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Are performance artists of the 20th/21st centuries the shamanic visionaries of the modern world? Lisa Kingham

Submitted to Hereford College of Arts In partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of BA (Hons) Fine Art Validated by the University of Wales February 2013

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Acknowledgments I wish to thank Vinod Ibex for my first encounter with shamanism; he introduced me to this subject 22 years ago and guided me through my first shamanic journeys to find my power animals. Who also encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone to write and research about something I believe in. I also thank Zelia Pye, a wonderful western shaman who entered into my life and taught me more about this subject and continues to guide and support me through my own journey into shamanic practices as a shaman/artist. I am in gratitude to Pauline Lamont-Fisher for her continuous support through this process, along with Jane Elliot and Fenella Lloyd, for their hours of help in bringing my ideas, research and format in line with the English language.


Contents List of illustrations………………………………………………………………………………….4 Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………………..5 Chapter 1: The Beginning of Art and Performance ………………………………12 Chapter 2: The Art in Trance………………………………………………………………..16 Chapter 3: The Art of Journeying………………………………………………………….24 Chapter 4: The Image of the Performer/Shaman…………………………………30 Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………………………..35 Appendix I……………………………………………………………………………………………40 Bibliography…………………………………………………………………………………………41


List of illustrations

Figure 1: The Sorcerer. Circa 13,000 BC. Cave paintings at Trois Frères, France. Figure 2: Breuil, H. 1920. The Sorcerer Drawing taken from a cave painting circa 13,000 BC at Trois Frères, France. Figure 3: Royal Geographical Society. 1930s. Portrait of a young man with tribal scars Figure 4: Marina Abramović. 1975. Lips of Thomas. Figure 5: Leonardo Da Vinci. 1490. Vitruvian Man. Figure 6: Marina Abramović. 2010. The Artist is Present. New York: MoMA Figure 7: Marcus Coates. 2005. Journey to the Lower World Figure 8: Sha Sha Higby. 2012. Glass Clouds. Figure 9: Evenk Shaman costume Circa 1880.


Introduction Art and shamanism have been linked from the earliest times. Both are essential elements of society in providing different ways of seeing and establishing a sense of community.

I aim to explore this statement by examining three principle aspects of shamanism: trance, journeying and costume, and their relationship to contemporary performance art. I will support my argument by drawing on the work of three artists, Marina Abramović, Marcus Coates and Sha Sha Higby.

By analysing three elements of identified shamanic practice; the use of trance-like states, real and metaphorical journeys and costume, I will illustrate how the three artists have accessed an ancient belief system, using performance art as their medium.

It is difficult to clearly define a shaman as different cultures have different interpretations of what the role of a shaman involves. The English Oxford Dictionary describes a shaman as: “a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing� (


The word shaman originated from Russia, from the Siberian Tungusic saman. (Eliade, 1989).

The historian Mircea Eliade (1989:xix) believed that “shamanism is precisely one of the archaic techniques of ecstasy - at once mysticism, magic and religion in the broadest sense of the term”. He also believed that “shamanism generally coexists with other forms of magic and religion” (Eliade, 1989:5), having explored the role of the shaman throughout the cultures of the world. This shows that shaman have played a part in global societies regardless of religious persuasions. Eliade’s (1989) research led him to believe that across cultures shaman were able to place themselves into a trance state, call upon spirits guides in animal, human or plant life form in a ritual context, and to acquire knowledge or healing to help an individual or a community.

The Surrealists accessed the subconscious as a way to see and create pieces of art that questioned rational thought and gathered information from these spaces of consciousness to inform their work. I see that this is also captured within some performance art. Performance art came from Dadaism and the Surrealists and took hold in the art scene in the early sixties with the rise of feminism, anti establishment and ban the bomb campaigners, and the hippy revolution. In the seventies, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Carolee Schneemann, Rachel Rosenthal, Yoko Ono and Marina Abramović were some of the leading artists who used performance to highlight issues in their society. These artists found that they were unable to articulate what they wanted to achieve just in painting or sculpture and so incorporated


performance into their work. Artists rebelled against the establishment and created work that could not be bought, sold or traded as a commodity. They were fighting against the essence of capitalism, which they felt reduced art to a commodity. Adrian Heathfield wrote “the drive to the live has long been a critical concern of performance and live art where the embodied event has been employed as a generative force: to shock, to destroy, pretence, to break apart traditions of representation, to foreground the experimental, to open different kinds of engagement with meaning, to activate audiences” (Heathfield, 2004:7).

There is no formal intellectual link between the development of performance art and traditional shamanism; however, the resurgence of interest in traditional shamanic practices undoubtedly coincided with the growth of performance art. This meant that both practices were open for exploration and as a result some performance artists have been able to assimilate greater or lesser elements of shamanism into their practice. Joseph Beuys has explored this in particular.

Art and ritual have been creative practices since the earliest times; art has been an important element of communication through imagery along with language. David Piper states “the creative impulse to make images – objects without any apparent mechanical use – emerged very early indeed; it is almost simultaneous arrival of man as we know him now…..” (Piper, 1994:12). This suggests that the activity of creating and sharing is intrinsic to modern humanity.


Figure 1. The Sorcerer. Circa 13,000 BC. Cave paintings at Trois Frères: France.

Cave paintings are an example of what may have been the first pieces of artwork and research has shown that ritual and art were interlinked within community. Figure 1 illustrates what is arguably an early image of a shaman taking on the role of an animal. Lewis-Williams states that “entry into caves, as well as the preparation of paint and the actual making of images, was, as we have seen, probably part of a series of interrelated, socially differentiating ritual contexts” (Lewis-Williams, 2004: 283).

Breuil drew the drawing known as The Sorcerer (figure 2) inside the cave at Trois Frères and proposed that it represented a shamanic ritual associated with hunting. The drawing has been the subject of much debate, controversy and speculation as to


its accuracy. Some of the marks in the cave are engraved and therefore only visible with light shining at a certain angle and not visible in photographs. Clottes, who had seen the original cave drawing several times, confirmed that he believed the drawing to be accurate (Clottes, 2010:129).

Figure 2: Breuil, H. 1920. The Sorcerer Drawing taken from a cave painting circa 13,000 BC at Trois Frères, France.

This may be seen as the beginning of shamanic practices if we understand shamanism to be a belief system in which the first tribal communities expressed their connection to the world around them, and how they connected with that world within the realms of their existence in nature. This is one perception for the origins of cave paintings. Ritual may have been used as a way to honour that belief system. As communities evolved so did the use of symbolic ritual references.


The role of ritual has been identified as a way in which communities connected, articulated and passed on information for the development of that community throughout the world in tribal cultures. Campbell believed that myth and ritual were interlinked. The role of ritual was a sociological function that brought about a social structure within each community (Campbell, 1972). Ritual is still used today, and now it is linked to religious and social celebrations. Ritual is also a word used to describe human habits, for example, the first coffee and cigarette of the morning is a ritual for many in western households. The use of ritual has changed within society. Ritual was an integral part of tribal culture and in some areas of the world that still exists. In medieval times ritual was linked to religious beliefs. Campbell claims the role of ritual is losing its force. “Where once a ritual conveyed an inner reality, was now merely form and that was true in society today along with marriage and religion� (Campbell, 1988:7).

The concept of Shamanism has become popular as a way of linking past ideologies and present day struggles together, as in contemporary life we search for an inner truth. The term neo-shaman is commonly used and is associated with new age lifestyles. There are many books detailing how to become a shaman. The Amazon website lists many authors willing to share their knowledge of how to become a shaman offering different ideologies e.g. Pagan shamanism, American Indian shamanism, Celtic shamanism etc. ( With all the information available to man, there seems to be a discontentment for some and a belief that we have lost our connection to the earth. Campbell (1988) believed that myths helped


structure societies and that today all we have to do is look into the newspaper to see the effects of a society without myths. In my experience, some young people have no structure and do not know what their role within society is or how to function or have a structure they can relate to or feel a part of. The popular view of shamanism and its accessibility may, in fact, be a distraction from the true relationship that the particular artists I have looked at have with the very serious and meta-psychic activities of true spiritual ritual, and the tradition that surrounds it. Campbell (1988) believed that artists of one kind or another were capable of keeping myth alive in today’s society. Campbell states the “function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world� (Campbell, 1988:85) and the role of the shaman was to use their understanding of the world and universe to convey their cultures myths via a ritual performance for the benefit of the community.

Shaman use different approaches to help them see other dimensions of existence. Some artists have used these approaches, through trance like states to explore their subconscious, drawing on their connection to self and the world around them to inform their work. Marcus Coates uses trance in some of his work.

Artists fulfil many purposes such as, expression through their imagination, highlighting an issue within society, questioning and provoking norms and values, examining the self. I will explore this in relation to performance art and to identify if an ancient way of communicating still holds relevance to modern day life when used in a particular art form.


Abramović stated “I become a mirror for the public: If I can do this, then maybe they can deal with the pain in their own life” (cited in Pikul, 2010). This suggests that if artists can be seen as a mirror they can have the ability to show you an aspect of yourself and through this create a question that could bring about a positive change within yourself.

Chapter 1

The beginnings of Performance and Art

There has been extensive speculation about prehistoric cave art and its origins and meaning. It has been suggested that cave art was a way to communicate a vision, to pass over knowledge to the community, and art has been a way we humans have always communicated where words could not. Ritual and art have always been a part of community.

Lewis-Williams (2004) writes about imagery evolving from the Neanderthals primary consciousness to the higher order consciousness of homo sapiens. This is why homo sapiens can experience and remember visions within dreams and altered states of being, and then reconstruct certain imagery in caves. He proposes that a shaman was the first artist and the use of imagery and sculptures were a means to link those images to the universe as they knew and experienced it, for the benefit of their communities. He believed this was done within a performance ritual. Lewis-Williams states “all life, economic, social and religious, takes place within and interacts reciprocally with a specific conception of the universe. It cannot be otherwise”


(Lewis-Williams, 2004:209). He also believed that there was a strong link between the social context, hierarchy and artistic endeavour.

Shaman were seen as individuals within tribal communities and as a human link between ordinary and non-ordinary states of being with their understanding of the world around them. They were artists, poets, musicians, painters, dancers and storytellers and they were known as “seers” because of their “visions”. They lived on the edge of society but played an integral role within it. Their role was to transform, enlighten, heal and empower their communities to move forward and evolve in tune with their environment. This was originally done within a ritual context. LewisWilliams (2004) links his findings on the imagery associated with Upper Palaeolithic art to shamanistic practices within those communities.

In contemporary understanding, according to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, we carry with us from our past the cultural knowledge of our ancestors and this past still influences us through our responses to cultural archetypes, particularly the symbols that are encountered in dreams. “The collective unconscious is a universal datum, that is, every human being is endowed with this psychic archetype-layer since his/her birth. One cannot acquire this stratum by education or other conscious effort because it is innate.” (

The shamanic effects, for example, which can be achieved by performance artists, draw very strongly on the shared symbols of cultural archetypes, e.g. a spiritual


worker who puts on particular clothes to conduct a ritual. This shared response to symbols can be used in a creative form as a way of moving society forward. Artists are capable of using the fundamental ancient elements of shamanism as a way to access areas of their subconscious. Higby’s costumes carry symbols associated with shamanism within their construction; through her dance she appears to access her subconscious with her intense concentration. These approaches free up the limitations of everyday existence and create a vehicle to connect with community on a different level.

Mark Levy PhD is an art historian and art critic and an active shamanic healer. Levy researched extensively into the subject of shamanism in art in the 20th and 21st centuries and I will draw upon his findings to support my own views. Levy (1993) looked at artists using different aspects of shamanism, under the categories associated with shamanistic practices of Seeing, Dreaming and Performing. He states “Modern artists/shaman are interested in transforming, enlightening and often healing and empowering their audiences” (Levy, 1993:xvii).

Performance art has always been edgy and can be shocking or challenging. Goldberg (2011:20) for example, highlighted the way in which it can challenge borders between what is public and what is private, what is art and what is not, and it does not follow any rules.

Since the sixties, Performance has been used as an avenue for artists to express themselves within a more open genre. They challenged the notion that art could be


bought and sold as a social reference of wealth and ownership. During the seventies, institutes opened their doors to performance art and artists felt that performance art was one way to express their ideas more tangibly. Artists turned to this style of art to move their work forward, to break out of categories and to move in new directions. Their work was not necessarily performed in galleries because, as O’Doherty (1976:76) suggested, for some people a gallery space gave off a negative vibration. This enabled performance art to open itself up to new audiences.

Performance art was at the height of popularity in the 1970s with artists such as Marina Abramović, who used her body as a vehicle to explore relationships. As part of one of her performances she cut her body, and subjected herself to long periods of endurance within her art. To me this is a symbolic reference to past tribal traditions and ritual in a modern interpretation taking the present day cultural aspect of life into account. Performance art was real, unlike a theatre. If an artist used a knife, there was real blood. It was a unique experience that affected each person who saw the performance, just as it was within each tribal ritual.


Chapter 2: The Art in Trance

Figure 3: Royal Geographical Society. 1930s. Portrait of a young man with tribal scars. E Chinnery (photographer).

Figure 3 shows a young man from a tribe in Papua New Guinea displaying body scaring that was done during a ritual initiation ceremony to test and move young men into adulthood. It is still practiced today. These rituals are seen as deeply spiritual and symbolic. Through this ritual they leave the nurturing of the mother and move into the world of men to hunt and provide food for their community. 16

Figure 4: Marina Abramović. 1975. Lips of Thomas.

In 1975 Abramović performed Lips of Thomas (the star). It consisted of seven acts inspired by shamanic rituals (Lack,2009) which she continually repeated and in one she used a razor blade to cut the symbol of a star in her stomach, illustrated in figure 4. This adds a primal quality to the work and the whole piece is played out like a ritual. The symbol of the pentacle represents life, with each point having its own meaning, the top point symbolizes spirit but in this case facing down, and the other points symbolize earth, air, fire and water. The symbolic reference to five has been regarded as mystical and magical; we have five fingers and toes. The significance of five runs through all the major religions. Abramović has her pentacle facing downwards (figure 3), this symbol emphasizes the carnal nature of man. In this


performance Abramović was responding to political events happening in Yugoslavia at that time and using the pentacle as a symbolic reference to the communist star. Leonardo da Vinci used this symbol (figure 5) for working out scale and proportion in one of his drawings; he believed that the workings of the human body were an analogy for the workings of the universe. By cutting this symbol on her body, Abramović is using her body to highlight issues around her at that time. In this performance she ritualistically cuts herself and by going through pain heightens her level of consciousness.

Figure 5: Leonardo Da Vinci. 1490. Vitruvian Man.


When Abramović engages in performance, she steps from one world into another thus bringing her into a state of consciousness or trancelike state, just as a shaman may use during a ritual. Abramović (cited in Kaplan, 1999) said “I don't do anything. It's hard to explain. I enter into the mental and physical construction in the moment the public is there. Before that moment, I am extremely nervous. I have stomach pain, dizziness, and can't talk to anybody. Three days before a performance, this very uncomfortable state of mind sets in. I can't calm myself. It just takes possession of me. But the moment the public is there, something happens. I move from the lower self to a higher state, and the fear and nervousness stop. Once you enter into the performance state, you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do.’’

In Lips of Thomas (the star) (1975) Abramović is highlighting certain social issues within her country at that time by using her naked body as a vehicle in a male dominated society. She shocked her audiences with her performances when, as an artist working in the seventies, it was a difficult time for female artists to be taken seriously and as a result they were having trouble showing their work. Women in art struggled to get their work shown and in the seventies the use of performance art helped to break those confines, the naked body being used to challenge those views. The role of the shaman in early anthropological research is described as being predominately but not always male. For example, a grave of a woman, painted red before being laid to rest with a fox in her hand, mammoth bones arched above her head and spear heads around her body, was found in the Czech Republic in an upper Paleolithic site known as Dolni Vestonice in 1989. The archaeological team, led by


Bohuslav Klima, concluded that this was the grave of a shaman ( For me, this helps to contextualize the work of Marina Abramović and how she engages with and in shamanic practice.

Figure 6: Marina Abramović. 2010. The Artist is Present. New York: MoMA

In the exhibition The Artist is Present (MoMA,2010), Abramović placed herself in the gallery every day for three months (Figure 6). Visitors were invited to sit opposite her and just look into her eyes and be part of the artwork. This work is about space of mind and how we are so busy we don’t stop and just look into the eyes of another. In this work Abramović signified that we keep a lot of fear and pain locked up inside in order to survive and function, allowing only bits of ourselves out when we feel safe and supported. This work is about everyone connecting and realizing they are all part of the same thing; life, existence and that everyone feels.

In this work


Abramović takes on a role she is unaware of; that of the shaman, the seer, the link in a community where her role as artist is to show the individual the self and then it is up to the individual to use what they have gained from the experience in their everyday lives. This is a very powerful piece that signifies Abramović is the work of art and that each person who sits in front of her also becomes part the work of art and that every one of them are in some way connected. She has said “Artist have to be warrior, have to have this determination, to have this stamina, not just conquer new territory but to also conquer himself and his weaknesses” (cited in The Artist is Present, [DVD], 2010). Her depth and endurance within this performance place her into the realm of a warrior, for there are a limited amount of performance artists who could endure such a feat. Abramović (ibid) describes herself as “the grandmother of performance art”.

The role of the performance artist is to use the performance as a way to connect with their audience on a level that has a deeper level of meaning that could impact on their lives. Abramović (ibid) points out that she was aware that there was a point when the audience felt there was a difference and then the numbers participating increased. People would just sit and observe the performance. Children started to copy and engage in looking into each other’s eyes; there was a sense of something different and deeper to the piece than had been originally observed.

From the comments of the participants, included in Appendix I, it is clear that Abramović’s performance exhibition had a deep impact on the visitors who were fortunate to visit the exhibition and sit with her in this piece. This is where


performance art has a deeper level of connection with the audience as they are experiencing a personal connection with the artist, which they cannot experience with paintings or sculptures. As live performance is experienced in the present; it cannot be repeated or experienced again.

Shamanic rituals apply the same

principles. Creating artwork is usually a solitary process unless there are a lot of processes involved but on the whole artists work generally alone and then invite the public to view the work. In performance art the work does not exist to some degree unless it is witnessed or elements photographed or videoed. Performance art comes in many forms and is not regulated by the gallery setting per se, it can be achieved anywhere and does not have to happen more than once. It is more ethereal in many ways. To me this puts the concept of performance art into a different category. It pushes the boundary of our perception of art.

A shaman has a personal connection with the community; a shamanic event is experienced as a moment in time that can never be repeated. This is what Abramović had with the visitors to the exhibition, thus making the visitors a community for the duration of the exhibition and part of the ritual experience. Abramović brought her audience into the here and now and many of them experienced a profound exchange and healing. As can be seen in Appendix I, one person talked about it being like nothing in art they had ever experienced. With performance art the experience is part of the art.

Levy (1993) and Eliade (1989) both assert that the role of the shaman is to conquer other realms of existence in the upper world and lower world in order to bring back,


knowledge or healing for the benefit of the individual or community. An interpretation of this would see Abramović herself as the warrior/shaman and that it is her role as an artist is to push herself beyond the realms of everyday existence in order for her to share her knowledge with her community, the audience, through her art. This could also be seen as a similar part of an initiation rite as in aboriginal cultures with a focus on training and discipline. Abramović (cited in Kaplan, 1999) was brought up in a very disciplined household with very little outward displays of love and this clearly has influenced her work in performance art. This is evidenced by the way much of her work is about strength, endurance and a desire to push her ideas forward. Her work doesn’t express gentle or soft emotional experiences.

Abramovic spent time with her then partner Ulay in the seventies visiting spiritual leaders and centres to develop an understanding of spirituality. They spent time in Australia with the aborigines and had psychical experiences, resulting in an understanding of time and space from sitting in silence and isolation for long periods of time. Abramović and Ulay also took training in hypnosis and investigating the link between energy, material and psychic knowledge. Although Abramović (cited in The Artist is Present, [DVD], 2010) states that she is an artist first and foremost, she applies her understanding and experience of spiritual disciplines in her performances. Without them the art would be just a theatrical experience. The use of her body as art is another way of the self being the universe in the same way that traditional shaman used their understanding of universal energies to engage in shamanic journeying. The use of dream and dream like states has also been a major part in Abramović’s work. As a child she would paint her dreams, and in the work


Timeless point of view (1985) she saw the image of herself in a boat in a dream. Dreams have been significant for other artists and art movements, not least the Surrealists and Salvador Dali in his paintings. Dreaming is another method a shaman would use to find knowledge and convey those images to their community. Abramović (1999) confirmed in an interview “there are moments in my life when I need to completely withdraw and do ritual practice. I go to a monastery and spend three months in total retreat. I do not see anybody, and I do very radical things. But when I finish this monastery trip, I go to New York and do all the bad things for my body….eating half a kilo of chocolate, watching bad movies. But both of these are reality’’(cited in Kaplan, 1999).

Harner (1990,59) informs his readers that the shaman is to able to move within two worlds and be aware of the level of consciousness required in both and experienced shaman become masters of power, “many years of shamanic experience are usually necessary to arrive at a high degree of knowledge “ (Harner, 1990:57). Abramovic shows she is also able to move within these two states of being comfortably due to over 30 years of experience of live performance and in Harner’s opinion she could be classed as a master shaman, ”only a few shaman become masters of knowledge…” (Harner, 1990:58).


Chapter 3

The Art of Journeying

Marcus Coates has recently become a popular performance artist and has been linked to shamanism for his style of live performance art; his work has also been linked to Joseph Beuys. The term, shaman/artist comes directly from Beuys who identified himself as a shaman/artist. It has been claimed that Beuys survived a plane crash in the Crimean war and was rescued by a group of nomadic tartars who wrapped him in fat and felt to keep him warm to aid his healing, this later emerged within his art. He felt that art was capable of creating social change and healing (Cork, 2009).

Marcus Coates uses shamanic practices as a medium for resolving issues within society and uses ritual and performance in order to link art and community together. Coates tends to work outside a gallery setting. He has created pieces of work that are clear examples of shamanic practice. His experience of shamanism comes from one weekend workshop in which he found his power animal, “Becoming animal allows me to be immersed and led purely by my imagination. The idea of being another species frees me to abandon conscious thought. It gives me perspective and clarity and therefore a degree of insight beyond what I could normally imagine�(cited in Sweeting, 2012). As a child he connected with nature and wildlife. He is a keen ornithologist and naturalist, which he uses in some aspects of his work. Coates has not had extensive training in shamanism but what he does have is his strong interest and connection with the natural environment.


Figure 7: Marcus Coates. 2005. Journey to the Lower World

In Journey to the Lower World (2005), Coates worked with a group of residents to answer their questions; he used a shamanic performance as a means to find answers for the community. Within the performance he wears a shamanic cloak of a deer, and he attaches keys to his shoes as a contemporary reference to a shamanic rattle. He performed a ritual within a flat in the lounge of a tenant and brought animal sounds into the ritual, in particular bird calls. This seems to be a particularly personal reference to his own, albeit limited, shamanic development. Using bird sounds and song is a shamanic method to move freely between the three cosmic worlds; upper, lower and middle world. Eliade commented that "All over the world learning the


language of animals, especially of birds, is equivalent to knowing the secrets of nature and hence to being able to prophesy. Learning their language, imitating their voice, is equivalent to ability to communicate with the beyond and the heavens� (Eliade, 1989: 98).

In Journey to the Lower World (2005), the tower block in Liverpool was going to be demolished and replaced with a new community-housing scheme. Coates was using his art as a way to help the community move into an unfamiliar situation as a vehicle for transformation. Whilst doing this piece he placed himself within a different consciousness using the ancient principle of shamanism that he acquired on a weekend course The Way of the Shaman in Notting Hill, London in 2004. This is a piece that links ritual from past history of tribal cultures with a modern day issue. This piece shows a local community being prepared to take on an unorthodox approach to their concerns over their future, possibly seen as stepping outside their normal way of looking at consciousness.

This shows evidence of a ritual art

performance being used as a vehicle for moving communities forward; he brings to this group his vision through a personal ritual and performance. This piece of art was created for a small group within society, the only evidence of its existence is a book with a DVD, and in my view this work is what performance art looks at. The difference with performance art is that you need to experience it to feel it, because your part in the piece is what makes the piece itself and that gives it validity. Coates uses the ritual of journeying to help this community find the answers they are looking for. He said “All the performances are on behalf of someone, a group of people or about a collective issue. I want there to be an outcome, a different way of


understanding the problem or even an answer to a question” (cited in Sweeting, 2012).

Harner (1990) suggests that westerners taking on the role of a shaman are not “playing Indian” but are exploring the same evolutionary spiritual sources that tribal shaman have done from the beginning of time and are not pretending if they get results for themselves or others. This seems to show that although Coates does not claim to be a shaman but an artist, he is able to make use of those ancient mythologies for the benefit of the community.

In Journey to the Lower World (2005), Coates used a Siberian Yakut ritual. The audience was perplexed and they seemed unsure of its relevance but as the performance continued, they found amusement and interest in what he was performing in front of them. In the recording of the performance it is clear that his audience were somewhat confused, pulling faces and looking shocked at what was being presented (Journey to the Lower World, [DVD], 2005). Coates suggests that he too was unsure if his performance would work, that he had to show his spiritual authenticity and he was aware it could be seen as a “load of hockey rubbish”(ibid). From his experience of the journey, he was able to bring together elements of what he saw in a trance state and make sense of it to answer the group’s question. By this he reassured the tenants that if they stuck together then they would have the strength that helped them through their next transitional stage.


Coates (2012) said, “I have had no direct experience of traditional shamanism, apart from research that I do and a brief weekend course I attended. I have created my own rituals that are loosely based on the traditional processes of shamanic practice. I wanted to see if this process was available to someone outside of its traditions, if it was something that could be effective coming from and for a Western European culture that has little contemporary connection within these traditions. Can anyone be a shaman?” He also states “All the performances are on behalf of someone, a group of people or about a collective issue. I want there to be an outcome, a different way of understanding the problem or even an answer to a question” (cited in Sweeting, 2012). Harner believes that shamanic journeying is one of the most important tasks to be undertaken by the shaman and that the journey to the Lowerworld is one of the easiest to learn (Harner, 1990:31).

In Dawn Chorus (2007) (, Coates used the sounds of native English birds then slowed down the sounds into audible words and asked a group of people to learn these words. He then speeded up their words creating a mimicking sound of the birdsong. He filmed each person individually in the surrounding of his or her own environment. He then speeded up the sounds to the same frequency as the original bird song. Each person shows aspects of their character and this is heightened by the speeding up of the film footage and as a result portrays bird like qualities. Griffin (2007) believed that Coates was able to access something deeper “not in the open spaces of the countryside, so obscured by cultural projection and anthropomorphism, but in the withered memory of something wild and ancient, buried deep within ourselves” ( This


suggests that Coates inadvertently connects each individual, in multiple and subtle ways, with the local landscape by using sounds of British birds as described by Abram (1997:140). The use of sound is also apparent in the performances of Sha Sha Higby, which are explored in the next chapter.

Chapter 4

The Image of the Performer/Shaman

Figure 8: Sha Sha Higby. 2012. Glass Clouds.


Marcus Coates uses a deerskin (figure 7) covering his body in his performance work as a method to help transform him into a different character; this is also used as a method for actors to transform into the role they are expected to play on a stage. Performance artists also create a stage. Sha Sha Higby (figure 8) adorns a sculptural costume to help her transform herself within her performances. Eliade states “The shaman’s costume itself constitutes a religious hierophany and cosmology; it discloses not only the sacred presence but also cosmic symbols and metapsychic itineraries…it reveals the system of shamanism as clearly as the shamanic myths and techniques” (Eliade,1989:145).

Sha Sha Higby is an American performance artist who creates elaborate sculptural pieces of art and then creates a performance piece. The costume can take up to four years to make as she creates layers upon layers. Her work evokes the story of life, death and rebirth, using light to shift the ephemeral images of time and seasons. Levy believes that Higby’s performances ‘’established an indefinable and magical emotional space” and could also be seen as shamanic “due to the emotional space that a shaman encounters on a journey’’ (Levy, 1993:295).


Figure 9: Evenk Shaman costume Circa 1880.

The elaborate sculptures that Higby creates, whether knowingly or not; symbolically reference a shaman’s costume, drawing from Yakut, Siberian, Tibetan, Evenk, Buryat and Tangus shaman, an example of which is in figure 8. Higby incorporated a modern representation of shamanic practice, illustrated in figure 9, with her use of masks that could be seen as spirit animals and serve as a protection against evil spirits. Trailing lengths of cloth or ribbons representing snakes that were used in journeys to the underworld, and discs and metal were used to hold the soul, represent the moon, stars and universe. Ribs and bones were also commonplace along with sound created when the shaman moved to scare away evil spirits. Higby’s costume evokes all these qualities using modern materials, clay, paper, wood and fine wirework.


Higby’s performances have been identified as having shamanic ritual elements within them. ( Higby takes her inspiration from Japanese Noh costumes and Indonesian shadow puppets, her work is classed as ephemeral and each performance is unique. The pieces can be female, male or both. A shaman costume from different cultures can be both feminine and masculine at the same time.

The dress of the shaman was in some cultures an important aspect of their identity within a ceremonial role. The ceremonial robe is also an important aspect within various religions, for example the pope wears special robes within a ceremony and with the shaman, in each culture or community the costume reflected aspects of their environment and history. The British Museum, London holds a collection of artefacts related to Icelandic shaman including their ceremonial coat of fur containing symbols for protection (

Higby creates a unique dance performance for each piece she performs and evokes an essence from the costume to tell a story. Dance has also been a part of shamanic practice and has been recorded by anthropologists; as it is one way in which to reach an altered state of being, with rhythmic sounds and movements. Eliade (1989) called this “ecstatic ecstasy�. The dance style Higby adopts is a slow medative state of dance influenced by her personal experience with Butoh, Noh and Japanese dance, the movements are to some degree controlled by the sculpture. The idea of peeling off layers can be seen as a way to reveal other aspects of the self and the layers of existence that cannot be necessary seen initially. In her performances Higby takes off


layers to reveal different aspects of a sculptural character and this can be seen as a form of shapeshifting, another skill of a shaman. Higby provides the audience with props to make sounds and in this way she brings the audience into the performance and helps to create the unique experience. They are as much part of the performance as the artist.

Higby sees herself as an object maker, first and foremost and she states “Performance is the discovery of things as they happen at that moment for the first time. Nothing is rehearsed. The variable elements that are brought to each performance are painstakingly assembled. When these new things are discovered on stage, it is as if the audience and myself for one moment actually feel like the same being, momentarily fascinated by the same thing. Yet each person's interpretation is different from the other, one of the parts comprising the whole. The audience is like the many strings of a tent, supporting and encapsulating the environment within which the canvas billows” ( Higby talks about her work having the elements of air within each piece. "The costumes are so physical. I want them to be more like a skin that would carefully come off and become air" ( In Abram’s view “Nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of the earth than the recognition of the air, the wind and the breath, as aspects of a singularly sacred power”(Abram, 1997:226). Higby uses her knowledge of different cultures from her own personal research and incorporates these into her sculptural costumes and performances. The role of the shaman is to bring elements of knowledge from personal experiences together, to inform their work within the community in a shamanic performance.


In a personal correspondence with Higby she said, “I wanted to say that I wanted my body to merge with the costume/sculptures so the two would not be shockingly different from each other but that requires a certain maturity. Of course all artists want to draw their audience into their world, though I had hoped it would be a universal world or more of an awareness of the world around us. I do not encourage a trancelike state, but anytime a person focuses on movement and keeping all the parts in order, it may appear like a form of meditation”(Higby to Kingham, 2012). Meditation is another way to enter into a trance like state and links closely to eastern culture and religion, and these influences are evident with her sculptures and style of dance within her performance. Hull commented “Enter an ancient world in which art is important to the culture--a world of earth, age, ritual, a world that merges heaven and earth-mud, decaying plant forms, and performance. What I see in the earth and body regalia is a pre/post-human goddess” (Hull, 1997). Eliade stated, “by the mere fact of donning it…the shaman transcends profound space and prepares to enter into contact with the spiritual world” (Eliade, 1989:147). It can be deduced that Higby is aware of the spiritual importance her sculptural clothing has on her performances and the relevance to past history and knowledge she has acquired.

Conclusion Denita Benyshek has explored the relationship between the role of art and shamanism for her doctorial thesis ‘How Art meets Psychological, Social, and 35

Spiritual Needs’. Benyshek asserted that in particular ‘traumatized societies need shamanic healing. Bringing neglected knowledge into consciousness and triggering empathy, interwoven with memories of forgotten realities, are shamanic acts that can be performed by art in the service of societal needs’’ (Benyshek, 2013:31).

This is particularly relevant in to Campbell’s view of contemporary society which proposes that contemporary society is, if not traumatized then at least dislocated from it’s spiritual heritage, thus creating a void into which shamanic practice has a purpose.

It has further resonance when considered in the context of Lewis-

Williams’s view that early art was in fact, part shamanic practice.

These two ideas

help to link the spiritual needs of a community and the creative practice of that community, in a way that appears to have occurred from time immemorial. This suggests that whether we recognize it or not, shamanic practice is intrinsic in some art. The lack of recognition or understanding may be as a result of the loss of a clear cultural, spiritual heritage and a rejection by the establishment of symbols of a long lost past and practice. The artists whose work is explored here appear to be engaging with shamanic practice on a variety of levels, with only some direct acknowledgement of that, yet with a strong sense of purpose and integrity to incorporate community and transformation into that work.

Each of the performance artists I have identified takes on one or more roles of a shaman within their performances. None of these artists would declare they were a shaman. Their art is their primary profession but all the artists I have mentioned have taken ancient aspects into their work, knowingly or unknowingly. When an


artist engages in the role of performance, they place themselves in a position where they have to let go of any expectations and just be in the moment, all of the artists have made comments to this effect and in doing this they are opening themselves up to an experience of change. How this affects the audience with whom the artist shared this event is completely individual, also as a collective because they all shared the experience and in that it became a community.

Rosenthal (2010) believed that artists have a responsibility and that “artists are conduits for the inventiveness of nature, of the cosmos, that artists are the incarnations of the power of the universe�(Rosenthal, 2010:102). This suggests that artists are aware of their potential to connect with other realms of consciousness and their role to use this ability for their audiences.

Performance art can highlight the complexity of the human mind and its relationships, how it affects the world around us, how it can be interpreted and shared with others within our communities to help them see things differently. It can take these issues and transform them into performance pieces that help the community identify themselves within it and encourage a change of view.

Performance art can be accessed as a way to connect with some of the principles of shamanism in a way that is more natural, as a way to connect with a community, without the need to be linked to religion; it’s about connection.


Performance art only reaches a small percentage of a community by its very nature. It resembles ancient ritual practice that supported small communities that had their own shaman to lead a group of people through a process that connects them together and unites them through the experience.

Marina Abramović used endurance in her performances and within that she placed herself in an altered state in which to perform her art. In particular her piece The Artist is Present had an enormous effect on the audience that saw it and they were able to understand the importance of slowing down and taking time to look inside. This happened in the Museum of Modern art in New York, where life is continuously moving fast. Abramović chose to use a gallery for her work to be experienced and in this way highlighted the importance of the artist being the art, but as an artist she understands that through performance without the audience there is no art. Abramović lives her life for her art. Abramović sees herself solely as an artist and not a shaman but I feel her work has a powerful shamanic quality that enables the audience to feel the healing qualities of this piece. For some it transformed how they saw art, for others it brought them closer to themselves.

The term Shamanism has been linked to specific artists since Joseph Beuys in the 1970s and performance artists such as Andre Stitt and Marcus Coates are labelled as such today. Coates states “I’m going back to ancient cultures to look at how they did it, and to bring that back into our contemporary world” (cited in Milliard, 2010). This suggests that as a performance artist Coates is accessing shamanic principles for the benefit of his audiences.


Higby’s intricate sculptural pieces are symbolic of a variety of past tribal shamanic costumes and her dance performance mixes past cultural knowledge of the east with a western element in their structure and performance. Higby is unable to move quickly as a past shaman may have done as her costumes are delicate and intricate. Les Maîtres du Désordre (Masters of Chaos) was an exhibition held in Paris in 2012. It examined the link between artists and the shaman, ritual and cathartic pieces of work, through performance and paintings. This suggests that a growing number of artists are assimilating themselves with the role of shaman in our society today. Campbell believed that if we see human beings as of the earth, part of the earth, rather than being detached from it, we would see that “we are the consciousness of the earth”(Campbell, 1988:32). The performance artists I have discussed have all used this metaphor within their work, and in that way and in my view can be classed as modern day visionaries.


Appendix I Bruce Hermann, professor of theater at Texas Tech University: “I was standing in front of the bones [Balkan Baroque], and I happened to walk in at a moment when [Abramović] was dancing [on video], and the juxtaposition of these two images was jarring at first. Then, seeing the pictures of her parents, it all starts to connect and relate on an ancestral and ritual level. It moved me. I started to smell the bones, and that, juxtaposed with her starting to dance with this red scarf, was kind of profound”. Daviel Shy, artist, back for her second sitting with Marina Abramović: “It was kind of like being out of time. Just really interesting and filled with different emotions that change the longer you sit there. … I was focusing so hard I was exhausted by the end of it. Your body is working so hard from being still or trying to be still. It’s just something I’ve never experienced before. It’s not like meditation because you’re with somebody else and you’re both looking at each other”. Bruce Hermann, professor of theater at Texas Tech University: This struck me as so difficult… there was a revelation on a very deep level that I wasn’t expecting when I came in. I’m almost fatigued after seeing it. You’re drawn in by watching people stand or sit or do things to themselves or each other, and after a period of time I found myself going to a subconscious place, rather than being able to analyze it intellectually. I feel like, even in describing it now, my words are not sufficient. Kurt Schwarz “The performance pieces of the entire retrospective have touched me deeply and will stay with me a very long time”.


Bibliography ABRAM, D. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more than human world. New York: Vintage Books. CLOTTES, J. 2010. Cave Art, London: Phaidon Press Ltd. CAMPBELL, J with MOYERS, B. 1988. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday Publishing. CAMPBELL, J. 1972. Myths to Live By. New York: Viking Press. COATES, M. 2005. Journey to the Lower World. London: Platform Projects. ELIADE, M. 1989. Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. London: Arkana Publishing. GOLDBERG, R. 2011. Performance Art: From Futurism to Present. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. HARNER, M. 1990. The Way of the Shaman. New York: HarperCollins Publishing. HEATHFIELD, A. 2004. Art and Performance Live. London: Tate Publishing.

LEVY, M. 1993. Technicians of Ecstasy: Shamanism and the Modern Artist. United Wilton Manors FLA: Bramble Books

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Exhibitions ABRAMOVIĆ, M. 2010. The Artist is Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art. Information available at: < > (Accessed November 25 2012).

Les Maîtres du désordre (Masters of Chaos). 2012. Paris: Musée du quai Branly. Information available at: < DESORDRE-EN.pdf> (accessed October 25 2012).

Visit to Museum The British Museum. Visit to examine shamanic costumes and exhibits along with ice-age artefacts. (October 16 2012). Information available at: (Accessed October 18 2012).

Personal Correspondence Kingham to Higby (email) []. (November 24 2012) Higby to Kingham (email) []. (November 29 2012)


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Lisa Kingham Dissertation