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Artists as Shamans in Contemporary Society

In ancient lore shamans were magic practitioners that helped shape the first human societies.
As wise as they were feared, the shaman mystics were a high-rank figure in the
human society, capable of winning battles, de-cursing allies, they could heal physical
wounds and the soul, and also communicate with animal spirits and even shape shift.
In 2012, archaeologists uncovered an unusual site near Lake Świdwie, in north-western
Poland. After meticulously analyzing the settlement using modern techniques, the team
of researchers concluded that it dated back more than 9,000 years.
Yew blades were found near the lake Swidwie in POLAND…This discovery is unique, as
found in other shaman settlements in Siberia and Mongolia only. It apparently served as
a sanctuary from where the spirit practitioners engaged into rituals and out-of-body experiences
which are now out of reach for modern science or written history. It demonstrates
that ancient Europeans had knowledgeable advisors who could read the stars,
use advanced remedies from nature, and who knows what other ancient techniques that
are now forever lost.
Artists-as-shamans are needed in these warring times. Art heals and reveals that which
science cannot. These artists are people in a quest for life’s deeper meaning. Shamanism
is universally concerned with the well-being of both nature and human nature, and
the relationship between them. How can modernity know so little for knowing so much?
In making art, the artist breathes herself out to allow the breathing in of universal air, intelligent
with many minds, alive with energy. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are
lovers of metamorphosis, all are capable of visions, insights and dreams.
Real artists have taken up the role of the shaman in our times. Possibly because both
art and shamanism use the realm of metaphor where feeling is expressed and where
healing happens. With metaphoric vision, empathy flows, knowing no borders. Both
artist and shaman create harmony within an individual, and between the individual and
the wider environment, a way of thinking essential for life, which we have almost forgotten
about in our pursuit of money and technology and power.
I saw the video „Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present“ yesterday, showing all her
monumental exhibits and previous performance pieces…that woman is a true artistshaman!
Marina Abramovic, born in Yugoslavia in 1946, has a career that spans approximately
fifty works over four decades of interventions and sound pieces, video works, installations,
photographs, solo performances, and collaborative performances.
„The Artist is Present“ is the longest solo performance ever undertaken by an artist in a
museum setting, MOMA. For 3 months everyday for 8 hours a day, Marina sat still in a
chair inviting the audience to take turns sitting in a chair opposite her in silence with
locked eye contact. It turns out that if you can empty your mind each time before, you
can connect with the other stranger’s essence and many many people were so moved
by this connection with Marina that tears rolled down their faces in joy.
Now this is an example of how art can be transformative, just as a shaman in ancient
societies transformed people with their spells.
Marina’s earlier performance pieces were also dramatic, pointing to hidden aspects of
human nature, which is what art should really be about. Since her early days in Serbia,
Marina has put herself under extreme physical and mental duress to jolt viewers out of
ordinary patterns of thinking. When she cut herself with a knife, or slammed her body
into a wall, it was done with such purity, the viewer was lifted temporarily out of themselves.
It is the opposite of sensationalism or exhibitionism, it is pure magic to behold.
Artists often suffer in their youth, according to Joseph Campbell, as if ‘the whole unconscious
has opened up and they’ve fallen into it’. Shamanism, like art, is a calling, and a
young person may be ‘doomed to inspiration’ as the anthropologist Waldemar Bogoras
wrote of the Siberian shamanic vocation. In a painful transformation lasting months or
years, the young shaman loses interest in life, eats little, is withdrawn or mute, sleeping
most of the time. It reads like a portrait of the young artist in a devastating depression.
The young shaman overcomes the illness through the practice of shamanism, just as
many artists know that their own best medicine is found in their work, like Van Gogh,
who was guided by the sun from the dark side of the mind, to the ecstasy of being.

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