‘Let us remember that the ‘fetish’ is an entirely European term, a measure of persistent European failure to understand Africa.’ Anthony Shelton
In an astonishing piece of work Anthony Shelton points out that at the very heart of that part of the Congo, which fascinated the European imagination as the centre of ‘primitive’ fetishism, Christianity had been introduced as early as 1482. Citing a mass of evidence from Christian missionaries relating to the incorporation of the imagery of the passion into native Congo religious thought and art Shelton goes so far as to suggest that the nail fetishes were the result of ‘a synthesis of Kongo and Christian beliefs.’ Following up this huge assertion Shelton goes on to read a series of representations of martyrdom from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in terms of their obsession with body piercing and the implements of body piercing. Swords, knives, hammers and nails, pins, pokers, hooks, ropes, chains, cages and whips emerge as a fetish vocabulary within the Christian martyrological imagination. Christ and St. Sebastian emerge as the primary corporeal manifestations of the European nail fetish. St. Sebastian in particular appears to possess a trans-cultural homoerotic appeal. Yokio Mishima states in his Confessions of a Mask that he achieved his first ejaculation through a fantasy focused on Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian. As icons Christ and St. Sebastian were also introduced to Africa and subsequently developed into the hybrid Congo nail fetish.
And so those very objects which came, for late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century anthropologists, to signify the dark and ignorant arts of the barbaric African imagination, were, in fact, strange mutations. The Congo fetishes grew out of the weird fetishisation of pain lying at the heart of Christianity, or at least of those sects fixated on the persecutory imagination. Indeed the mythologies, or should we say theologies, surrounding a European God who proved his love for humankind by torturing his own son to death, in what is at one interpretative level a fetishised set of bondage rituals, might be seen to have introduced sado-masochistic fetish practices into the art and thought of the Congo. The true sadomasochists, and source of eroticised religious torture, were, and continue to be, Europeans. Yet anyone even vaguely aware of the grip which illustrated editions of John Foxe’s Acte’s and Monuments exerted on the Protestant imagination, on both sides of the Atlantic, for three centuries, or who has taken the time to examine the Catholic altarpieces in European churches showing the multiple and excruciating deaths, and unending resurrections, of obscure Saints, should not find that to be a peculiar phenomenon. What is peculiar, is the manner in which the fetishised slave body as a site of torture was absorbed into the conventions of pornographic martyrology.
KISS TH BAT
Kiss the Bat The bat project confronted the inherent symbolic ambiguity and paradox of the baseball bat. America's most democratic and widely loved sport has also produced a hitting tool which is used in more domestic homicides than the knife. Only hand guns account for more murdered bodies each year that the sacred bat. I made a giant bat, deliberately reminiscent of the Proto-Oldenburg monstrous bat set up outside the Louisville Slugger Baseball Bat Factory in Kentucky. My bat was hand made using an adze, and a telegraph pole, and then painted with gesso and given a gold leaf cap. The bat formed the centre-piece for various healing performances, the last of which involved the kissing of the bat by a host of random performers in the Meeting House of Sussex University. The performers had first applied lipstick to their labia. This performance formed the main focus for the subsequent film Bat.
Click here to view full "Kiss the Bat" video project
The Hitler Mannequins formed one of the Performances for Swastik, my film about the reclamation of the Indian symbol of the Satya from the terrible encrustations which the Nazi's had laid upon it.
I collaborated with a young Indian performance artist for much of the project. I made the Hitler dolls out of terracotta and painted them with gouache, they then functioned as fetish objects during a ritual of cleansing performed under a sacred Banyan tree in Vadodora Gujarat. The dolls were encircled with turmeric and Indian Satya's left beneath them. They were then left to be washed away by the Monsoon rains.
Click here to view "Swastik" project
The Grub sculptures consisted of a set of glass grubs I designed and which the brilliant glass sculptress Lene Lunde made for me. The black glass grub was blown into a clay mould ten centimetres wide and forty long. All the glass blowers in the workshops said it could not be made, that it was physically impossible. Lene spent two days trying, and finally after about ten duds, out it came, a true artistic birth. Lene also blew the clear glass grubs and the Rainbow Grub. Each section of the coloured grub had to be flooded with coloured dye.
At the center of the show was my giant grub made of a canvas skin, stuffed with straw, coated in marble dust gesso and capped with real gold leaf. Lene set a glass heart inside it before it was interred in the national sculpture garden in Canberra as an 'invisible sculpture not built to last'. All materials were bio degradable.
Click here to view the film "Grub"
Chess is of course intimately linked with the chicaneries of Conceptual Modern Art through the impact of Marcel Duchamp's obsessive engagement with the game and its pieces. What is not so widely known is that he designed chess sets himself.
India is thought by many to be the home of chess and while I lived and worked there I designed two chess sets. One made of cast bronze pieces set in miniature red sandstone and black granite plinths worked around the tools of India's most popular sports, cricket, hockey, badminton and archery,and perhaps most interestingly Gilli Danda, a wonderful rural game.
The other chess set produced a minimal and abstract design using the face of the die for the pieces. The pawn is one dot, the knight two dots, the bishop three dots, the castle four dots, the queen five dots the king six dots. White marble and black granite cubes were used for the two sides.
These little terracotta sculptures were made in homage to the lovely Ain Sakhri Lovers Figurine a stone sculpture found near Bethlehem. At 11,000 years old it is the world's oldest known representation of human sexual intercourse. It remains probably the most complete sculptural embodiment of two people making love. Viewed from different angles the work melds the two lovers into breasts, buttocks, testicles, vaginas and phalluses. The two people are dissolved with each other, gender ceases to matter, amor vincit ominia with an absolute energy and calm. I made about fifty attempts to catch something of the essence of this magical thing. I only kept the two illustrated opposite. Both were made in terracotta, the small one I covered with burnished red gold leaf.
THE EGG AND THE CHICKEN
Ove Ovum Parere was a project which involved the painting of multiple blown eggs, bantam eggs, quail eggs, chicken eggs and here duck eggs. The ideas developed out of a reaction to one of Clarice Lispector's most brilliant and most obscure pieces of writing the notoriously mercurial O ovo e a Galinhna: 'I look at the egg with a single gaze. Immediately I perceive that one cannot be seeing the egg...When I was ancient I was keeper of the egg and I would tread gently to avoid upending the egg's silence.' These eggs are Clarice's egg, but they also are enfolded in the 'Mundane Egg' of William Blake.
'The Mundane Shell, is a vast Concave Earth: an immense Hardend shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth Enlarg'd into dimension & deform'd into indefinite space, In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells; with Chaos And Ancient Night; & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven folds of opakeness And finishes where the lark mounts'. Milton Plate xvii.