Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Thanks for the familiar faces at the Storytelling Festival last weekend, it warms me up to see your faces.

Well it's bag packing time again. Off to Forests three hours outside Frankfurt, to the good people of the Eschwege Institute to lead a weekend on the European roots of rites-of-passage, and also the delicate area of how a culture reclaims its mythology after an experience of something like Hitler. That's a topic i want to keep close to my chest till i get there, but did get me thinking about the german artist Joseph Beuys. Whilst not a houshold name, Beuys is hugely influential as an authentically magical character with a great story. His life story seems to bear certain similarities to initiation practice. The detail i wanted to amplify is the use of something called 'medicine bones'in Shamanism. Beuys died of shrapnel moving slowly around his body in the mid 80's, and this is just a brief set of associations-but a detail really. I'm afraid i won't tell you much more about Beuys-for that all you need is Google-his post-war work is hugely interesting as a way of handling public or national grief through a kind of intuitive art making. Check him out-he's good and weird.

Art can, at its best, seem to be a modern word for attempting to handle a ritual life that can 'look both ways'-towards the visionary
realms and the hearth of community.“Now, when everyone speaks rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear" says he. It is worth looking at Beuy’s life for a short while whilst exploring this idea.

We know of his account of bring shot down as a Luftwaffe pilot, ruptured with shrapnel, and then being rescued by a nomadic people, the Tartars, and brought back to health by being wrapped in felt. This conspicuously mirrors elements of the descent, rupture and renewal process we see in myth.
(rather too well, say some disbelieving art critics).

In certain shamanic initiations young Shamans are invested with 'medicine bones' that are placed into the reshaping of the initiate’s body; items such as rock crystals replace the previous body part-the anatomy now containing information from the mineral world, a wrenching and distortion bringing life into a new, expanded harmonic. One account from the Unamatatjera recalls the climax of this process:
"In the morning the old man came and looked at him and placed some more atnongara stones inside his body, and in the joints of his arms and legs and covered his face with leaves. Then he sang over him till his body was all swollen up. When this was over he provided him with a complete set of new inside parts, placed a lot more atnongara stones in him, and patted him on the head, which caused him to jump up and live."

We could say that Beuy’s "Medicine Bones" were the shrapnel lodged in his physical form, elements that collided biology and machinery, colluding in his descent into illness and the rapture of his renewal. The breaching of the skin also perforates ideas of unequivocal containment. In shamanism these new attachments to the body are seen to contain distilled consciousness of the arena they originate from: mineral, plant, animal etc, so we encounter Beuys receiving concentrated knowledge of the atmospheric of war, the shadow of his own people’s psyche, appalling in its intensity. In one infinite moment Beuys is suspended in the death space, is split open by the projected violence of combat and is left changed, holding through experience a key to the expanding possibilities of the community.

Beuys is an exceptional figure for bringing an explicit ritual sensibility to modern art that didn't feel hackneyed and clumsy. He refuses the one -sided, tribalised myth of thirties Germany and becomes a Grief Man for some of the distorted and poisoned mythology of that era. The rawness of his work but also the Apollian intelligence and ambition he presented has caused him to become a totemic figure in a very confused field. Of course, this isn't purely a German problem, but an international dilemma of how a society subverts and distorts its mythologies-no one has clean hands.

Beuys was an obtuse kind of storyteller,and an original mind. Lets keep looking for Enchanters, especially in the mirror.

Back from the forests next week,
M x

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