Excerpts from: Why Shamanic Practices Are Making A Comeback In Contemporary Art by Tess Thackara


“‘Everyone always talks about how, in times of crisis, people start looking for God,’ says Canadian, Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw. ‘And I think that’s very synonymous with what’s happening now.’ Since his days at art school, Shaw has been exploring the human pursuit of transcendental experience by way of altered states of consciousness. In an early project, he filmed himself and others after taking DMT, a naturally occurring molecule found in both the human brain and certain plants, which the late ethnobotanist and psychedelics advocate Terence McKenna called ‘the most powerful hallucinogen known to man and science.’ Shaw’s subjects are shot close-up in states of apparent euphoria or rapture. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen convey the participants’ later efforts to translate the experience into words – something which those who have taken DMT say is nearly impossible. The artist’s interest in the universal desire for spiritual life, a yearning for some higher power or intelligence, or to ‘reach for something beyond,’ as he puts it, has led him to some interesting places.”

“His most recent video Liminals (2017), currently on view at the Venice Biennale, similarly focuses on an imagined community, this one a few decades into the future. The piece is a sci-fi pseudo-documentary, albeit one that is shot in black and white, party using a 16mm camera. It follows a ‘periphery-altruistic culture,’ a community that has lived through a failed attempt at the singularity – the belief, popularity associated with Silicon Valley futurists, that computer and AI technology will eventually outrun or merge with the capacities of the human brain. The film’s protagonists attempt to reactivate the ‘faith cell’ in the brain through a fusion of contemporary technology and spiritual ritual. Liminals, with its expressions of uncertainty regarding humanity’s future (coupled with a degree of optimism for the power of collective rituals, and science) taps into a broader undercurrent present at the Biennale, and beyond.”

Question: What do you think of Shaw’s “take” on faith? Compare and contrast it with other traditional “faiths.” Why do you suppose in his Liminals piece he is positioning the attempt at the “singularity” with that of “faith”?


“In many ways, the [Venice] Biennale is reflective of a larger zeitgeist. Exhibitions over the past couple of years – from the Sao Paulo Biennial to the Whitney Biennial – have to some extent pivoted away from an examination of the contemporary technologies that consume our lives, and toward forms of collectivity, self-care, shamanic rites, and an earnest interst in the sacred and ineffable. The development has prompted writer Ben Davis and others to point to a ‘shamanistic’ trend in contemporary art practice…Concurrently, a number of artists have been exploring witchcraft and the occult as a form of feminist or post-gender art, with artists like Juliana Huxtable casting herself as a potent priestess, witch, and cult queen in self-portraits and performances. Meanwhile, in the broader Western cultural sphere, a gradual de-stigmatization of the use of psychedelics has allowed for a growing body of medical research showing their therapeutic value, supported by advocacy groups like MAPS.”

“Many in the art world and beyond still discount this type of psychedelic art and possibly even the more subtle current of shamanism present in contemporary art today as a lot of kumbaya, the return of the 1960s New Age. If one thing is certain, however, it’s that this recent development demonstrates not only a deep disillusionment with the Western way of life, but a search for a path forward – examining tradition in order to reimagine our world. Seen through an optimistic lens, it demonstrates an increased sensitivity to other people’s ways of life at a moment when, it goes without saying, culture in the West is experiencing a moment of maximum polarization.”

Question: What is Thackara’s possible argument here in favor of this Shamanistic direction of art?


“What this new artistic current might illustrate more than anything is a deep desire not only for individual spiritual transcendence but also for cultural transformation – and a belief that such transformation is possible. ‘More than ever before, contemporary theorists, scientists, and activists need to pay more attention to so-called indigenous knowledge,’ says [Guillermo] Gomez-Pena [extreme performance artist]. ‘The basic answers to our survival might lie precisely in the very indigenous communities that the corporate global project is rapidly destroying.’ To get the West out of its current morass, we may need not only the knowledge of indigenous cultures and the tools of modern science, but also the awakening of consciousness brought by art – some experience of God.”