Archive for October, 2010

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

Posted in Uncategorized on October 26, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

“The future shaman exhibits exceptional traits from adolescence; he very early becomes nervous and is sometimes even subject to epileptic seizures, which are interpreted as meetings with the gods.” (p15)

One destined to shamanship begins by becoming frenzied, then suddenly loses consciousness, withdraws to the forests, feeds on tree bark, flings himself in water and fire, wounds himself with knives. The family then appeals to an old shaman, who undertakes to teach the distraught young man the various kinds of spirits and how to summon and control them.” (p16)

“Among the Goldi the shaman cannot undertake the ecstatic journey to the underworld without the help of a bird-spirit (koori) which ensures his return to the surface.” (p204)

The Shaman as Psychopomp

“The peoples of North Asia conceive the otherworld as an inverted image of this world. Everything takes place as it does here, but in reverse…In the underworld rivers flow backward to their sources. And everything that is inverted on earth is in it’s normal position among the dead; this is why objects offered on the grave for the use of the dead are turned upside down, unless, that is, they are broken, for what is broken here below is whole in the otherworld and vice versa.” (p205)

“The recently dead are feared, the long dead are revered and expected to act as protectors. The fear of the dead is due to the fact that, at first, no dead person accepts his new mode of being; he cannot renounce “living” and he returns to his family…Some Altaic shamans even escort the soul to the underworld, and, in order not to be recognised by the inhabitants of the nether regions, they daub their faces with soot…he summons two powerful tutelary spirits to help him: butchu, a kind of one-legged monster with a human face and feathers, and koori, a long-necked bird. Without the help of these two spirits, the shaman could not come back from the underworld.” (pp207-211)

“As to the search for the soul that has strayed away or been abducted by spirits, it sometimes assumes a dramatic aspect…Since the Nootka attribute the “theft of the soul” to marine spirits, the shaman, in ecstasy, dives to the bottom of the ocean and returns wet, “sometimes streaming blood at nose and temples, carrying the stolen soul in a little bunch of eagle down in his hands.””(p309)

“The shamanic origin of magical flight is clearly documented in China too. “Flying up to heaven” is expressed in Chinese as follows: “by means of feathers he was transformed  and ascended as an immortal”; and the terms “feather scholar” or “feather guest” designate the Taoist priest.” (p450)

“Siberian, Eskimo, and North American shamans fly. All over the world the same magical power is credited to sorcerers and medicine men…The Dyak shaman, who escorts the souls of the deceased to the other world, also takes the form of a bird…According to many traditions, the power of flight extended to all men in the mythical age; all could reach heaven, whether on the wings of a fabulous bird or on the clouds…We should make it clear, however, that here such powers often take on a purely spiritual character: “flight” expresses only intelligence, understanding of secret things or metaphysical truths. “Among all things that fly the mind [manas] is swiftest,” says the Rr-Veda. And the Pancavimsa Brahmana adds: “Those who know have wings.” (pp477-479)

The symbolism of magical flight

“Two important mythical motifs have contributed to give it its present structure: the mythical image of the soul in the form of a bird and the idea of birds as psychopomps…shamans are able, here on earth and as often as they wish, to accomplish “coming out of the body,” that is, the death that alone has the power to transform the rest of mankind into “birds”; shamans and sorcerers can enjoy the condition of “souls,” of “disincarnate beings,” which is accessible to the profane only when they die.” (p479)


Min Oh: A Dialogue (10 min performance/video 2010)

Posted in Uncategorized on October 22, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

‘A Dialogue’ is a performance where the participating audience influences the structure of the work itself. It consists of comical tensions and conflicts occurring between two people in a lighthearted tone which is a little saccharine (as if it could be used in a commercial for a mobile phone company) but I really like the interaction between performer and projected image and audience interaction with the work.

Ho Tzu Nyen: Earth (45 min film 2009) Media Landscape East, Zone East at the CUC

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

“Earth” is a medium-length film which opens on a post-apocalyptical scene with dead bodies strewn around a rubbish dump. As they gradually awake & then gradually ebb into unconsciousness, lights change & the entire scene is a study in slow, deliberate gestures which creates an otherworldly atmosphere and I also like the grand and dramatic shots which are reminiscent of baroque paintings.

Hu Xiaoyuan: No Reason (single channel video 2010) Media Landscape, Zone East at CUC

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

The object rolling around in this video creates a sense of tension and uncertainty. There is a contrast between the sense of nature evoked by the cocoon-like object and the delicacy and softness of the whites, while the object also evokes images of a hostage struggling to get free from a body bag like prison and the crack in the surface of the floor gives a subtle sense of decay and something unsettling.   



Jamie Isenstein: Empire of Fire (2010) at Tate Liverpool

Posted in Uncategorized on October 19, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

Isenstein is known for habiting her art works in order to challenge the inanimate nature of sculptures, often provoking a comical reaction. In lots of her pieces, although she has happily acted as part of the installation to contribute her own ‘endurance performance art’, the entirety of her body is never revealed and instead her body part is merely one part of many in her piece. Nothing is as it seems in the work including the books or seat which appear to be aflame and the hand at the end of the hosereel belongs to Isenstein herself. Through inhabiting her artworks she challenges the inanimate nature of sculpture and explores the interplay of performance and sculpture. The presence of the human hand is both unsettling in the uncanny tension it provokes and humourous in its quirky nature. Isenstein manages to combine sculptural practice, endurance performance art and surreal humour to great effect.

Marcus Coates: Journey to the Lower World at the Walker Art Gallery

Posted in Uncategorized on October 18, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

 Journey to the Lower World (still)

  • Journey to the Lower World (still)Marcus Coates Journey to the Lower World (still) 2004 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
  • Journey to the Lower World (film still)Marcus Coates Journey to the Lower World (film still) Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

    Journey to the Lower World is presented on 2 screens in the Walker Gallery, the one to the left is blank for a lot of the time but then shows an enactment of the artist’s journey (to the lower world – via the lift) whilst in his trance-like state.The work arose from Further Up in the Air, a residency programme for artists in Liverpool’s Sheil Park estate in 2003. In the film residents from Linosa Close, a tower block awaiting demolition, watch with a mixture of anxiety, faith and good humour as Coates performs a shamanic ritual. Dressed in a deer skin and uttering eerie, animalistic grunts, he attempts to answer the emotive question put to him by his audience: “Do we have a protector for this site? What is it?” I like the sense of aburdity revealed in the juxtaposition of the ritual and the residents of the estate who observe in bemusement. Humour in the piece is carried out with the upmost sincerity as Coates seeks to address concerns within the community, which confirms that art can be both questioning and well-grounded and still display elements of playfulness and humour.  


    Shamanism and anthropomorphism; public art and ‘getting back to nature’: Frieze Magazine article on Marcus Coates

    Posted in Uncategorized on October 18, 2010 by pauljohnwhite

    ‘Why do cats understand what you say?’ ‘Where does hair go when you go bald?’ ‘How can the city control illegal bicycle parking?’ These are just some of the questions that Marcus Coates has attempted to answer by descending into the ‘lower world’ and consulting the birds and animals that he encounters there. Usually they respond in cryptic clues; uncharacteristic behaviour is what he is looking out for, which he then does his best to interpret for his audience on his return.
    Coates was inducted into the ancient techniques of shamanism on a weekend course in Notting Hill, London. The workshop trained participants to access a ‘non-ordinary’ psychic dimension with the aid of chanting, ‘ethnic’ drumming and dream-catchers. Coates has explained the process as essentially being a form of imaginative visualization. Historically the shaman would have been employed to solve the daily problems of the community; since these usually involved the finding and killing of animals, shamans were valued for their ability to communicate with other species in the spirit world. Shamanism’s contemporary abstracted form in the West still relies on animals as ‘guides’, but it encourages practitioners to project personal spirit worlds in terms that are familiar to them. During his trance the man sitting next to Coates met and talked to a gerbil.
    Coates himself is a keen ornithologist and naturalist; the animals that he encounters in the ‘lower world’ are usually from areas of British landscape that he knows intimately. Much of his past work has reflected his sense of alienation from such places, a frustration that manifests itself in the sentimental yearning to ‘get back to nature’. Indigenous British Mammals (2000) was Coates’ ludicrous attempt to reverse the flow of anthropomorphism and subsume himself within the fabric of the natural world, emulating wild animal calls while buried under the turf of deserted moorland; in Goshawk (1999) he persuaded foresters to fasten him to the upper branches of a Scots pine so he could see the world through the eyes of a hawk scanning for prey. While the humour of these works springs from the naivety of the desires they embody, by subjecting himself to such vivid, visceral experiences Coates holds on to the possibility of personal transformation and so restrains them from snide satire.
    The ambiguity of Coates’ own investment in the processes he embarks on creates a constant itch in the understanding of his position; who is laughing, and whom exactly are they laughing at? This question was at the forefront of his first shaman work, Journey to the Lower World (2004), in which he filmed himself performing a shamanic ritual in the front room of a Liverpool tower block that was scheduled for demolition. The audience of bemused residents fought to suppress their giggles as Coates, dressed in the skin of a red deer, began by vacuuming and spitting water onto the carpet, then emitting feral whistles, grunts and barks as he entered the ‘lower world’.
    Despite his audience’s obvious scepticism (of both shamanism and of the contemporary art world), the question they asked Coates about the lower world was sincere and unguarded: ‘Do we have a protector for this site? What is it?’ He had gained their trust and implicated himself in an intimate system of exchange. His tentative answer, interpreting peculiar feather patterns on a sparrowhawk’s wing as being indicative of the community’s need to ‘stick together’, acknowledged this responsibility. While remaining deeply uneasy about the employment of artists in the public sphere as ‘problem solvers’, Coates has said that often the most valuable thing that comes out of such performances is the audience’s sense that they are being listened to. This in turn prompts them to begin talking objectively about issues that concern them, even if, as in the case of Mouth of God (2006), it is to a man with a stuffed hare strapped to his head.
    This is Coates’ best trick; despite looming large in the production of his works, he somehow manages to usher people towards a revelation of sorts within themselves. He achieves this again in his work Dawn Chorus (2007), the most recent and accomplished of an ongoing series of works in which he teaches people how to mimic birdsong by copying slowed-down recordings of birds, filming them and then speeding up the footage to avian pitch again. The multi-screen video installation shows 19 people caught alone in quiet moments, intermittently breaking into birdsong. While the ornithologist in Coates clearly relished the challenge of reproducing the sequence and positions of a dawn chorus in the gallery, the real magic lies in the videos’ knack of not only creating highly convincing birdsong but also accelerating human movements into the nervy fidgeting of birds.
    The melancholy of Dawn Chorus is born of the solitary figures’ isolation, not only from the world of the birds and the beasts but also from each other. Deceptively, Coates’ real subjects are not the outdoors and the unknown but interiority and introspection. This is the true locus of ‘nature’ in the modern world, he seems to imply; not in the open spaces of the countryside, so obscured by cultural projection and anthropomorphism, but in the withered memory of something wild and ancient, buried deep within ourselves.
    Jonathan Griffin