Subliminal Voices from Nowhere
'If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions....(just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from that which is alien....); so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since this is the way it gets better'.
Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet Aug 12 1904
In this paper I discuss performative practices in modern art and performance that engage forms of 'ritual dismemberment' for the ostensible purpose of healing. Such practices tend to be, according to Victor Turner, liminoid acts which express the loss of sensory-conceptual codes in the post -industrial ritual.(1) The metaphor of dismemberment is, for Turner, appropriate to express the breaking down of a shared social experience of numinousity due to a forced division of labor in the arts and humanities. Yet, Turner observed in his later writings, that there are indications of a longing for re-unification. He wrote: 'there are signs today that the amputated, specialised genres are seeking to rejoin and recover something of the numinousity lost in their sparagmos, their dismemberment'.(Schechner, 1993: 253-8)
I want to focus here on the performative work of the German artist Joseph Beuys, particularly in relation to his attempt to create a total unified art work or Gestamtkunstwork as it evokes a striking example of the urge for re-memberment that Turner detected. Beuys created a form of shamanic healing by incorporating, and in turn transforming, dismemberment within his performances. Going beyond Turner's anthropological interests Beuys intended to incorporate forms of dismemberment within his performance work which was grounded largely on the anthroposophical ideas of Rudolf Steiner.(2) For Steiner and later Beuys the wounded Christ was the most potent symbol of spiritual and ecological rebirth. Indeed Christ's wound becomes (for doubting materialists) the proof of the dismembering and reconfiguration of the inside/outside, material/spiritual divide. It can be thought of in a ritualised context as a metaphor for a liminal passage leading to a spiritual transformation.(3) The exterior wound is the material presentation of an interior process - dismemberment - which can not be 'presented'. As in traditional shamanic practices, Beuys explored dismemberment as a means of totally reconstructing the interior body and its organs such that disease could be passed through the body in order to initiate a healing process.
The fragmentation of the arts was for Beuys symptomatic of a wider cultural decadence that reached its catastrophic climax, and so crossed a liminal threshold, during the Second World War in which Beuys was all but fatally wounded on a number of occasions. Whilst, dismemberment for Beuys may have operated metaphorically in the art/performance context it was actualised upon his physical body. The subsequent healing process that he underwent over the decade after the war became a shamanic journey, a mythic metaphor for his attempts to move beyond the context of the arts to initiate an anthroposophical mode of healing that was based on a consideration of the overall spiritual evolution of humanity.
Since, as Turner suggests, the arts themselves had been radically dismembered Beuys had had, like so many artists before him, to create a shamanising system from out of a fragmented and disparate cultural scene. In the wake of the Second World War Beuys believed that there was neither a viable social or artistic tradition upon which he might ground his work. Like the modern mystic Blake many years before he would in a sense have to 'create a system or be ruled by another mans'.(Blake, 1994: 176-254)
As for modern artists/performers as diverse as Blake, Artaud and Grotowski, Beuys was a bricoleur of systems who created a relatively coherent and widely inspirational art practice by intuitively working across history, cultures and genres. However, Beuys based his evolving system upon an ecological world view following the lead of Goethe and his adherent Steiner. Unlike the modern Gnostics Blake and Artaud, Beuys wanted to unify transcendent, 'otherworldly' experiences with the immanent aspects of the material world. To this end his artistic research would generate the means to creatively transform the nature/culture divide. I think it is useful to contrast and compare Blake and Artaud with Beuys as all three are seminal examples of visionary artists/performers whose work attempted to expand the specialising, amputated 'role' that has tended to characterise the contemporary scene.
If I at all grasp some overview of their diverse projects, I would say that Blake and Artaud tended to negate immanence to affirm transcendence - they in a sense repeated the Gnostic negation of the material world to affirm the presence of the eternal God, however withdrawn she might be. For all his evidently romantic references to nature the decidedly urban Blake saw such material expressions as fallen and in need of a superimposition - by the imagination of - the divine man. As inferred, it is so much easier to love a cloud if you see the divine man within it. As for many mystical traditions, all of the exterior world was available to the interior world of the divine imagination and, as such, was not essentially primary. Blake neither particularly enjoyed being in nature nor learning from it as had the German romantics Goethe, Steiner and later Beuys. This is strikingly evident when comparing Blake's preference for urban spaces and his drawings of tigers, trees and so forth with his contemporary Goethe's drawings of, and wanderings in, the natural world. Both artists had developed extraordinary imaginative powers but Goethe was certainly the better 'listener' of the two.
For Artaud, the transcendent, the authentic divine God, as opposed to the demonic demiurge who created this world, was not to be found within or without but was hopelessly withdrawn. If the body was to be negated, emptied of its organs, and wounded to allow its demons to depart, how much more so then was an exterior nature a 'thing in the way'. In as much as mankind and nature were all but irredeemably fallen, a divine paradise could only exist beyond the threshold, the liminal condition or fault-line upon which artists like Artaud and Blake precariously balanced. It may be no coincidence that Blake's preferred method of acting was etching, wounding the subjectile by cutting into the surface to create an obverse negation of the ground. He wounded his plates as if a traditional craftsman desperately in need of a stable material surface upon which to ground the call of his 'voices from nowhere'. We may empathise with Blake's abhorrence of the modern debasement of the divine world, but his artistic transformation of the materialist's hell is minor compensation in relation to the ongoing fall. For all his visionary powers I doubt that Blake imagined the extent to which contemporary London has moved toward a hardening of the 'material'. Artaud's attack upon the paper, his uncompromising negation of the subjectile of his occulted letters and drawings, in kind evidenced his desire to pass beyond the material, the grounding surface (the creation of the false demiurge) toward a transcendent dimension, a body stuffed full of light.
If the relation of Artaud and Blake to the material world was radically precarious, their relation to society was less than ambiguous. The art critic Donald Kuspit, maintains that, society has a vested interest in proclaiming the modern artist's 'madness' in order that it can sustain its belief in its own health and sanity. (Kuspit, 1993: 98-99) (Indeed, it may in part be due to the canonisation of the suffering of visionaries like Blake and Artaud, that the public was generally more accepting of Beuys' eccentricities.) The real tragedy as Kuspit sees it, is that the contemporary artist whilst attempting to lead society in from the wilderness and heal its disease seems unaware that the very society that legitimates his or her 'liminal' role has a crucial stake in this artist's failure. More than this, the artist's sickness becomes a proof of society's health. Such a role becomes the obverse of both Lear's fool and the tribal shaman. The artist is a (usually) unsalaried and finally fooled fool, a shaman exiled to his transcendent, liminal zone. Society may lean toward nihilism but it is the artist, the carnivalesque clown within the reservation of the art context, who truly now is a no-thing, a zero (Lear). His artistic dismemberment transmits little ritual charge for the wider society where the 'ritualised' wounds of actual ecological and psychic dismemberment are ever present.
Following his shamanic quest into and beyond the liminal, the artist may again participate in a society's symbolic order but only on the condition that his visions, his absorbed disease and ritual dismemberment are kept within the subjunctive margins of the art world and its regulatory institutions. It must be professional and efficient but not system threatening. The journey has generally been met with indifference since Blake's time. Aside from a few notable exceptions most serious contemporary incursions are undertaken by artists 'shamanising within the liminoid'. They are in effect acting 'as though', without having the means to access any geniune social empathy - that is, they have no socially workable system. So who can the subliminal voices from nowhere speak to?
Beuys life works, along with a number of artistic organisations who have continued to develop his ideas on social sculpture stand as notable exceptions to this stand off.(4)
Whilst in Gnostic fashion Beuys created his system by bricollaging together an extraordinarily diverse range of sources - most notably the Goethe/Steiner bloc, his exceptional life's story auto-generated its own messianic myth. As a 19yr old Nazi Stukka pilot he was shot down over the nexus point between Asia and Europe in the then Soviet Union. By chance he was rescued by nomadic Tatars - a culture in which the shamanic tradition apparently survived...
Icarus is 'deserted', left in the wilderness to die by his own father's (nazi/modernity's) inventions and is re-fathered or reborn after several days spent unconscious. He is re-birthed after his dismemberment through the transformative powers of 'primitive' healing techniques kept in tact by a pre-modern 'outsider' culture. In the decade following, Beuys overcomes and heals his own postwar depression by drawing obsessively and working with nature in the manner of Goethe/Steiner. Yet he still carries the actual wounds of his transformation. He then becomes his own father by going out into the world to shamanise, and to propose the sculpting of a Gestamtkunstwork - a total or whole artwork. Like Artaud, he in a sense passes the World War trauma through his dismembered body and is severely wounded on a number of occasions. With the intimate experience gained from an intact shamanic healing structure (Tartars) combined with an evolutionary world vision (Steiner's social body of artists) he is able to ground and recreate himself after his ritual dismemberment.
Indeed, it may be by understanding the necessity to ritualise his actual psychic dismemberment and physical wounds, via the process of artistic re-enactment in performance that he is able to heal what otherwise would be an irredeemable and meaningless catastrophe. This direct experience of the war most more than likely leads him to his belief that it is only by treating the total social body and its environment as an artwork to be sculptured by every conscious being, wherein the planet might survive and human evolutionary potential be realised. It needs to be emphasised here that, like Blake, he believed that Christ and his disciples were artists and that the only real form of social capital was the creative imagination. To this end, his messianic vision called for all beings to eventually become christed (in large part) via the consciousness raising potential of artistic creation. So understood, it can be argued that although modernity may have produced a gross devolution in spiritual and ecological terms it nonetheless holds out the future potential for a democratisation of the anthroposophical knowledge previously only held, and understood, by social elites. This would give meaning to the ideal of human evolution and to the purpose of artistic practices directed toward the whole of life.
It is apparent in his attempts to create a total artwork that Beuys wanted to travel what Mark Taylor has described as an a/theological road-a middle and therefore liminal way. (Taylor, 1998) Rather than negate the immanent to affirm the transcendent or de-negating transcendence to affirm the immanence, Beuys wanted to unite the transcendent within the immanent. This involves permanently thinking in terms of process rather than 'thingness'. Events, transformations and shamanic journeys become the locus of: artistic inquiry, occultation, spiritual divination, consciousness raising and ritual dismemberment for the purpose of healing/grounding and finally re-membering. Hence, Beuys came to consider all art making in terms of its essential processness and therefore it would be essentially performative. He subsequently began to think of the artist as a sculptor of life, and as such, its evolutionary engine. In the total artwork, all conscious beings become artists of various, but finally connected, capacities. We see Beuys performing an action in which he explains his art to a dead hare, an earth antenna from the other world. And we also see him having his performance actions directed by a coyote, a shape shifter for the premodern Americans, and therefore 'organ rememberer'. For Beuys, even the most basic form of art making, drawing, is essentially performative and transformative - shamanic in its effect. In fact, his early drawings served as the basic planning ground and energy 'bloc' for all of his later performances.
Where Blake cut into his copper grounds, his etching plates, to represent his transcendent visions that few of his contemporaries could actually experience, Artaud desperately attempted to transcend the subjectile, the ground of the symbolic order, by hacking and burning holes into occulted letters that few people, certainly not Hitler the target of one such projectile, actually received. Beuys on the other hand, sent out spiritualised blocks of bound drawings, across a divided, dismembered Europe that in kind were seen by very few. These relatively coherent and spiritually energized subjectiles would act (albeit subjunctively) to unite the transcendent within the immanent. By taking his formative cue from Mallarme and Joyce, his Gestamtkunstwork cue from Steiner and his own personal mythology, Beuys would reform the symbolic order so as to re-attach it back to its essential referent in an ecologically conceived landscape- drawings as ley/songlines. Indeed, the materials that constituted the markings upon the surface of the pages of Beuys' drawings were as close to the essential nature of the ground as was physically feasible.(5)
Neither Artuad nor Blake were particularly concerned with the actual content of their materials - Blake followed the established tradition of etching materials whereas Artaud used whatever he was given or was at hand. Beuys on the otherhand chose base materials that were as immediate to the 'ground', the immanent, as was practicably possible. To this extent he broke with his tradition. Drawings and performances often incorporated both his own and hare's blood, casein from milk, animal fur, fat, oxides, lead, bee's wax and most consistently a material he named Braunkrauz, - all of which had variously literal, immanent and transcendent (symbolic) values. Hence, before a drawing was perceived or connotated it was what it was, and hence was essentially grounded by its 'isness'. This implied a transformation of the usual figure/ground relation that structures the perceptual reading of drawings and thereby a shift from a subjective perceptual experience toward a phenomenological collapse of the subject /object divide. In kind, his installation works often emphasise this 'isness' which might be as 'basic as a tea ceremony' wherein a block of fat wedged on a chair seat proclaimed firstly its banal phenomenological presence prior to its complex of symbolic connotations and spiritual evocations.
His performances themselves were a constellation of, usually heterogenic and often heretical elements that were constituted from his life's work and messianic mission.
Always utilising basic materials he foregrounded 'process' and transformation by anchoring his works in elements immediately available from the natural world which expressed the temporal scales of the nature's processes. Goethe had developed, and Steiner systematised, a holistic approach to this natural world which involved both a phenomenological listening and subsequent imaginative reconstruction of biological process. To truly know the flower one had to be able to have studied it and its context so intimately as to be able to imaginatively reconstruct its whole life's cycle or process in the mind's eye; or better still, within the interior space of the heart. In other words, the usual object of scientific study would pass into consciousness such that an interior empathy would develop and a new form of bodily 'listening' or integration might flower prior to conventional processes of descriptive encoding. Through such empathetic meditations, coupled to a study of various natural systems, one could eventually come to discover an evolutionary, anthroposophical purpose within nature that is both holistic and consistent with the underlying spiritual evolution of microcosmic mankind and macrocosmic forces.
Beuys had wanted to contemporise and actively actualise Steiner's belief that this kind of seemingly occult knowledge could be understood by all. In essence, for a real revolution of planetary consciousness to occur, this understanding had to be realised by what he called his total artwork wherein the world would become the sculptural interface - the transformative ground of human artistic and spiritual potential. Beuys never tired of stressing the need for everyone to become artists. Like Blake, he believed that this was the essential message of the Christed Jesus. Where Blake continually evoked the image of the divine man under-standing or behind the natural world, Beuys talked of the total world as a social body within which the microcosmic man had a part to play as essential as was any one organ within the human body itself.
Beuys worked variously as a teacher, activist, Greenparty/ Free International University founder and shamanic/messianic artist. He offset his occult performance transformations by planting trees, campaigning for the environment, encouraging people to take up artistic projects, generating live artistic actions and speaking directly to his students, audiences and the public at large. Generally, he attempted to collapse his public role as artist into his personal life such that his interior world, unlike that of his friend Andy Warhol, was wholly evident.
Yet whilst the myth of Beuys survives, his public 'mission' has tended to fade, at least in terms of its once prevalent media visage. His canonisation and incorporation into the art scene's institutions and the wider media systems may appear to have effectively undercut his attempts to initiate a union or body of artists who would work as a social body to counter the looming planetary crisis. Yet, as I have discovered recently there are many people productively engaging with his legacy in many diverse areas of art and life - albeit not necessarily in any blueprinted or prescribed manner. Indeed, as with Blake and Artaud, Beuys' life's work will stand as a prophetic light that will I expect gain in intensity as our very real ecological crisis deepens.
For the genuine mystic, and I believe Beuys was more than acting subjunctively, there is always the problem of re-velation. What language, mode, form of representation can one adopt for the communication of exceptional experiences and concepts such that they will not be arrested and paralysed by the debasing kitsch of the everyday. How do you communicate the suprasensible experience, the revolutionary potential of 'performing' the social body and the concomitant liberative imagination of a Christed artist.
Beuys had to deal with his public image as it was mediated via critics, the media and the commercial world. His role as art messiah and chief shaman all to easily could result in uncritical disciples rather than Christed artists and mediaised pastiches of both the artist as hero and his extraordinarily considered and complex artworks. Moreover, he knew like Grotowski (speaking respectfully of Gurjieff) that there can be no system to bequeath to one's students. Each person must create a system if anthroposophical knowledge is to become a reality for all. No guru, shaman, messiah or artistic mentor can do this for any of us. As he once said, it was his sincere hope that in the future better artists would supersede him.
Beuys emphasis on the transformative phase within the artistic work is a search for an a/theological middle ground that understands the event character of life and its eternal cycles. His performative works evoke an eternal transition though the liminal state. Liminality is not then, a thing, but a happening, an event. It is above all beyond any description. The body/mind eternally oscillate between two poles. On the one side is: the new physicist's dark matter, Dionysius' superdarkness, the Buddhist's absolute nothingness, Blake's divine Kindom, Artaud's Gnostic god, Steiner's Adam Kadoman, the Sufi's man of light. On the other side there is the fallen the material world with its multifarious array of natural wonders, human creations and demonic aberrations.
Paradoxically, Blake was always amplifying the energy created between - call it the liminal zone betwixt - opposing poles and systems. For it is here that he found the divine light - or as he put it life's eternal delight - in a ceaseless transition between the poles. In other words, life itself is the performer of the transition between the immanent and the transcendent.
To this extent one can find no hope in tendencies of modern art/performances to either negate the transcendent or denegrate the immanent. This process always arrests the transitive character of life. Matter itself, as contemporary physics demonstrates, performs the act of doubling negation at unthinkable speeds and across unmeasurable scales.
For Beuys, it is the living Christ's wound, the artist's conscious sculpting of the material which opens the way toward, and at the same time evokes, the unnamable call from a subliminal nowhere. What can modernity tell us about just what or who is it that finally sutures the wound?
Such a process, the way, might begin with a permanent falling away into an interior knowing that adheres to no dimensions, organ/ic organisation or eschatological history. Unfortunately Beuys could not be Christed without being mistaken for an impostor, a false Christ and therefore a duped fool. And wasn't this what the iconoclasts feared...and Dostoyevski foreseen. As Blake always maintained, as a man is, so he sees, or better still, as Gurjieff said, the kind of life we attract to us reflects the state of our being. The cause is not lost but its manifestations are evermore difficult to discern aside the fragmentary media systems of mass culture.
The second coming might one day be a 'Christed' social body... which due in part to Beuys brilliant performance can sometimes be heard as a subliminal call from nowhere...
1. See: Richard Schechner's examination of Turner's Later Writings as they relate to the future of ritual in performance in: (Schechner 1993: 253-8)
2. Much has been written on Steiner's influence on Beuys. For example see Kuspit, Donald,B(1980).Beuys:Fat,Feltand Alchemy, Art in America, May: 79-89 and Moffit, John (1988) Occultism and the Avant-Garde, The Case of Joseph Beuys,UMI Research Press, Anne Arbor: London
3. Admittedly wounding has different implications to dismemberment but in the modern performance context and with Beuys' Christian leanings wounding seems to carry the irrevocable charge of dismemberment. It also enables one to see the overall process of perceptual re-memberment all at once. Moreover it allows us to think in terms of Double Negation: The wound is both inside and outside-essentially a none-place of transition that is entirely 'process'. It is 'not not' a view from the outside in and ipso-facto
4. For example since arriving recently in England I was fortune enough to meet with Shelley Sacks who has organised the Social Sculpture Research Unit at Oxford Brooks University. I was also introduced to the artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham whose Organisation and Imagination project carries on similar work to that initiated by Beuys albeit in a different context and with different artistic means. All of the above people have worked with Beuys at various stages of their artistic careers but have uniquely individual approaches to the issues that Beuys addressed. 5. Whilst it is never asserted, it is highly probably that Beuys who was attempting to reform a severely damaged post war German 'aesthetic' used a panoply of base materials to de-aesthetise his tacitly Heideggarian spiritual vision. It seems that he was aware that the Heidegger question would invariably hang like a warning sign over any aesthetic project labeled either German or Romantic in the immediate post-war period.
Blake, William (1994)William Blake, Ed: Michael Mason,OxfordUniversity Press: Oxford Jerusalem: 176-254
Kuspit, Donald (1993), The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, Cambridge University Press: 98-99
Schechner, Richard (1993) The Future of Ritual, Writings on Culture and Performance, Routledge: NewYork: 253-8
Taylor, Mark (1998) Disfiguring, Art Architecture and A/Theology, Thames and Hudson: New York.