Bringing Magic Back
– Spirits and Rituals in Contemporary Art and Culture
In pre-modern times, human and spiritual realms were intermingled. Spirits were integrated into everyday rituals, respected as beings with their own autonomous agency, which make up the external world. One form of such spirituality and belief is animism. Animism is the idea that inanimate objects and organic matter, such as trees, plants, stones etc. have inherent agency and a “soul” or anima, possessing a distinct essence. It’s still prevalent amongst many indigenous populations today such as in Sub-Saharan Africa and in the Philippines.
All such animate, unique beings, along with humans, make up an interconnected organism that is the material universe. Through honouring this interconnection and the soul in other external things, communities that practice animism tend to have a special respect and active, intimate relationship to their environment. They interact with them through practices like shamanism and ritualistic ceremonies, keeping them as a constant otherworldly presence in their everyday life. A large part of this pre-modern understanding of the universe was in fact that humans were more exposed to the whims of nature. However, with the age of enlightenment, the rise of science and bringing the natural world more and more under human control, the current dominant anthropocentric worldview started taking hold.
As people abandoned faith in God and other beings like spirits, in other words, an external power that controlled their way of living and dying, they rationalized and de-mystified the universe and hereby took control into their own hands. This gave birth to a line of thought in Modernism that ran along binaries – such as Body/Mind, Dead/Alive, Man/Woman, Human/Nature and so on, serving systems of power and control exerted by the dominant groups onto those placed lower in the hierarchy. As an example, since animals are considered to be “lower” beings than humans they don’t have the same rights – equally to nature, which makes them available for human exploitation and experimentation. The same bias could be applied to the binary of Male/Female, White/Other and so on that have legitimized socioeconomic structures of inequality throughout history.
This is drastically different to a non-hierarchical, non-binary and interconnected concept of the world, where the category of “Kin” and sense of inter-responsibility is extended to beings beyond one’s body, relatives and immediate surroundings to an entire external chain of interlinking creatures and events that is our collective ecosystem. The 20th century marks an increasing hegemony of an anthropocentric understanding of the planet in the long shadow of Modernism. However, with recent ecological and political crises, people and communities across the globe are starting to seek new ways of finding faith and understanding their environment. There has been a renaissance of New Age religions across the West, such as crystal healing, horoscopes, holistic lifestyles and diets, psychic spirituality and practising Eastern Religions such as Buddhism. They’re becoming a trend to the point of having their own apps, such as daily horoscope and psychic apps. Nostalgia and escapism are also major tropes of our time, manifesting in a collective yearning for a past utopian time of wholeness and continuity with Nature. Especially in the Arts, magical and mythological thinking as well as animism are making a come-back, challenging the human-centric status-quo and exploring the significance of attributing equal-level agency to other living things and even inanimate objects. Important writers and scholars at the forefront of this non-anthropocentric revolution include Donna Haraway, Ursula Le Guin, Anna Tsing, Bruno Latour, Timothy Morton and Graham Harman to mention a few.
Artists are leading this new revolution, building new languages and iconographies of understanding that seek to shape the universe as intermingled, precarious, magical and alive. They’re breaking down the previous binary system. The importance of using figurative, symbolic language and introducing the idea of rituality to signify a fluidity between different realms, states and identities has been a big part of this transition. By sharing agency with the spirit world, to beings outside of ourselves that have power and influence on our lives, means giving up control and building balanced, symbiotic relationships with the Other. Such an alive spirit world is blended in seamlessly with physical, colloquial reality in the paintings of Lena Brazin in the exhibition Coincidental Encounters with Four You Gallery.
Her subjects co-exist side-by-side with various supernatural deities and apparitions, seeming to be aware of their presence and even interacting with them at some points, while sharing in their mundane rituals with them. Her canvases locate rituality and spiritual interconnection within the everyday scenes familiar from lockdown and the intimacy of the domestic world. These works show that the fantastical is also at the same time the most normal, and the supernatural might be closer than we expect. Brazin talks about her methodology as first creating portraits of her subjects, after which she adds symbols and spirits that she feels help guide her process through composing the paintings. Thus, the ghostly presences surrounding and accompanying the characters in the works are also influencing the artist as she is creating them, creating an additional sense of spiritual connection across these different dimensions. Her figures are also sometimes blended with the spirits themselves, merging into hybrid, transient beings that are part-human, part-spirit, which stresses the impossibility to reduce one individual into a binary of Soul/Body or just a single identity.
Lena Brazin’s works reminds me of Studio Ghibli movies in their seamless and lighthearted blurring of boundaries between the human and spiritual worlds. There is nothing surprising or shocking about a supernatural benevolent ally or mischievous nemesis appearing in the lives of the protagonists of these films – the two worlds are blended into each other with a childlike, naive warmth, influencing and complicating each other endlessly. Many of these playful notes are echoed in Brazin’s paintings, which are harmonious and nonchalant depictions of these supernatural encounters. Her works remind us to tune into our intuitions and look for the spirits and magic in the rituals of the everyday.