Ritual Containers and Imaginary Publics

Octavi Rofes 2005

«»I should not act as if I were an urban planner, as if I were an anthropologist; I had in my head so many recent works that are micro field studies, pseudo meditations or ironies of artist tourism*

In the last decade «Acting» in artistic practice “as if an anthropologist” has been one of the characteristic elements of the definition of the territories, procedures and construction strategies of the art world’s public image. The role of the “anthropologist” can be added to numerous artist “as ifs” that seem to point to a recurring type of disconformity of art producers with the status bestowed on them in the modern West. Or better said: the insistent “as ifs” serve to blur the frontiers of this status, substituting its definition with a game of familiar resemblances in expansion. If the “artist” can adopt the features or modalities of the “poet”, “social reformer”, “engineer”, “medium”, “agitator”, “shaman” or “PR person”, along with those of the “anthropologist”, “urban planner” and many other roles, it is because the category of “artist” has as one of its specific traits the capacity to enjoy a relative laxity in terms of social regulation. This thus allows this tendency to become displaced, leading to a certain effect of professional ventriloquism[1].

In analyzing the epistemological implications raised by contemporary artists using and recreating themes, objects and methods that have been considered to belong to the domain of anthropology, Arnd Schneider[2] has pointed out how in spite of appropriations and shared interests, there is a clear dividing line between the two practices: «Artists create rituals, while anthropologists observe them”. Though Schneider refers to the “invention of rituals” in relation to artistic performance, the concept of «ritual» can also be applied to object-based media if we consider that what defines the artistic nature of the object are not its intrinsic internal characteristics, but rather a series of intentional and symbolic actions –“rituals” – that have given rise to its creation and reception as a work of art.  Schneider’s proposal of a division of labour, in spite of its usefulness for marking out the limits of the “artist as anthropologist”, does not explain why, as a consequence, the rituals created by artists are not found amongst those preferred in anthropological studies. Indeed, defining a work of contemporary art as “ritual” or a “ritual object” leads us to a type of bewilderment similar to what occurs when we use the word “art” to define a Baoulé[3] mask, a jyonthi painting from Uttar Pradesh[4], or a Trobriand garden[5]. In these three cases we are translating from languages and cultural contexts that do not use concepts that are equivalent to “art”. We could thus find ourselves distorting the original properties of these very objects[6] and give rise to misunderstandings that are perhaps analogous to those that occur when we speak of contemporary art as “ritual”.

The distancing discomfort we feel when speaking of “ritual” in relation to Western contemporary art practices, does not come from the lack of the word “among us”, but from the fact that its use when referring to “our rituals” has come to be restricted to situations where it is meant to point to a formalism that is to a great degree empty of content, maintained in survival mode, whether out of respect for tradition or just as well as a way of conserving some local charm. It is in this sense (or out of this sentiment) that the historian Pierre Nora[7] speaks of monuments as “rituals of a society without rituals”. For Nora, monuments –like museums, libraries or commemorative celebrations– are an «illusion of eternity” in societies that have substituted memory for history, and where, as a result, the reconstruction of the past has taken up the place of the revitalization of the eternal present; we are speaking of societies where intellectual, secularizing and universalist operations have broken into the domains of sentiment, sacredness and community. In this de-ritualizing process, memory is no longer natural and spontaneous, turning instead into something to be administered through nostalgic evocations. There are only sketchy remains of the disappeared contexts of memory: they are sites of memory, “shells left on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded»[8]

Even though the contrast between “societies of memory” and “societies of history” is simplistic and inconsistent both from an historical and ethnographic point of view, as Vincent Crapanzano has pointed out[9], its rhetorical strength lies in the description of a paradoxical world where those societies tending more to change, leaning more towards the future, order their relationship with the past through “pathetic, glacial initiatives of piety”. In contrast traditional societies, the “memory communities” like –citing Nora– societies of peasant farmers, maintain a dynamic, direct and hands-on relationship with their own pasts. Nora’s distinction is based on the mythification of a past attributed with inverse characteristics of those which define the present. His contrast between memory and history is intellectually closer to other contrasts that make the differentiation between archaic and modern essential, and not only a question of degree[10]. From this point of view, it would not be an abusive or erroneous ontological identification to draw a parallel between “modern artistic objects” and “traditional ritual objects”, so as to study their respective social contexts of production, circulation and reception without basing oneself on the bias in favour of turning the artistic ritual into a pseudo-ritual meant to compensate for the disappearance of “authentic” rituals. In fact, both in speaking of art and of ritual, we take it as a given that we are up against a type of manifestation with a high degree of formalization, oriented towards action that is attractive or even fascinating because of its cognitive difficulty.[11]

The nostalgia for a world disappeared “among us” whose evocation is the source of renewal, opening up paths leading to innovation, makes up part of the sentimental heritage of “Modern Culture”. Much of the artistic practice we could describe as “ethnographic plein air”, along with the ethnological field itself, participate in this nostalgia. The anthropologist and the artist perhaps coincide in the deeper motivations of their voyage, and even in the way of handling the time spent away. But what do they come back with? In the same way that the attention of the plein air creator-artist for natural contrasts does not hang on a geological or weather report, we do not expect “micro field studies” to arise out of the artist-anthropologist’s interest in the contrasts between cultural contexts.

What then is Conquista básica te vuelvo a pedir que te definas (Basic Conquest, I Ask you Once Again to Define Yourself)? Considering it as a ritual object, and considering that the time spent by Javier Peñafiel in São Paulo is a constituting element of it, it allows for action grounded in anthropology “as if” it were art criticism.

«I am not going to gather images of bodies or architecture for the necrophiliac archive of the corporation-museum.«

Is the museification process part of the death of the object?  There are at least two cases still open and pending for deaths caused by museums. The first would be death by embalmment, affecting objects that have been victims of the over-exhibition of their purely perceptive properties, a death brought on by the aestheticizing attitude Jean-Marie Schaeffer has called «perceptive-formalist mysticism”[12]. This corresponds to the urge to expose the hidden essence of the object, purifying it of everything that might cloud perceptive properties that would be supernumerary with regards to those belonging to banal objects, and thus turning it into little more than a well-kept cadaver. Yet rarely do objects make it to the hands of the embalmers alive; many suffer death from uprootedness when, having made up part of a collection, they lose the relational properties they had proudly showed off in their original contexts. There is no point to a cognitive museification that places the object in its context, for as Barbara Kirschemblatt-Gimblett has observed, the context that the museum can offer will not be anything more than a metaphorical construction where the object will never recover the metonymic relationship it had with the context it once pertained to[13].

The «rituals of death” that take place in the museum to guarantee the literalness of the object as a “thing”, contrast with other types of rituals whose goal is to give life to the object, and thus attribute the properties of a “person” to it. David Freedberg[14], coming from the perspective of art history, and Alfred Gell[15], grounding himself in anthropology, have offered different reasons to explain the animation of sacred objects that enable them to act intentionally in response to the intentions of the faithful. For Freedberg the activation that gives certain objects a religious efficacy has a representational origin: they are images tied to divinities through the power of mimesis. The relationship between the image and divinity is established by the similarity that visual scrutiny can clearly confirm. This visualism brings religious efficacy and the aesthetic value of the object closer, placing them in the same sensory channel. Gell, in turn, recalls that a transition takes place during consecration ceremonies, where a mere artefact is turned into an animated object. These ceremonies do not necessarily alter the visible properties of the object, though quite often they turn the object into a receptacle of a vital substance finding its home within an internal cavity. Gell speaks of internalist strategies of animation to describe the strategies that turn the object into the host of a homunculus. Better yet, we could speak of a group of homunculi, given that internalization tends to consist of various overlapping layers. On the one hand such layers expand the limits of the idol’s body  (projecting it towards the altar, the offerings, the sanctuary, the gardens and, continuing this way, multiplying its levels until it arrives at the pilgrim’s starting point), while in the opposite sense they give rise to an essential centre that cannot be reached.  «What matters is only the reduplication of skins, outwards towards the macrocosm and inwards towards the microcosm, and the fact that all these skins are structurally homologous; there is no definitive “surface”, there is no definitive “inside”, but only a ceaseless passage in and out, and that it is here, in this traffic to and fro, that the mystery of animation is solved.»[16]

By avoiding the distinction between artistic object and ritual object we are able to place Basic Conquest in parallel to the concentric idols studied by Gell: the medieval vierges ouvrantes (Shrine Madonnas) with their articulated abdomens cradling a crucifix; the idol A’a of Ruruta, a fractal Polynesian God covered and filled with protuberances that are reproductions on a reduced scale of its very body; or the image of the Indian monkey god Hanuman showing off Rama and Sita within his open chest. Basic Conquest is, like them, a concentric container: in it a closed envelope holds three separate folders that make up a triptych. On the left side of the triptych the image of a ballot box is reproduced, on the right there is a vacuum cleaner bag, while in the middle, over which the side flaps of a brochure would be folded, there is an inclusive synthesis: the vacuum cleaner bag inside an urn. On the backs there are three photos of phrases written in the interior of the boxes, bridging the images of containers, and a text which after a new unfolding, runs along each of the three sections of the three brochures. The physical and conceptual manipulation of the triptych incites a “search for the homunculus» that the reading of the text does not resolve. Through fragments of conversations, programmatic statements and mini-tales of daily moments (locking your keys inside a car, a traffic jam, a black-out, or a piece of  Pao de Queijo falling into a coffee) the city is perceived, or is abduced,[17] as a sequence of packages governed (as occurs with Basic Conquest) by logics of inclusion and exclusion. Neither the manipulation of the object nor the reading of the text allow for linear “deepening” that might make its way to an essential centre; there are neither keys nor privileged points of view that might allow for a stable tack to be chosen for a reading. Basic Conquest not only steers clear of “image gathering”; it also acquires ritual efficacy by incorporating this absence as the internal void that turns the publication we are holding in our hands into an animated object.  

«An artist imitates anyone’s voice.«

Unlike traditional rituals, Basic Conquest is not meant for a specific audience that shares a place and moment in a common action. The reception of Basic Conquest, as with a good part of contemporary art, mobilizes a different type of public, defined by Michael Warner as «a space of discourse organized by nothing other than the discourse itself».[18] It is an “imaginary” public made up of strangers that had not previously constituted a social group; the work is in turn directed towards this public in a manner that is both personal and impersonal. Marc Augé[19]  has identified the use of an intimate tone when addressing a collective, unknown target as part of the “expanded ritual mechanism”, what Michael Herzfeld[20] has called the social poetics of cultural intimacy. It is easy to see in the overall oeuvre of Javier Peñafiel a ritualization where the public, as a virtual entity of solitary strangers, comes face to face with the impossibility of its institutional constitution as a voluntary association. The public in Ausencia pública(Public Absence)has been called to an empty auditorium that has been evacuated to accommodate the public’s very presence, the site of the dramatization of its own invisibility as a group. In Inicio (Beginning) the communitarian ideal of participation in the collective experience of pilgrimage is frustrated by an artefact with an individualizing scale and function: a mirror and an immobile swing, with limited space for a single body, together paralyze and atomize the collective flux of the path to be taken. In Basic Conquest the public does not find an authorized vision that might be able to make the otherness of São Paulo more essential, turning it into an object of knowledge. Instead it comes across a creator who dissolves and disappears between multiple voices in a game of inclusions and exclusions, analogous on the one hand to the social dynamics of the city, while on the other hand running parallel to the forms of constituting the public through the work of art.

Octavi Rofes

* The three programmatic declaration by Javier Peñafiel in this text are taken from Conquista básica te vuelvo a pedir que te definas (Basic Conquest, I Ask you Once Again to Define Yourself)

[1] The application of Wittgensteinian concepts in the definition of artistic practice has its seminal precedent in Morris Weitz, «The Role of Theory in Aesthetics», Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 15 (1956), pp. 27-35.

[2] Arnd Schneider, «Uneasy Relationships: Contemporary Artists and Anthropology», Journal of Material Culture, 1(2) (1996), pp. 183-210.

[3] Susan M. Vogel, L’Art Baoulé: du visible et de l’invisible (Paris: Adam Biro, 1999).

[4] Lynn M. Hart, «Three Walls: Regional Aesthetics and the International Art World», in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, ed. George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 127-150.

[5] Alfred Gell, «The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology», in The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, Alfred Gell, ed. Eric Hirsch (London: The Atholone Press, 1999), pp. 159-186.

[6] For a discussion of these three examples from the perspective of art theory see Dennis Dutton, «But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art», in Theories of Art Today, ed. Noël Carroll (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), pp. 217-238.

[7] Pierre Nora, «Entre Mémoire et Histoire: La problématique des lieux», in Les Lieux de Mémoire I: La République, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), XVIII – XLII.

[8] Ibid., XXIV.

[9] Vincent Crapanzano, Imaginative Horizons (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 167.

[10] Distinctions like that of Ferdinand Tönnies between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, or Émile Durkheim’s contrast between organic and mechanical solidarity (Ibid., 167).

[11] Gell, p. 164.

[12] Jean-Marie Schaeffer, «Objets esthétiques?» in L’Homme 170 (2004), p. 34.

[13] Barbara Kirschemblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), pp. 32-34.

[14] David Freedberg, El poder de las imágenes (Madrid: Cátedra, 1992), 107 ff. (Original English edition: David Freedberg, The Power of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[15]  Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 96-154.

[16] Ibid., p. 148.

[17] On Gell’s use of the semiotic concept of abduction see Robert Layton, «Art and Agency: A Reassessment», Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9 (2003), p. 455.

[18] Michael Warner, «Publics and Counterpublics», Public Culture 14 (1), 49-90.

[19] Marc Augé, Pour une Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains (Paris: Flammairon, 1994), p. 94.

[20] Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York and London: Routledge, 1997).