for a Secret Person In Ireland. “ Art Books Intl Ltd., 1999
[xxi] Michiko Kakutani, “More on the Career of the Genius Who Boldly Compared Himself to God” New York Times, November 6, 2007
[xxii] Mark Steven’s, “Master of his Domain” NewYorkmag.com
[xxiii] Jack Hunter “Moonchild: The Films of Kenneth Anger” 2002, p.47
[xxiv] John Pohl, “David Altmejd Transforms the Musée d’Art Contemporain”, Montreal Gazette, June 18, 2015
[xxv] Jane Bennett, “Vibrant Matters, A Political Ecology of Things”, 2009
[xxvi] Richard Morris, “The Edges of Science; Crossing the Boundary from Physics to Metaphysics”, 1990, p.x
[xxvii] Mark Harris “MIT Technology review, Are Telepathy Experiments Stunts or Science?”, November 21, 2014
[xxviii] Arthur Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” 1973
[xxix] George Thornton Emmons, “The Tlingit Indians”, 1991, p.xviii