REVENGE OF THE SHAMANS: ANDRE STITT AND THE OUTER LIMITS OF ART
I first met Andre Stitt on 21 May 1984 at the opening night of the 8th International Neoist Apartment Festival. A small band of anti-artists were having a street party and entertaining each other with performances in Kennington, south London. The police were called after inebriated Neoists engaged in some high jinx involving glue, loaves of bread, toy dolls and several boxes of matches. When the cops arrived they immediately singled Stitt out for questioning. They’d received reports that a Satanic ritual was taking place, and were disappointed to discover that what they'd arrived to break up was actually an underground art event. Various neighbours were upset that we were destroying our own possessions in the street and for whatever reason had concluded that this it was some form of black magic. After solemnly warning everyone present not to set anything else on fire, the cops left without making a single arrest.
By the time this incident took place Stitt was already lumbered with an extremely hard and heavy public image: it was widely believed within Neoist circles that he'd made his reputation as a performance artist by using a chainsaw to kill and then dissect a rabbit at the Clinker Club in London. This rumour was most likely started by Dr Al Ackerman, the founder of Neoism and an incorrigible teller of extraordinary tall tales, who selflessly encouraged Stitt and scores of other marginal artists to go out on a limb with their work. Ackerman, following in the footsteps of philosophers such as Kant, believes that we arrive at truth through error – and his distorted accounts of the world turn out to be spot-on once you’ve understood that they’re fables. The mythical slaughter of a fluffy bunny functions as a perfect poetic symbol for Stitt and his oeuvre. The image can take us to the ‘bunnyheads’ of Andy Warhol’s favourite artist Ray Johnson (whose mail art and related marginal practices proved an inspiration to Stitt as a student), or when metamorphosed into a hare, to the shamanism of Joseph Beuys.
Andre Stitt’s work bears the authentic imprint of the avant-garde’s archaic revivals. His practice emerges from the same modernist and post-modernist cultural currents as the broader Neoist movement. That is to say from the twentieth-century crisis of art and representation as manifested in dada, surrealism, fluxus and mail art. It is a banality to state that Stitt’s art is a rigorously conceptualised development of various trends initiated by the early to mid-twentieth-century avant-garde. What should be stressed is the way his work emerges from the shamanic traditions that influenced the more progressive elements within the avant-garde. For ‘primitive’ man ‘culture’ was not a separate sphere, something to be contemplated passively by a multitude excluded from its innermost secrets: it was an integral part of the collective life and labour of the whole tribe. Art was indissolubly bound up with magic and the primitive’s never-ending quest to initiate contacts with the hidden realm of the archetypal powers. The shaman was nothing if he was not a master of magical power, a point of contact between the world of everyday reality and the mysterious dimensions that lie beyond it. Hence the avant-garde desire to fuse art and life, even if some of those attracted by this programme failed to grasp its ultimate significance.
Unlike apologists for capitalist social relations, Stitt has no desire to exalt the superiority of 'modern man' over his primitive forebears. On the contrary, he intuitively understands the 'grandeur' of primitive man and sees in the society of the future a restoration, albeit on a higher level, of the primitive communism of the classless societies of the past. Stitt's work conclusively demonstrates that anyone who wishes to be consistent in their opposition to capitalism must necessarily re-appropriate the types of consciousness that emerged from primitive communities, as well as their social form. It was for precisely this reasons that the Situationist International, whose activities bear an elliptical relation to those in which Stitt is currently engaged, wrote of its desire to simultaneously 'realise and suppress art’' Since the primitive community is a true community, a society without exploitation, in which production is still geared towards the satisfaction of human needs, it follows that a large part of the material resources of these societies were directed not simply towards the immediate struggle for existence but rather into activities that were enjoyed simply for their own sake. Work was suspended and life became play. The remorseless necessity to direct activity towards some future goal was replaced by pursuits without pre-determined ends. The tyranny of time was suspended and instead everybody found themselves transported into an ecstatic present.
The development of civilisation has involved a gradual but accelerating suppression of the shamanic art of ecstasy. Thus the degree to which this art has been lost, crushed, or driven underground by the advance of civilisation, and above all by capitalist civilisation, is a yardstick by which we measure the alienation of (wo)man. Therefore the shaman's capacity to '‘recapture' the 'language of the animals', to allow the unconscious to speak through him, is anything but a regression to a sub-human level. It is rather one aspect of a 'greater synthesis' which combines the untrammelled power of animals – who are not subject to repression and can thus function to the maximum of their potential – with the creative intelligence that is unique to the human species. Shamanism is an ascent to a state where (wo)man enjoys a complete and unalienated union of instinct and conscious thought. It is an art of disalienation in which we rediscover our species-being, a state of social 'grace' in which we become complete.
Functioning in a manner akin to the photographs and films of Robert Frank, Stitt's work taken in its entirety tells the story of his life, and it is simultaneously an account of his self-initiation as a shaman. Stitt's biography is well known in performance art circles and has been given its fullest and most accessible form in his book Small Time Life. In 1978 Stitt burnt all his paintings outside the art school in Belfast and proceeded to make 'akshuns' (vernacular for 'action') on the streets of Northern Ireland. Stitt’s early akshuns included dressing-up in combat gear and parodying militarism through eccentric and unpredictable behaviour, which greatly annoyed both the British authorities and local armed protestant gangs. In the early eighties, Stitt relocated to London and continued to make extremely confrontational akshuns albeit in a less dangerous setting. While creating performances that addressed the madness of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Stitt found himself falling into drug addiction and some serious bad craziness. In Small Time Life he provides the following account of his 1992 'breakdown': "I found myself becoming increasingly obsessed with the Shankhill Butchers again. At this time I was in a psychotic state: I actually felt capable of carrying out a murder… Romper Room was the phrase given to the gang drinking den… that the Shankhill Butchers took their victims to before torturing and killing them… I have no recollection of the performance… By the accounts of my friends and wife I had an insane breakdown in public… I was lost in addiction… Then on 17 November it just stopped. It seems difficult to talk about such a thing – maybe because I had a mystical experience… I was lying on the floor… I felt like I was dying, the whole essence of who I was was draining bit by bit out of my body. I remember feeling this incredible whoosh of energy going down a tunnel into an incredibly bright light. I had a feeling of absolute perfection… That was the last thing I remember. I came to about 48 hours later…"
Someone from a 'primitive' society would have used different terminology to describe this experience, but what Stitt relates here is undoubtedly an instance of shamanic auto-initiation. While shamanism as a coherent social practice has undergone a steep decline in modern society; the old capacity for shamanistic vision does on occasion reassert itself at the uncomfortable extremes of human existence; and Stitt spent many years living precariously on the margins of our alienated society. Like so many of those following the rocky road to shamanic initiation, he passed through a deep mental crisis that is hard to distinguish from a descent into madness. Candidate shamans babble all kinds of nonsense; they may wonder off for days, live like wild beasts, become sick and experience frightening hallucinations involving fantasies of being dismembered. The symbolic destruction of the former self is however only the pre-condition for the emergence of a new self, a transfigured body equipped with the higher powers of the shaman. What distinguishes the shaman from the hysteric is that the former is able to emerge from such a crisis not only cured of their own sickness but also blessed with the gift of curing others.
If Stitt’s akshuns prior to 1992 were riddled with images of dismemberment, torture and self-annihilation, this is not surprising since such motifs recur again and again within shamanic initiations. Likewise, a retelling of shamanic lore will clarify other aspects of Stitt’s work. According to shamanic mythology the camps of the first men were close to the silver birch that stands at the centre of the universe and holds up the sky. Since it was but a short walk to the Tree of Life, it was once a simple matter for anyone to climb to the heavens or, if they so desired, to follow the roots of the Tree to the realms below. However, a man who wanted to prove he was equal to the Gods, vowed one day to cut down the Tree. In order to protect the Tree, the Gods decided to veil it from human sight. Since that time only the dead and the shamans have been able to find the Tree. But unlike the first men or indeed the first shamans, even the shamans of two millennia ago couldn’t climb the Tree in their carnal form, they could only climb it with their spirit body. And thus all truly sensuous beings were excluded from the realm of the Gods.
In assorted akshuns prior to his shamanic initiation, Stitt adopted the personas of the Trickster and the Geek. The Geek is someone who has fallen from grace, and within Stitt's work can be read as representing the bulk of mankind who've been excluded from the realm of the Gods and thus have to rely on the shamans for their knowledge of other worlds. In the form of the Trickster, a figure who employs disorder and disruption to remake social reality, Stitt came to physically embody the mythical man who wished to chop down the Tree of Life to prove he was the equal of the Gods. The Trickster is to be viewed dialectically rather than simply as a negative figure, since historical advance always occurs through contradiction, by a series of catastrophes that include profound regressions and the brutal destruction of previous achievements. Primitive man's obsession with 'beginnings' and the deeds of 'ancestors', reveals the deep conservatism of societies whose outlook was moulded by the endlessly repetitive cycles of nature. The dissolution of this social form was historically necessary, since through a long series of class struggles this calamity ultimately culminates in the return at a higher level of communist social relations, with (wo)man at last discovering she is the only God. It is the mythical Trickster who forces us to realise that the Gods are phantoms, projections of our own unrealised human potentials. One of the most pleasing aspects of the current revival of shamanism is the ability of post-modern initiates such as Stitt to climb the Tree of Life in carnal form (as we’ve witnessed in several of his performances). By attacking the Tree of Life and shaking the universe to its foundations, the Trickster inaugurated class society but the human alienation this entailed was predestined to bring about its own overthrow at the hands of the proletariat.
In Stitt's post-initiation akshuns the influence of shamanism is even more readily evident than it was in his pre-1992 work. Many recent akshuns have incorporated stripped trees which represent the Tree of Life after it has been attacked by the Trickster. There have also been a number of akshuns predicated on smashing through walls or doors and incorporating ritual acts of purification through the use of fire. Hopefully it is not necessary to explain that such acts represent a breaking down of all social divisions, as well as an overcoming of the split between instinct and conscious thought. That said, it seems unlikely this extraordinary body of work would be so readily comprehensible in terms of shamanism had there not been an enormous surge of popular interest in the subject over the past half-century. Today there are innumerable groups offering practical instruction on shamanic techniques and traditions. Unfortunately what they provide is most usually an easy, rapid and painless 'initiation' which bears little relation to the ordeals and sufferings that both Stitt and the shamans of old passed through in order to master their art. The revenge of the shamans, that is to say the abolition of class society, will be achieved by the proletariat as a class following the long and winding road to shamanic initiation as practiced by Stitt.
Stitt was only peripherally involved in Neoism
Andre Stitt performance at Chapter Arts, Cardiff 2005.
Andre Stitt performance at Chapter Arts, Cardiff 2005.
Residue of Andre Stitt performance at Chapter Arts, Cardiff 2005.
Homework: Scores, Statements, Notes For Akshuns 1976-2000 by Andre Stitt (Krash Verlag, Cologne).
In live art circles Andre Stitt has a violent and uncompromising reputation. This collection will hopefully change perceptions and allow a broader audience to see that there is more to him than outrageous performances in which rabbits are dissected with chainsaws. From Stitt’s early days the humour that is such a crucial element of his work has often been overlooked. This sense of fun is perhaps most evident in ongoing works such as The Geek that were initially responses to challenges thrown by veterans of the “marginal” arts such as Blaster Al Ackerman. In the seventies US based Ackerman provided inspiration and lyrics for Throbbing Gristle. By the mid-eighties he was suggesting Stitt should be known professionally as “Stan The Geek" and wear a colourful costume of fur, feathers and filth. This was all the encouragement Stitt required to immerse himself in the confrontational shamanism of a trickster figure. Collected here are photographs of performances, alongside notes and drawings by Stitt, as well as excerpts from Ackerman’s letters. All of which provide a hilarious insight into how the pieces developed. From his native Belfast to London and now Cardiff, Stitt has come an awfully long way both personally and artistically. Despite minimal support over much of the past twenty-five years, it’s inspiring to see how Stitt kept pushing the boundaries of his project. He happily shares with us not just his triumphs, but also his mistakes and insecurities. There isn’t much critical signalling in this book, just two short prefaces, but it quickly becomes apparent that Stitt is obsessed not just with art history - but with moving beyond it. His emphatic appropriation of the old Russian avant-garde slogan “art isn’t a mirror, it’s a fucking hammer”, is just one example of this.