Animism in Art and Performance

Installation view of TERRI TE TAU’s Unwarranted and Unregistered, 2013, multimedia installation with music composed by Rob Thorne, dimensions variable, at “Unwarranted and Unregistered: Te Āhua o te Hau ki Te Papaioea,” The Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

 

Some geologists posit that humanity’s existence is merely a blip on the earth’s vast timeline, and while our species might self-destruct, the planet will carry on just fine. Though this fatalist thinking might be true, the recently published Palgrave and Macmillan book Animism in Art and Performance (2017) offers more optimistic perspectives, exploring the different ways in which we could recalibrate our future with the earth.

The 291-page anthology of 13 essays aims to reclaim the topic of animism from a legacy of scientific racism that classified indigenous worldviews as relics of the underdeveloped, “primitive” mind. In the introduction, editor Christopher Braddock argues that the book’s authors breathe substance and complexity back into the concept while furthering the discussion of transdisciplinary art practice, and addressing the contexts of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, where most of the writers are based. Braddock further states that this focus on animism unites notions of the anthropocene, new materialism and posthumanism that have fuelled the zeitgeist of contemporary art over the last decade or so.

Cassils,  Becoming An Image , 2013 (performance still no.3). C-print, 22x30 in. National Theatre Studio, SPILL Festival, London. Photo: Cassils with Manuel Vason. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

Cassils, Becoming An Image, 2013 (performance still no.3). C-print, 22x30 in. National Theatre Studio, SPILL Festival, London. Photo: Cassils with Manuel Vason. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

The first few chapters deliver this aim by plunging deep into te ao Māori (the Māori world). Cassandra Barnett begins with a meditation on the topic of taonga—a Māori term commonly attributed to culturally significant treasures or artefacts. Barnett more accurately explains that taonga can refer to both a material object or immaterial phenomenon, which gains its power through a “great sea of connectivity,” emphasizing the importance of relational, experiential and spiritual approaches to understanding the world around us. According to Barnett, for taonga to become animate, it must engage three key aspects: ancestral hau (life breath), mauri (life force) and mana (spiritual power). Combined, these qualities also endow taonga with the potential to collapse a sense of time, especially between the past and present . . .