Almost a hundred years ago Antonio Gramsci described the societal crisis as ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ . This quote still resonates in numerous contemporary philosophical theses on the notion of Western modernity and its (dis)continuation. Many contemporary thinkers deliberate about what is to be done in the supposed situation of an interregnum, when ‘everything is ending, even time itself’, as Marina Garcés writes , and contemplate what the ‘old’ is that is dying and the ‘new’ that cannot be born.
Speculation, imagining new realities and living them as if they were possible, sometimes articulated as ‘worldmaking’, is a key part of artistic research and practice. The media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented, associated art with a certain ‘early warning system’, or a ‘radar’, and understood the concept of the arts as prophetic, rather than a mere self-expression. From this perspective, observing the trajectory of non-rational means of knowledge, such as faith, spirituality, intuition, embodiment and bodily knowledge, divination, magic, shamanism and so forth, within contemporary art discourse, might show an insightful view of forces able to shape the ‘new’.
One such example is the exhibition ‘Spiritualities: Three Contemporary Portrayals of Transcendence and Beliefs’, which opened earlier this year in one of the key hubs of the Czech visual art scene, the MeetFactory Gallery in Prague. Curated by Tereza Jindrová, the exhibition inaugurated a long-term programme line titled ‘Other Knowledge’. If one of the pillars of Western modernity is rationality and the division between nature and culture, the involved artists challenge both of these notions and propose to open up to a much wider array of epistemologies.
The spatial constellation of the three-channel screening of the film ‘Híbridos’ (2017) by the French artist duo Priscilla Telmon and Vincent Moon evoked an auditorium-like detachment, as the viewer experienced the installation from a balcony-like setting. The intimate atmosphere of candlelit lanterns laid out in front of the three screens felt somewhat inaccessible and distant, reflecting the problematic act of a Western artist depicting the traditions and rituals of indigenous peoples. In the absence of a commentary, visually and audibly mesmerising, the film reveals spiritual practices, whose meaning and understanding are left untouched, unexplained, untranslated. If the reality system that we have today is centred around the rhythm of linguistic categories, an ‘absolute language’ as philosopher Federico Campagna calls it, resistance to be capturable by it certainly poses a challenge to Western modernist ontology.
Are we going to be able to understand each other? According to Campagna’s theory, another reality principle can be assembled if its building blocks are not based on linguistic categories but on what he describes as ‘the ineffable’. Campagna’s ‘ineffable dimension of existence’ is, according to his words, that which ‘cannot be captured by descriptive language, and which escapes all attempts to put it to ‘work’ – either in the economic series of production, or in those of citizenship, technology, science, social roles and so on’ . Campagna, as well as many artists today, suggests spiritual awareness and a shift to another, more wholesome conception of the world, not in the sense of religious dogma, but in the sense of poetry. Perhaps, this might be the logic of the ‘new’ that would make a multiversal system of heterogenous realities possible.
Jakub Jansa’s installation, ‘It’s So Physical’ (2020), approaches contemporaneity and human life in relation to technologies through a proposal to return to physicality and the body itself. It is a fictional story narrated by a group of talking tapeworms, who describe a past event, when everyone has left their body. The work appeared as a somewhat timely proposal during the ongoing pandemic, which is intensifying both virtual reality as well as physical and bodily existence. One of the common means of bodily knowledge is gut feeling, often neglected and dismissed, instinct, intuition or an immediate or basic feeling or reaction without a logical rationale. Taking such sensitivities seriously, however, means accepting an epistemology that does not conceive corporeality as a description of chemical and physical causality but rather one that suggests a non-successive notion of time, a temporality that suggests co-existence and simultaneity of the past, present and future in the body.
Hypnotising through lighting, a multichannel soundscape and video imagery, Jansa’s work evokes isolation and loneliness in weightless floating. Proven by the experience of astronauts, weightlessness and loss of gravity cause damage to the body, such as balance problems, visual disturbances, damage to the heart muscle and bone loss. The intensification of living in virtual reality during the pandemic, however, does not predetermine the end to the physical body. Philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi believes that a possible consequence of imposed digital modes of connectiveness during this period might result in a higher demand for experiences that are ‘haptic, shared, void of digital mediation’ .
The video essay by Melanie Bonajo, ‘Night Soil / Fake Paradise’ (2015), presents a composition of personal accounts on the spiritual and bodily experiences with Amazonian substances such as Ayahuasca, foregrounding the feminine voice and point of view. Furthermore, the revelations evoked by shamanic practice and healing mediated in Bonajo’s work revolve around the relation between culture and nature and re-discovering the idea that humans do not necessarily have to relate to it from an external position or even conceptualise it materialistically. If one considers the hundreds of thousands of years since human species have inhabited the planet Earth, Europeans have rendered the separate concepts of ‘nature’ and the ‘human’ fairly recently, in the early 17th century. Only in the last four hundred years has Western modernity established a belief of human thought and reason being superior to other forms of knowledge.
Thinking about the time of interregnum and the enquiry into future reality principles that depart from Western modernity, what are the scenarios that these artistic proposals bring? The Vietnamese artist Trinh T. Minh-Ha describes the education in the West as ‘the tendency to always to relate to a situation or to an object as if it is only outside of oneself. Whereas elsewhere, in Vietnam, or in other Asian and African cultures for example, one often learns to know the world inwardly, so that the deeper we go into ourselves, the wider we go into society’ . This is what shamanic practices and rituals involving psychoactive substances seek to teach and thus propose an alternative to the modernist, consumerist and empiric-scientific tradition.
Furthermore, the propositions in the art works presented as part of ‘Spiritualities: Three Contemporary Portrayals of Transcendence and Beliefs’ and increasingly throughout contemporary art discourse are creating atmospheres in which means of knowledge can exist, without replicating the habit of generating dichotomizing oppositions—nature versus culture, rational versus irrational, subject versus object, objective versus subjective, straight versus queer, and so forth.