That which I am saying now is not said by me,
But dug out of the earth like grains of fossilized wheat.
On their coins depict a lion,
Others a head.
Multifarious copper, gold, and bronze lozenges
With identical honour lie in the earth.
The age, trying to bite through them,
Has printed on them its teeth.
Time clips me like a coin,
And there’s no longer enough of me for myself
Last summer I was on an artistic residency for some weeks, making work that was inspired by a folklore archive I stumbled across in the city’s national library. Some other artists and I were invited to spend a weekend in the countryside, around three hours outside of the city centre. I was excited to get out of the routine I had fallen into since I’d arrived, and to have a few days away from the studio. The cottage we rented was owned by a couple in their seventies, recently retired after having worked as forest rangers for almost their whole life. When we arrived they showed us around their grounds, which spanned for miles around the forest that surrounded us. They had dedicated their life to the forest and had started to pick up some old rituals to connect with the spirits they believed were around us. On the second day, the women took me to a massive rock by the edge of the forest. She told me that she had stumbled upon it one day when she was out for a walk, and when she found it only a small piece of the top of it was sticking out of the ground. She said that the rock had asked her to be dug up. She started to trace the boulder’s edges out, fetched her husband and, when they noticed the size of it, they called an archaeologist who helped them bring the entire boulder forward out of the ground. The thing you need to know, she continued, is that our country isn’t known for boulders in this size, they are very rare. Most of the boulders that exist in our country were brought here by glaciers from our neighbouring countries. In saying that, I felt she wanted to emphasise that it wasn’t just through luck that she had stumbled upon this specific rock. I asked her, how did the boulder speak to you? She told me that when she found it, she stayed with it for a long time, interacted with it in different ways, to help the essence of the rock to come alive. It´s normal for the soul of an object to lay dormant until it´s interacted with, a minimum of 10 minutes to have an exchange of energy with one another, she clarified.
The day after, we had a walk around the forest to collect branches for one of her sauna rituals. We passed by a smaller rock and she told me to sit on it. She said, “Sit there,” and pointed at the smallish rock, “Sit there for 10 minutes and I will be back to get you after I have finished up some preparations for the sauna ritual.” So, I did. It was quite pleasant. It was summer, the sun was out. I could hear her goats in the distance. The stone was a bit cold. The mosquitos weren’t too bad, I had for once not forgotten to spray myself with mosquito repellent that morning. I can’t explain why, but I started to feel a bit uneasy. I got up from the stone and felt better as soon as I took a few steps away from it. The woman came back and I wanted to tell her about the interaction, but she said no, it’s between you and the rock.
In that moment, I started to think of when I was climbing a mountain a couple of years earlier. At the bottom of the mountain I found a stone that I really liked, so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I started my climb, got up to the top and saw the amazing view of the city. During my walk I kept reaching into my pocket to squeeze the stone. On my way back down, I started to feel really uneasy for taking the stone from its original place, its home. I tried to ignore the feeling, but I couldn’t. I felt so guilty. I spent ages trying to find the place where I picked it up, just to return it to that exact spot. Somehow, it was very important in my mind that if I didn’t place it back in its position, it could never return there by itself. Reasoning that the stone wasn’t a living thing. But then, on the other hand, wasn’t it the stone that had told me it wanted to be returned?
These conflicted feelings are a constant companion to me while I´m making the work I do. I can’t always separate if it’s me that is mirroring my own consciousness and feelings upon the objects and material I’m working with or the agency of the object itself. My meeting with the woman that summer didn’t make things clearer. After that, I started to wonder if I could unmap and unthink the way I interact with my surroundings, and change the way I use language to formulate the unexplainable. I started to wonder how deeply integrated the colonialist view of animism is in us? We can register it in our everyday perception, maybe sometimes in ways that are not immediately perceptible, because it has become a natural part of how we perceive, experience and relate to things. We as modern subjects see ourselves as the active figure facing a passive world of matter that is acted upon. Are we able to step outside and transform what presents itself to us as “given” reality?[i]
The traditional philosophical Western view of the soul is that it´s something that is owned by a subject, that the essence is enclosed within its interior. We can understand the confusion, looking back in history, of the anatomists who opened up the body to look for the soul, only to discover that they couldn’t find it. The writer Anselm Franke in his article Animism: Notes on an Exhibition; asks the question; `What if the soul is not a substance, not a “thing” but a function (not unlike the “zero” in mathematics)? What if “soul” (anima in Latin) is another name for the very medium that makes reciprocal exchange possible, for what happens in the very in-between, the event of communication? Would that not also change the very meaning of what it means to animate?´[ii]
The physicist Karen Barad in her text Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter poses the question “Why are language and culture granted their own agency and historicity while matter is figured as passive and immutable, or at best inherits a potential for change derivatively from language and culture? How did language come to be more trustworthy than matter?” [iii]
Maybe it has to do with the way in which we comprehend the concept of materiality, such as how it´s appropriated and involved in human projects within specific social and historical contexts. For instance, philosopher Martin Heidegger explains the function of a jug in one of his texts; the jug´s thingness, he argues, lies neither in its physical substance nor in its formal appearance but in its capacity to gather, to hold and to give forth, consequently, its relationship to human activity.[iv] We have changed the matter of the clay into an object that is weaved into human activity, something that is controlled and made by us. The archaeologist Joshua Pollard points out that material things, like people, are processes, and that their real agency lies precisely in the fact that they cannot always be captured or contained. [v]
We are constantly categorizing, measuring, quantifying and searching for evidence in our everyday life, in a bid to understand and comprehend our own existence and move forward in our lives. The philosopher Jonna Bornemark argues that by doing this we are escaping the subjective, emotional and temporary, and also in the end, belief.[vi] Therefore, by our constant analysing of things, we are putting a distance between ourselves and our surroundings and maybe losing our openness for its agency.
For instance, when things enter a museum, they become subject to de-animation, as they turn from things into objects of the very conservation that is the purpose of the museum’s existence. ”They become positioned within a classificatory order of knowledge where the object here is fixed and identified. So, whatever way an object might have been animated in its original context, ceases to be so in the confines of a museum. On the other hand, by distinguishing what is inherent to the object from what belongs to the knowing subject and what has been projected onto the object, we understand the world through this objectification.”[vii] Therefore, what is not objectified remains unreal and abstract, and it is this unreal and abstract that scares us, the very thing we cannot wrap our heads around or relate to.
In her essay, The Uprising of Things, professor Vivian Liska writes that “in order to justify our transience and console ourselves about our mortality we insist of the lifelessness of things. That we take out our revenge on their permanence by making them subservient, by weaving them into our activities. That by naming things we assign them a role and make them submissive. Words are human ́s tools of mastery”. [viii] Death is the price we pay for being alive.
In the end it seems that everything comes down to control, a way to escape our own finitude in comparison to their (the objects) duration. We know that objects can evoke responses in individual humans or even entire societies, most of us can relate to that feeling. It happens when we stumble upon an old photograph or maybe a piece of jewellery owned by a loved one. It often doesn’t have to do with the object in itself, but more with how it makes us feel connected to what no longer exists. I think that we constantly search for signs in these things, vital signs. We are trying to make sense of what the meaning of life is, and in this, we somehow try to control the things we can’t control. Simply, as Vivian Liska points out, “we try to justify our transience and console ourselves about our mortality.”[ix] Therefore, we insist on the lifelessness of things, because we know that when we will no longer exist as humans, those pieces of objects probably will, in one form or another.
[i] Franke, Anselm, Animism, Notes on an Exhibition, [Online Article]. 2012 https://www.eflux.
com/journal/36/61258/animism-notes-on-an-exhibition/ (accessed 2020-04-12).
[ii] Franke, Anselm, Animism, Notes on an Exhibition, [Online Article]. 2012 https://www.eflux.
com/journal/36/61258/animism-notes-on-an-exhibition/ (accessed 2020-04-12).
[iii] Barad, Karen. Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs 28.3 (2003): 801-31. Web. pp. 801.
[iv]Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, language, thought, 1971. New York. Harper and row. pp.74
[v] Ingold, Tim. Being Alive to a world without objects. The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (New York: Routledge). 2013. pp. 213-225pp.220
[vi] Bornemark, Jonna. De Omätbaras Renässans, en uppgörelse med pedanternas världsherravälde. 2018
[vii] Franke, Anselm, Animism Volume 1. Sternberg Press, 2010. pp 15.
[viii] Liska, Vivian. The Uprising of Things, Animism Volume 1. 2010. pp. 132
[ix] Liska, Vivian. The Uprising of Things, Animism Volume 1. 2010. pp. 132