Excerpt from chapter entitled "Performing"

Mark Levy --- 1993

from "Technicians of Ecstasy: Shamanism and the Modern Artist" by Mark Levy, 1993. pp. 221-248, Bramble Books.

Hugo Ball, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Mary Beth Edelson, Karen Finley, Rachel Rosenthal, and Sha Sha Higby either had little training in traditional theatre or they wanted to go beyond the boundaries of traditional theater to express their experiences of non-ordinary reality. Most of them started their careers as painters or sculptors and then decided to perform in front of audiences. Their performances do not reflect the art of traditional shamanic cultures, and they may not think of themselves as shamans but they employ shamanistic techniques to enter non-ordinary reality.

Yves Klein also exhibited a considerable “coefficient of weirdness” in his art and life. For his antics in France during the fifties, he has somewhat disparagingly been called “a Dada” by American and French critics. According to McEvilley, who wrote an important catalogue essay on Klein for his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in the winter of 1983, Klein had also been associated with Rosicrucianism and Zen Buddhism. For me, however, Klein’s work can best be explained in terms of shamanic practice.

In contrast to Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys was very much aware of his role as a shaman. During the Second World War, as a Stuka pilot, Beuys was shot down over Eastern Russia and rescued by a tribe of nomadic Tartars who wrapped the wounded Beuys in fat and felt to preserve his body heat and thereby saved his life. After the war he underwent a long recovery period that was both physical and mental. Having been seriously wounded four times as a Stuka pilot, he had to deal not only with his weakened body, but also suffered a mental breakdown between 1955-1957. Beuys said about this recovery period,

“Certainly incidents from the war produced an after-effect on me, but something had to die. I believe this phase was one of the most important for me in that I had to fully reorganize myself constitutionally; I had for too long a time dragged a body around with me. The initial stage was a totally exhausted state, which quickly turned into an orderly phase of renewal. The things inside me had to be totally transplanted; a physical change had to take place in me. Illnesses are almost always spiritual crises in life, in which old experiences and phases of thought are cast off in order to make positive changes (Adriani et al, 1979:56).”

From these statements, it appears that Beuys underwent a shamanic initiation of death and rebirth leading to a higher level of consciousness. This initiation eventually enabled him to realize “the part the artist can play in indicating the traumas of time and initiating a healing process. That relates to medicine, or what people call alchemy or shamanism…”

“Of course the shaman can operate genuinely only in a society that is still intact because it lies in an earlier stage of development… So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks too rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear (Tisdall, 1979:23).”

Such a performance always had a theory behind it, a partitur or score, which gives information without information. Acoustically it’s like using just the carrier wave as a conveyor of energy without loading it with semantic information.

It’s a way of going beyond our restricted understanding to expand the scale of producers of energy among cooperators in other species, all of whom have different abilities—like the coyote for instance.

Mary Beth Edelson is another shaman/performance artist who uses ritual to enter non-ordinary reality. After the legal kidnaping of one of her children, Edelson was given the following suggestion by her friend Lawra Gregory, “Based on the way your work has changed in the past in relation to major changes in your life, I want to project what you think would possibly be a change of similar magnitude, and how your work might change as a result. Do a piece that develops in that event—(1972;published, 1980:12). ‘This was a painful suggestion,’ said Edelson. “While trying to avoid thinking about it I had the following dream: I was cleaning my place, it was a mess there was a large fireplace in the room with a roaring fire—I threw everything into the fireplace to get rid of the mess—the more I cleaned the messier the room got—I began to throw chairs and tables into the fire—a large bear came into the room—and I threw her into the fire. And then I horror, as I was her burn, I realized what I had done—this beautiful wild beast was burning—she was holding a cub in her arms. Suddenly I realized that the bear was me and that the cub was my child, but I also knew in that moment that the love that the mother and child shared was so great that it transcended the flames—(1972; published, 1980:12).”

This dream resulted in the “Fire Altar,” a ring of fire sitting on a white baked-enamel kitchen table. According to Edelson, “the table served as both a familiar object and an altar. I thought of the fire as the instigator of transformation of sacred and profound change”—(1972; published, 1980:13). Mircea Eliade maintained that “all the ecstatic experiences that determine the future shaman’s vocation involve the traditional scheme of an initiation ceremony: suffering, death, resurrection” (1964:33). Edelson’s dream is, indeed, a classic initiatory experience involving fire as a purifying medium. Initiatory experiences often arise for the shamanic candidate following a profound trauma like the one suffered by Edelson over the kidnaping of her child. After Edelson’s initiatory dream, she completely changed her mode of work. After eighteen years of painting, she focused on creating ritual objects and rituals as a way of empowering herself and other women. In an unpublished manuscript of the critic Gary Schwindler, he mentioned that Edelson had written the following to him,

“I am not working with a set form or repetitious form; rather my work is often spontaneous and is an ever changing creative act. This was never true traditionally. So ritual has been profoundly changed in both its character and its form; it has been seized guerilla-like and transformed not merely as a reflection of process and belief (as it is traditionally true) but has been provided with the possibility of changing even its own form. The ritual is taken into our own hands and body along with the power to create and define a sacred space as well as create solidarity with the group. For women especially, who have traditionally been denied participation in forming the culture that they live in, this is a radical revolutionary act of invention that stands as a model for symbolic, psychic, and spiritual change (January 1982).”

In Mary Beth Edelson’s rituals there is a core of commonly shared symbols, or, in Turner’s words, “symbolic actions” which serve as basis for the transformational process and fulfill the expectation of both her and her participants so that a transport to an alternate reality will occur. Edelson recounted:

“In my early performances, I tried to recreate the liturgy of the feminist movement as I perceived its evolution through the Seventies. Briefly, the liturgy presents our move from isolation to our earliest attempts at communication through our anger, rage, and protests, and then to our community, celebration and the grounding of our activism, basically the story of how we came together. When the liturgy is chanted, we seldom break into words—the communication is made through sounds. From releasing our anger, we gain control and find ourselves. As we define ourselves, we discover our commonality. Through these processes, we are able to reassure and enjoy each other; we unleash our sensuality and begin celebrating. The liturgy or ritual performance, mirroring this process, ends with celebration of our emergence and the beginning of a new culture. I believe some transformation on a small or large scale should be experienced during the performance. Unless that change happens, the performance is not successful 91982a: 319-320).”