Mapping the Boundary

MAPPING THE BOUNDARY: THE ARTIST AS MODERN SHAMAN

Last year in a small cave in lower Galilee, Israeli archaeologists unearthed the site of the earliest known shaman burial. In the 12,000 year old Natufian grave an elderly woman was discovered, her body laid in sacralised pose and held in place by ten large stones positioned on specific points of her anatomy, including her head and pelvis. Surrounding her were eagle wings, fifty tortoise shells, a cow’s tail, parts of a boar and a leopard. These interment rituals, absent from all other graves from that period yet bearing the distinct hallmarks of later shamanic tombs, show the woman to have been of high status within the community and perceived by her contemporaries as holding special kinship with the spirits of animals. Amongst the dozens of other graves discovered alongside her at the same site, and within the entire Palaeolithic period, she is unique. (source)

This discovery places shamanic practices at the dawn of conscious humanity, arguably as the very first form of ritualised or mythological behaviour. The Palaeolithic era spanned two and a half million years from the first use of stone tools by our hominid ancestors to the onset of agriculture and the emergence of humankind as we know it, roughly 14,000 years ago. Emergent amongst our ancient forbearers within that period was the burgeoning realisation that they were somehow separate and distinct from the animal and vegetable world around them, although they still understood themselves to be deeply rooted and intimately entwined within it. They discovered the emergent human psyche to be in an intermediary balance between two realms – glimpses of reason and higher consciousness shimmered as the stars above, reaching down with whispers of the world of the spirit, while rooted deep within their collective species-memory was also the knowledge of their pre-human primordial beginnings. This was a great mystery, and the consciousness of this fundamental mystery of being is perhaps the defining feature of our humanity. It was within this environment that the shaman arose as intermediary and guide. Charged with traversing and interpreting the complex domain of the emergent psyche, his territory was the boundaries.

The shaman arose in every region of the inhabited world at this time, from Mongolia and Siberia, where the Samoyedic peoples still practice the ancient traditions today, to Teutonic Scandinavia and central Europe in the Magyars, ancestors of the Hungarian peoples; in Korea and in Africa; a flourishing in Peru, and up the Americas to the Inuit North. They were a breed of ordinary human who, often as the result of a shattering psychological experience in early adolescence, harnessed the techniques of ritual to allow them access to areas of mind beyond the known horizons (See Schizophrenia: The Inward Journey; Campbell 1970). Some ethnological theoies attribute the cave-paintings of the late-Palaeolithic to the work of early shamans (the oldest being the 32,000 year old paintings at Chauvet). This thesis has symbolic resonance – the process of humankind emerging from primordial darkness into consciousness being mirrored in the shaman moving his craft from secret caves hidden deep within the earth into the light of day and the centre of his society.

There are numerous divergences between the mythological systems and practices of these many early societies, but the similarities are far more significant. Of the various motifs adopted across the globe, one symbol is unerringly consistent – that of the axis mundi, the world tree. This was the axis on which the world was understood to turn, the umbilical source from which all life sprang. Humans found themselves upon the ground in the realm of the trunk, a midway phase, with roots below stretching into the earth and the canopy above spread into the endless sky.

[NB. The tripartite axis mundi motif of roots-trunk-branches appears across the millennia in a variety of guises, in modern parlance it can be understood as the tripartite realms of body-mind-spirit, Plato’s true-good-beautiful, science-morals-art, Wilber’s biosphere-noöshpere-theospehre, Vedic being-consciousness-bliss etc.]

The shaman’s task was to illuminate the intermediate position humans found themselves in by descending through the roots into the earth and by ascending above the farthest reaches of its canopy into the sky. This was achieved though the nurturing of intimate relations with animals. The shaman discovered that by entering into the world of the vegetative and animal, he could also gain access to the upper world of the mind – the two were intimately entwined. In this we find the defining feature of the shaman, that of mediator between these dimly sensed yet inaccessible realms. All other roles typically associated with him – healer, medicine-man, story-teller, songster, psychopomp and fortune-teller – are secondary to this role as boundary-crossing mediator.

This boundary-crossing was typically understood as a flight of the soul from the body, and on a practical level was initiated through the ritualised use of certain tools – those of staff, mask, drum, dance and costume. The shaman used these in controlled ritualised setting to enter into a trance-state in which he could extract the essence or spirit of certain animals, and in so doing took on their powers to access realms of higher consciousness in which he discovered reservoirs of intelligence, reason, and imagination as yet unrealised by humankind. In the language of modern psychotherapy, he wilfully entered into a controlled quasi-schizophrenic state and in doing so accessed domains and vistas of the psyche not available to regular introspection (see Shamans and Acute Schizophrenia by Dr Julian Silverman).

His task was to bring back from that other side symbols, be it in gesture, song or image that resonated with unconscious elements of the wider community, thus raising their level of awareness and widening their understanding of the unique place humans have in the world. The result was greater emotional and intellectual maturity for the individual, social cohesion, and a progressive expansion of the horizons of mind into the realms of unfolding potentiality.

The shaman discovered that the way up is the way down. By identifying with his primordial animal roots and mastering the botanical skills of the vegetalista, the boundary to the upper world of spirit was also dissolved. The shaman dressed in imitation of certain animals, his skin painted and clad with fur and feather; he adopted their gestures and cries, and learnt their many languages. Amongst the Russian Selkups, the shaman took on the spirit of the sea-duck, an animal capable of both flying and diving deep underwater (the sky being of course the domain of the spirits, the murky depths being the realm of primal physicality), while the Peruvian Urarina would adopt the spirit of the jaguar – a beast capable of swimming, moving on the ground and climbing trees. Birds and fish were common aides. Kinship with animals entailed spiritual enlightenment. By sinking into the earth the shaman could walk amongst the stars.

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Shamaic practices flourished across the centuries and across the planet. In our Western tradition we find the most direct representation in Hermes, Greek god of boundaries. He had feathered wings on his sandals to fly to the world of the gods above, and was also guide to the underworld. The chthonic serpent entwined his caduceus, a symbol of death and regeneration entwining the axis mundi. Hermes was the messenger god, capable of crossing between worlds and bringing back things of value from the other side. Thus he was also god of medicine, just as the shaman was healer by virtue of his role as mediator. The caduceus has been adopted by modern medicine as its symbolic emblem.

Modern parallels in western culture have to be viewed with a degree of discernment. ‘Shamanic’ sweat lodge vision-quests are in vogue in California and other places, where for a bargain of $9000 you can achieve the dubious title of ‘spiritual warrior’ (source). Most of this is New Age hocus, unfortunately lacking in authenticity or understanding. But an authentic genealogy still exists between the ancient mediators and a small number of leading modern-day artists working within widely unrecognised genres beyond the mainstream. For this rare breed of artist the direct area of concern is the shamanic boundary that still exists at the border of the modern mind. The naïve assumption that our technological advances rendered us masters of the psyche was done away with by Freud and Jung a century ago, and this initiated what ethnobotanist, pschonaut and writer Terrence McKenna has termed the “finale of modernism,” bringing about the “Ouroboric process of return.” This is the collapse of the Enlightenment worldview that the modern man is owner of his psyche and the centre of all value and meaning, and a return to the ancient understanding of humankind as rooted in nature and a creature of unfolding consciousness and intelligence.

In the light of this new perspective, a number of artists have arisen who have tasked themselves with mapping out those newly rediscovered boundaries. The Ouroboric return, McKenna states, “is the conscious realization that the artist and shaman are one. The artist is heir to all the visionary landscapes and potentially curative power that was the province of the shaman.” (source)

This is a subtle shift in artistic priority. From the Renaissance until recent decades, the primary concern for the artist lay in the unbounded freedom of individual expression. This entailed the nurturing of the creative ego in an individual rooted in a specific society; art was primarily an expression of the individual will and a reflection of social context. Vital and noble as this attitude is, and this should be stressed as it endures in many talented artists today, it needs to be differentiated from the shamanic temperament.

The shamanic temperament in an artist is manifest in an active commitment to mapping the transpersonal boundaries of consciousness and physicality that exist at the fringe of our collective humanity. This is achieved through the development of a personalised artistic technique which is then applied to the mapping the horizons. The inverse of the shamanic ideal in art is found in post-modernism, with its pathological fixation on expression and disintegration at the terminal expense of technique, form, and aesthetic appreciation.

All this is not to say that in the masters of history we cannot find traces of the ancient ideal – it is there, laced within their genius. It is in the other-worldy vibrancy of Van Gogh; in Michelangelo’s anatomical sculptures, whose harmony of form hints at a latent divinity; and in Rembrandt’s portraits, staring with eyes lit with knowledge of the other side. And yet the area of focus for them was different, the unveiling of boundaries was an affect of their genius, not their concern. They were not cartographers of the soul.

Of this new breed, Ersnst Fuchs and Hieronymus Bosch stand as herald and precursor, and it is in the work of two modern artists that we find direct embodiment of this ideal – in the work of celebrated American painter Robert Venosa and London-based Bethan McFadden. Their pioneering work offers us an atlas of the alien realms lying beyond the horizon of the modern psyche, a ladder stretched up the axis mundi.

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For each the direction of travel is inverted – Venosa’s emanation contra McFadden’s emergence – but the terrain they map is the same. Venosa portrays states of higher consciousness crystallising into fractured landscapes of matter [i] [ii], while McFadden shows us primal undifferentiated organic unity individuating into self-awareness and nascent consciousness [iii] [iv]. Venosa descends from the sky down the trunk [v], while McFadden rises from the chthonic depths towards the light [vi]. In both is evidenced the shattering impact of crossing the boundary between worlds: Venosa’s jewelled mindscapes are fractured, splintering as broken glass under the sheer weight of suddenly attained physical form [vii] [viii], while the undulating textures and visceral terrains of McFadden’s entrailed vista are jarred with the sudden terror and shock of self-awareness as emergent beings rise from organic unity and attain a fearful selfhood [ix] [x].

For both the area of concern is the Shamanic boundary that encloses the human psyche, the Hermitic border between the two worlds – just as the surface of a vast dark lake. While Venosa shows us the cosmos refracted in crystalline forms upon the surface [xi] , McFadden is reaching from the deep, though mud and guts, and glimpsed in the eyes of her beings is the embryonic glimmer of the stars above [xii] [xiii].

In both can be seen a conscious identify with the ancient ideal. In describing her technique McFadden says she begins “from a certain strong feature” of an animal – be it reptile, bird or fish – and then, just as the ancient mediator, extracts its essence or spirit to “expand the lines to create primal forms.” This is a process of “returning to innate and timeless themes,” those of “death, physicality and the sometimes frightening nature of conscious awareness.” Venosa mirrors this process, and just as McFadden maps the primordial, Venosa states “we must also allow for a superconscious and the higher latitude of thought and creative potential it contains. Both are channels of time: the subconscious to the past, the superconscious to the future, and both contain the wish for expression.” (source)

And here again we stumble upon that great shamanic secret – the ascent is in the descent. The shaman understood that a descent into the vegetative and animal made possible an ascent to the spirit, for the two are in fact mysteriously entwined. This mirrored unity shines through McFadden and Venosa’s work. Mythologist Joseph Campbell grasped this enigma, explaining that “fantasy and imagination are a product of the body. The energies that bring forth the fantasies derive from the organs of the body.” (source) Or as the old Hermitic mantra has it – “As above, so below.”

The shaman’s task since the dawn of humanity has been to bring back from the other side symbols, in gesture, song or image that resonated with unconscious elements of the wider community, thus raising their level of awareness and widening their understanding of the unique place humans have in the world. Their role as healer was as consequence of this craft. Whether art can heal is dependent upon the individual, but in an environmentally unstable and culturally confrontational world, McFadden and Venosa offer us a common language of symbols in which may be glimpsed the fringes of our own reflection that lay beyond the bounds of everyday vision. The mythologist Campbell explains that a symbol-system “puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut.” (source). This expanded awareness entails a “rapture” (source ) in which the conditions of external reality resonate with our own most innermost being and life becomes charged with light and value. Rapture is a form of ecstasy, and this – έκ-στασις (ex-stasis) – is literally “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere”. This elsewhere appears alien when first glimpsed upon a canvas, but a deeper acquaintance with the vistas these artists offer brings an ancient and far-reaching familiarity. Their art speaks a language which, just as the shaman’s song, takes us beyond the horizons; a language which does not solve or unriddle, but takes us ever deeper into the most ancient of mysteries, that of our own being.

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Robert Venosa is currently exhibiting at ‘Temple of Visions’ 719 South Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90014

Bethan McFadden is exhibiting from 30-31st January at ‘Supine Studios’ 255 Amhurst rd, London, N16 7UN

Art

[i] Venosa – Angelic

[ii] Venosa – Grand Central

[iii] McFadden – Frikshnig

[iv] McFadden – Oohayiimoschoba

[v] Venosa – Celestial Tree

[vi] McFadden – Being 1

[vii] Venosa – Prana Exhilation

[viii] Venosa – Return to Source

[ix] McFadden – The Irrefragable Surprise of Professor Tillinghast

[x] McFadden – Being 2

[xi] Venosa – Passage to Uversa

[xii] McFadden – Anticipating Birth

[xiii] McFadden – Prima


 
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