The chthonic marsh has been filled over to make way for an orderly suburb where people live in identical houses with identical and orderly fenced in backyard boxes where they will never see the stars at night. When they look up and see only the hazy purple of the light-polluted sky looming over them, do they feel the same connection with what lies beyond, that our human ancestors devoted so much to? The precessions and cycles of the heavens, once personified, now carry only the signifiers of their former mythological depth. Their movements have been calculated and recorded, their meanings all but forgotten, their light blocked out by street lamps stamped onto the landscape in regular interval.
Modern urbanity lives in a conceptual grid, a system based on a scientific framework of precision, one that depends upon the measured unit for the constitution of reality. Our minds are trained to work within it, systematizing our existences based on principles put forth by the discourses of science. In this way the institutions of civilization we have created in turn create us. We are limited by our linguistic construction of the world through privileged binary oppositions—relationships defined by the tensions of polarity between light/dark, sun/moon, right/left, man/woman, good/evil.
As a culture we privilege the experience of the left hemisphere, valuing its ordered and systematic approach to the information it perceives as rational while we relegate the right and its non-syntactic reality to the world of creativity and the irrational. The cognitive system of opposition holds itself together by a failure to integrate, to blend order and chaos, finds expression in the Judeo-Christian creation myth wherein mankind is cut out of nature, where the feminine is cut out of mankind. This ideology structures modern Western reality on the basis of our exclusion as human beings from the essential primal bond we share with the natural world as animals.
The conventions of industrialized society depend on the repression of this link, the banishment of primeval mythopoeic cognition from the civilized, conscious psyche.
Michel Maffesoli, a French sociologist who deals with the imagination and everyday life in urban society, predicted that once the geared infrastructure of modernity began its slow decline societies would adopt a nostalgic outlook and reach into the distant past for small-scale systems making the postmodern era one of neotribalism. This longing on the part of industrialized western society found expression in the art of the primitivists and has become thoroughly enmeshed in pop culture thanks to the Western, ubiquitous tribal tattoos and the widespread corporate textile appropriation that serves us “Afrika”-themed prints skintight to the bodies of lithe white women.
Our postcolonial reality calls for the deconstruction of the modern desire for our deep past, detangling it from the exotification, decimation and generalization of the other that defined half a millennium. Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña put themselves and this dichotomy on display with their performance piece “Undiscovered Amerindians,” in which they portrayed a pair of indigenous natives from an invented island culture displayed within a ten-by-twelve foot cage. During the course of the exhibition they performed stereotyped primitive activities including hair braiding and banana eating and could be enticed by donation to perform “native” dances to rap music and tell “authentic” stories in gibberish.
Despite the expressed intentions of the artists that the piece be taken as a satire, more than half of viewers accepted the piece as a genuine ethnographic display revealing what Fusco described in her book, English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas, as the “reverse ethnographic” nature of the work: “The cage became a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies of who and what we are. As we assumed the stereotypical role of the domesticated savage, many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of colonizer.” The cage bars through which the audience viewed the performance provided a frame, a degree separation from the artists that conceivably allowed the othering discourse of colonial ethnography to follow close at hand.
The artists’ syncretic incorporation of cultural artifacts such as leopard-print bra and sneakers as well as Peña’s Mexican wrestling mask elevate the status of these items to that of the ethno-kitch; objects whose original symbolic content is lost in the process of conforming to the consumer’s popular notions. “Undiscovered Amerindians” pushes satire in the appropriation of pop culture artifacts in critique—intentional or unintentional—of the viewer’s predisposition to be so distracted by the degree of separation as to consume the endless debris of consumer culture without notice.
But what of artistic creation that seeks to explore the inner primitive of the self rather than the other: is it possible to draw inspiration from primal depths without being caught in a cage? Can we create outside the contemporary discourses of identity and ownership, exploring what is universally possessed? After all, the human imagination that once saw sacredness and spirits in the world is still within us today. There are perhaps some things that can never be stripped of their symbolic content, some element of wildness within us that refuses to be reckoned. Is it possible to explore the primitive in a way that shows us ourselves rather than others?
Where do we draw lines between sincere syncreticization, expropriative appropriation, and those things fundamental? Can we make boundaries between what underlies human cognition and what has been projected upon the framework of our consciousness. After all, the innate human experience has not been altered, but manufactured to fit into a meticulously gridded and scientific approach that gives us language only to describe what is tangible in this world. Those experiences that are fleeting and indefinable are left to fall by the wayside. When we enter the void of intangible experience, we are immersed in a sea of images, some of which have consumed our minds through the vantage of the glowing frame and some which have gnawed on our souls from time immemorial.
We live in an age of inundation. We are awash in a sea of ever-changing images, ideas. The question of whether any of this information is new is a tide that sweeps us back and forth, back and forth over the vast repository of the collective unconscious. These deeper currents pulse beneath the surface reality of our modern existences and link us to an underworld of archetype where myths are born and find meaning. If we can stand the chaotic quiet long enough we just might be able to make out their mysteries. Those rhythms that science has no measurements for, those intricacies of the human experience that are nothing short of magical.