Why Shamanic Practices Are Making a Comeback in Contemporary Art
“Everyone always talks about how, in times of crisis, people start looking for God,” says Canadian, Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw. “And I think that’s very synonymous with what’s happening now.”
Since his days at art school, Shaw has been exploring the human pursuit of transcendental experience by way of altered states of consciousness. In an early project, he filmed himself and others after taking DMT, a naturally occurring molecule found in both the human brain and certain plants, which the late ethnobotanist and psychedelics advocate Terence McKenna called “the most powerful hallucinogen known to man and science.”
Shaw’s subjects are shot close-up in states of apparent euphoria or rapture. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen convey the participants’ later efforts to translate the experience into words—something which those who have taken DMT say is nearly impossible.
The artist’s interest in the universal desire for spiritual life, a yearning for some higher power or intelligence, or to “reach for something beyond,” as he puts it, has led him to some interesting places.
In Quickeners (2014), Shaw researched the history of Pentecostal snake-handlers, using 1960s archival footage to imagine a human community, 500 years in the future. These new humanoids have undergone an intelligence explosion and become hyper-rational, save a small subset who are afflicted with a rare syndrome characterized by a “need to believe,” one that leads them to resurrect antiquated rituals (like serpent worship, artmaking, and dance) in an effort to transcend their reality.
His most recent video Liminals (2017), currently on view at the Venice Biennale, similarly focuses on an imagined community, this one a few decades into the future. The piece is a sci-fi pseudo-documentary, albeit one that is shot in black and white, partly using a 16mm camera. It follows a “periphery-altruistic culture,” a community that has lived through a failed attempt at the singularity—the belief, popularly associated with Silicon Valley futurists, that computer and AI technology will eventually outrun or merge with the capacities of the human brain. The film’s protagonists attempt to reactivate the “faith cell” in the brain through a fusion of contemporary technology and spiritual ritual.
Liminals, with its expressions of uncertainty regarding humanity’s future (coupled with a degree of optimism for the power of collective rituals, and science) taps into a broader undercurrent present at the Biennale, and beyond.
A renewed interest in ritual, shamanism, and transcendental experience
In the West, shamanism and transcendental experience may evoke the pastimes of crunchy Park Slopers, or conjure images of charlatans and scam artists who fancy themselves healers; there are certainly those out there who warrant such a description. It’s easy to dismiss such unscientific practices as a lot of mumbo-jumbo. But others take the history of shamanism very seriously and are applying it to our contemporary moment to great effect.
For his 2012 book, Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck took a tour through various manifestations of contemporary shamanism around the world and its suppression and stigmatization in the West. In it, the author defines shamanism as a “technology for exploring nonordinary states of consciousness in order to accomplish specific purposes: healing, divination, and communication with the spirit realm.” It can also involve “magical transformation of humans into animals, prophetic dreams, and interaction with the souls of the dead.”
These are preoccupations that surface in this year’s Biennale, where curator Christine Macel has titled one segment of her main exhibition the “Pavilion of Shamans.” That section is anchored by Ernesto Neto’s giant tent, or Cupixawa, which is meant to evoke the sacred spaces and ayahuasca ceremonies of Amazonian peoples.
In many ways, the Biennale is reflective of a larger zeitgeist. Exhibitions over the past couple of years—from the São Paulo Biennial to the Whitney Biennial—have to some extent pivoted away from an examination of the contemporary technologies that consume our lives, and toward forms of collectivity, self-care, shamanic rites, and an earnest interest in the sacred and ineffable. The development has prompted writer Ben Davis and others to point to a “shamanistic” trend in contemporary art practice.
Concurrently, a number of artists have been exploring witchcraft and the occult as a form of feminist or post-gender art, with artists like Juliana Huxtable casting herself as a potent priestess, witch, and cult queen in self-portraits and performances.
Meanwhile, in the broader Western cultural sphere, a gradual de-stigmatization of the use of psychedelics has allowed for a growing body of medical research showing their therapeutic value, supported by advocacy groups like MAPS. Ayahuasca ceremonies have moved from structures like Neto’s to a loft near you and become widespread enough in the U.S. that a New Yorker article called the entheogen “the drug of choice for the Age of Kale.” And Western celebrities, from Susan Sarandon to Sting, have testified to the powerful impact of hallucinogenic drugs on their lives, with Sting having described the experience of taking ayahuasca as being “wired to the entire cosmos,” and having “direct access to the God head.”
“Everyone always talks about how, in times of crisis, people start looking for God.”
Such perspectives may have been commonplace in the American counterculture of the 1960s, but they fell out of favor in ensuing decades under continual attacks from advocates of the War on Drugs. A belief in the value of shamanic practices and different knowledge systems may still lie at the fringe of Western culture—but that seems to be changing.
It should be noted that none of the artists I spoke to for this piece in any way conceive of themselves as performing the role of the shaman, and only one of them addresses the taking of psychedelics as a means to expand one’s consciousness. But what these artists share, broadly speaking, is an interest in ritualistic, folkloric practices; alternative modes of spirituality, or altered states of mind—and a belief in the possibility of human transformation. In many cultures, these facets of experience are indeed the preserve of the shaman.
Take Anna Halprin, a postmodern American choreographer who is now in her late nineties. Halprin has recently been receiving renewed attention, featuring not only in Venice—where archival materials from her 1960s dance circles in the Bay Area are on view—but also at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, and at documenta this summer. In Kassel, her work is shown near that of fellow San Francisco radicals Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, whose sex-positive activism and eco-worship have led them to hold ceremonies in which they wed Planet Earth.
Halprin has long espoused a philosophy of movement as a source of human intelligence. “The body informs the mind,” she says in an online video about her practice, to create “experiences that go beyond words, that go beyond your conscious thinking but are part of you.” (When Halprin was diagnosed with cancer in 1972, she purportedly fortified herself against the malignant division of her cells by drawing and dancing—and ultimately went into remission.)
The ritualistic movements in Halprin’s Planetary Dance, a global event that she hopes people from around the world will join in order to experience group creativity and feel the power of collective action, recall those of Shaw’s Liminals, whose convulsions and gyrations seem to propel them beyond the limits of our reality and into a glitchy, psychedelic mind-warp.
Halprin’s intentions, however, are quite concrete. In an upcoming book, Making Dances That Matter, she writes, “In this urgent time, it is more important than ever that we use all the resources we have—whether they are artistic, political, service-oriented, or educational—to heal our families, our communities, our land, and ourselves.”
The roots of shamanism
Shamanism and transcendental spiritual practices have roots outside of the West, in the cultures of indigenous peoples across the world—cultures, it bears reinforcing, that are no less modern. As indigenous rights groups like Survival International (SI) have long argued, these cultures offer just as much, perhaps even more, to learn from than their Western counterparts.
Pinchbeck notes in his book that the “phenomenon of shamanism is unfathomably old and amazingly widespread,” extending through Siberia, Australia, and Africa, as well as the Americas and pre-modern Europe. “Outside of the modern Western cultures,” he writes, “shamanism seems to be something close to a universal human phenomenon.” In most contemporary non-Western cultures, some form of shamanism (however marginalized) has always remained.
And while artists from the West who are working with this subject matter may face charges of cultural appropriation, artists from countries where forms of shamanism are practiced also show the influence of this heritage in their work. One such example is South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, whose moving installations composed of earth and symbolically loaded objects like rocks, feathers, and candles both summon the violent colonial battles and regimes waged over land and evoke the life-giving, regenerative force of soil.
In the Pinchuk Future Generation Prize exhibition in Venice, Bopape’s shelves of earth decorated with carefully, purposefully placed objects serenely command a room in the Palazzo Contarini Polignac. The sculpture evokes a quiet, sentient body lying dormant in the gallery.
Bopape told me over the phone that during the making of these works she was thinking about the practices of an indigenous people in Southern Africa who create temporary sacred sites, as well as esoteric forms like cosmograms or abstracted drawings of uteruses and the male reproductive system.
Her use of candles is partly inspired by a story that the Haitian revolution was sparked during a voodoo ceremony, “where an enslaved people got the courage to rebel.”
Bopape’s work elucidates the alchemy that occurs when humans come into contact with the natural world—the potential for ritual, the investing of organic objects with healing powers.
The South Korean artist Park Chan-Kyong also looks to his country’s traditional spiritual practices as a way to invoke and address the tragedies of recent history and what he sees as a “strong rupture” with tradition. In his film Citizen’s Forest, Park stages a haunted procession of ghost-like figures dressed in silver masks. He based the scene partly on the gut, a rite from Korean shamanism or Muism, which traditionally took the form of something like a “village festival,” Park says, involving dancing, chanting, and making sacrifices to the gods.
His interest in drawing from South Korea’s folkloric practices is partly an expression of what he sees as the loss of community in the country—the way that the swift process of modernization, he believes, is in part responsible for creating the capitalist greed and lack of concern for others that led to recent catastrophes like the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014, when 304 people, mostly school children, drowned.
“This ferry sinking is a good example of how the system doesn’t work. I think it has a lot to do with the loss of a sense of community, and empathy.”
“We all feel that Korean modernity is very strongly borrowed from the West, especially the U.S.,” he says. “It clearly shows a failure. And this ferry sinking is a good example of how the system doesn’t work. I think it has a lot to do with the loss of a sense of community, and empathy.” Shamanism, he says, encourages not only community, but also feminism (in South Korea, shamans are typically women), as well as granting participants a sense of their place in the larger cosmos.
Does he think art, too, is capable of healing collective wounds? “Maybe Nam June Paik thought he was a shaman,” he laughs, referring to the Korean father of video art who orchestrated wild, participatory performances, and who sought to unify the global community through an electronic superhighway. “But I don’t think I’m working as a shaman and artist at the same time. I’m interested in shamanism but I don’t heal people. I would have to be trained at least 10 years!”
The artist as shaman
In his book, Pinchbeck summarizes German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s critique of capitalism: “Intoxicated, entranced by the new world of commodities, the West lost its contact with the communal ‘ecstatic trance,’ those archaic Dionysian festivals and annual Mysteries celebrating the transformation of primordial chaos into order. The loss of rituals that compelled ‘ecstatic contact with the cosmos’ posed a threat to humanity.”
In response to this loss, Pinchbeck writes, the modern world turned to artists and poets for a substitute to “the transformative power of an actual encounter with a supernatural ‘other,’ or the personal experience of an altered state. In the modern world, the artist took over the role of the shaman.” He cites an example of one such figure: Joseph Beuys, who is perhaps the most famous neo-shaman in Western art history.
Among Beuys’s ritualistic performances is one in which he famously spent three days in 1974 locked in a New York gallery with a coyote (an animal which has a mythological place in the belief systems of many Native American peoples) as an effort to commune with, and heal what he saw as the poisonous spirit of U.S. politics. His aim was to assuage “the schism between native intelligence and European mechanistic, materialistic, and positivistic values,” as David Levi-Strauss wrote in an essay on the work.
Beuys also charged a personal lexicon of materials, including felt and fat, with symbolic resonance, so that they assumed a certain mystical power in his practice.
“In the modern world, the artist took over the role of the shaman.”
Despite his democratizing views about art—he believed that anyone could be an artist, and that art should engage with social and political relations and not be an agent of the artist’s ego—Beuys also provides a picture of the artist as singular, someone with special access to truth and knowledge. He believed in the power of art to heal; and in some regard saw himself as a healer. He also engaged in a considerable amount of self-mythologizing throughout his art career, in a similar vein as his contemporary James Lee Byars, who counted Japanese shinto rituals among his influences, and whose totemic (and undeniably phallic) golden obelisk is also on view in Venice this year.
Matthew Barney—with his ceremonial approach to materials, cross-dressing, animalistic transfigurations, and creation of a hermetic universe, with the artist at the center of it, in “The Cremaster Cycle” (1994–2002)—might be seen as a disciple of both Beuys and Byars. Marina Abramović, who sat like a timeless oracle in a floor-length robe at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, staring into participants’ souls (and often eliciting emotional responses), can also perhaps be understood in this context.
But there are artists throughout the 20th century whose shamanic activities convey a less egocentric, more community-based conception of art as a healing or transformative power.
In 1970s Los Angeles, the artist Barbara McCullough collaborated with the actress Yolanda Vidato on a filmed performance, Water Ritual (1979). Vidato plays the character Milanda, who dressed in rags and with bare feet eventually strips down completely, performing a ritual within the traumatized neighborhood of Watts, L.A., in which she purifies the area using water, shells, cornmeal, and her own urine. In a video describing the work, McCullough explains that she wanted Milanda to resemble someone from the Third World, someone in the “modern” world, but not of it.
The collaborative piece was a cathartic exercise for McCullough and Vidato, one in which they negotiate being black women with ancestral pasts in an urban city in America—a country, the subtext seems to imply, that routinely and violently obliterates other histories and cultures. (McCullough notes that the particular site in which Milanda performs was allocated for a century freeway in the 1970s, causing hundreds of people to be displaced.)
The performance was later included as part of a larger piece, Shopping Bag, Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space (1981), which explored the ritualistic practices of African-American artists such as Senga Nengudi and David Hammons, including Nengudi’s 1970s freeway underpass performances in L.A., which were intended to heal the divisions between black men and women.
McCullough’s performance raises the question of how, exactly, art can exercise a healing force. Is the neighborhood of Watts healed in a literal sense, exorcised of the demons of capital and racial suppression, or in the mind of the viewer—through imagining the neighborhood’s rejuvenation and return to order, and bearing witness to someone’s effort to transform something ugly into something beautiful?
As in the case of Halprin, making art can itself be the source of healing. Guillermo Gómez-Peña—whose international performance troupe La Pocha Nostra stages radical, participatory environments with nudity and bondage, in which people can exhume their demons and come face-to-face with the erotics of violence and other human interrelations—is uncomfortable when participants describe him as a healer or shaman, but reports having himself been healed through the creation of art.
“For us performance artists,” he says, “[creating art] is precisely what keeps us away from psychiatric clinics and hospitals.” Writing performance scripts for healing, he notes, has saved his life twice.
The shamanic today
The genre known as “visionary art,” compositions inspired by the visions produced from the consumption of psychedelics, has continued ever since the 1960s, albeit on the far margins of the Western art world.
It is perhaps best summarized by the artists Alex and Allyson Grey’s Chapel of the Sacred Mirrors. The non-denominational temple was moved from Chelsea to upstate New York in 2009, and is inspired by the artists’ experiences on psychedelic drugs. It’s populated with paintings that bring together iconographic imagery from various faiths, and show the human body as a cosmic force field that radiates and receives energy from the world around it.
Many in the art world and beyond still discount this type of psychedelic art and possibly even the more subtle current of shamanism present in contemporary art today as a lot of kumbaya, the return of the 1960s New Age.
If one thing is certain, however, it’s that this recent development demonstrates not only a deep disillusionment with the Western way of life, but a search for a path forward—examining tradition in order to reimagine our world. Seen through an optimistic lens, it demonstrates an increased sensitivity to other people’s ways of life at a moment when, it goes without saying, culture in the West is experiencing a moment of maximum polarization.
The artist Saya Woolfalk’s ongoing “Empathics” project (begun in 2009), for which she dreamed up a science-fictional community of hybrid, interspecies women who are like identity sponges, soaking up the cultures they’re exposed to in both the physical and digital worlds, can perhaps be seen to represent both positive and negative forecasts for humanity.
The Empathics are, as their name might suggest, the embodiment of empathy, continually transforming themselves through an openness to the belief systems, characters, iconography, and practices of other communities. She describes these beings as an effort to create “fantastical bodies, that are somehow more in line with the complex way that we experience our bodies and our mind.”
“The basic answers to our survival might lie precisely in the very indigenous communities that the corporate global project is rapidly destroying.”
Woolfalk’s Empathics present both a utopian picture of a deep and molecular form of empathy toward other people, and a dystopian counter-picture of corporate exploitation and cultural appropriation—when meaningful practices become commodified and lose their real, non-monetary value in the world. (A darker flipside within her imagined world is ChimaTEK, a technology corporation that enables people to erase their identities and download new ones, thereby obliterating the knowledge accrued through lived experience.)
What this new artistic current might illustrate more than anything is a deep desire not only for individual spiritual transcendence but also for cultural transformation—and a belief that such transformation is possible.
“More than ever before, contemporary theorists, scientists, and activists need to pay more attention to so-called indigenous knowledge,” says Gómez-Peña. “The basic answers to our survival might lie precisely in the very indigenous communities that the corporate global project is rapidly destroying.”
To get the West out of its current morass, we may need not only the knowledge of indigenous cultures and the tools of modern science, but also the awakening of consciousness brought by art—some experience of God.
Header video: An excerpt from Saya Woolfalk, Chimera, 2013. Copyright Saya Woolfalk. Courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.