Sick White God
On the return to animism, why we have never been modern, and why the concept of primitivism is obsolete…
The exhibition’s title is inspired by a scene in Nicholas Roeg’s film Heart of Darkness (1993) in which the adventurer Captain Marlowe, who has an attack of indigestion, is called a “sick white god” by the Congolese. In the wilds of Africa, the local people with their animist worldview prove superior to the intruders from the so-called civilized world. Animists believe that the world is inhabited by spirits and demons. They also believe in the supreme power of the mind. In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud equates animism with the phase of infancy during which the child believes in the magical fulfilment of its every wish – a narcissistic desire to manipulate the world as one sees fit.
The show looks at the interface between animism and monotheism, bringing together egomaniacs, totem poles and philosophizing observers. They either represent themselves or consist of symbols laden with meaning. Totems stand for belonging, suggesting an unseen group of followers. They have magic powers and must not be killed or wounded. The totem poles here are constellations of anachronistic symbols – some from cultures from antiquity to the present, some from the virtual world. As if fired from a ray gun, they pile up into random structures, manifesting themselves in stone that will survive millennia. The individual figures present their system of values and their strategies for imposing it. The space is observed from two viewpoints: that of Sick White God and that of the person sitting on the throne.
On the individual sculptures:
Is Sick White God an architect of the world or a moai from Easter Island? If he is a creator or demiurge, then he looks at a world that sprang from his own visions. The creation phase was long ago and the process has been running without his help ever since. Now he can only look on as his experiment unfolds. But he could also be a Polynesian ancestor statue whose function is to mediate between this world and the next. In archaeological terms, the megalomania of the sculptors made a fatal contribution to the demise of the island’s population: in order to transport and erect the giant figures, much of the island’s forest was felled, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil: wishing to exert a positive influence on the destiny of their clan, the islanders unwittingly dug their own grave.
Totem With Beard is a totem pole that could be the result of a painting game (in which each player paints one body part, folds the paper, and passes it on to the next player). The result in this case: a bearded Sumerian with a Maya comic belly, on its head a Nigerian super-ego.
In Digital Totem, heroes from the virtual world mix with a Neolithic Idol from European prehistory that stands on its head, supporting a stack including Pacman the pixel eater and his adversary, the ghost Inky, who has glitchily crash-landed. The pole is topped by a round head whose mouth is blocked by a hashtag.
The Two Face Totem has one masked and one projecting side. The primitive masks conceal the character that lies behind, putting forward an inscrutable face. The emojis on the other side are designed to give direct expression to wishes and feelings. In spite of this, they, too, look like masks.
The Conquistador bound to the Voodoo Cross symbolizes Man as the prisoner of the spirits he has summoned and the gods he believes in. In most cases, the conquest of animist indigenous peoples by missionary colonization ended in subjugation of these new territories. This was done in the name of a religion that itself called for subservience. The promises made in return related mainly to advantages in life after death. But the animist cultures in the conquered countries also possessed rituals for influencing life before death. As a result, the new religion was never able to replace the old one completely. Black and white magic, as well as voodoo, remained.
The Big Laugh pays homage to the dignity and joie de vivre of Africa, qualities that assert themselves in spite of the often merciless reality of life there. Crying is masked. Loud laughter is raised aloft in triumph.
The Consumer, The Angry Citizen and Polyphemus, The Cyclops are all animist characters in terms of their belief in the mind’s power to manipulate the world on the basis of personal wishes. The Consumer buys what he wants to achieve his aims. The Angry Citizen, an undeniable orc, will use force to get what he wants. And Polyphemus The Cyclops destroys what he wishes for (based on the Greek myth in which Polyphemus kills Acis, the lover of Galatea, out of jealousy). He cannot bear the retinal image of what he cannot have and wishes to obliterate it.
The Key is a tottering ghost. Through a central hole punched out in the shape of a Christian cross, the world beyond becomes visible as if through a keyhole. At first glance, one might well see in this a portrayal of the Holy Ghost, which Christians view as a mere breath of air. The cruciform hole in the body of the sculpture allows this breath of air to pass.
Visitors are invited to view the exhibition from the vantage point of the Aztec-Teutonic Throne. The throne is decorated with animals that can be interpreted in many ways. The backrest is in the shape of an eagle, which features in many cultures as a heraldic device and totemic beast: In Nordic mythology, a wise eagle, a powerful winged being, sits at the top of the world tree Yggdrasil from where, like Odin looking down from his high seat Hlidskjalf (at the gate to the blue of the heavens), it surveys everything happening in the world. Nothing escapes its keen mind and watchful eyes. It is said to be old and omniscient, but also easily vexed as it must constantly behold the deeds and misdeeds of humankind. The squirrel Ratatösk constantly brings the eagle news from the snake Nigdhögg who dwells at the foot of the world tree.
In Native American mythology, the power animal Wanbli, the eagle, is positively connoted in the sense of ascent, swiftness, braveness, intelligence, combative force, knowledge of reality; and negatively in the sense of a hunger for power.
The armrests of the chair are twined around with snakes, which in our culture are associated, thanks to the Bible, with untruth and betrayal. Genesis 3: “13. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. 14: And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”
For the Maya, the snake represented fecund strength or healing life energy that permeates time-space, uniting the realm of death with the universe’s cycle of life, forming a cosmic bond. Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent) is one of the key figures in Mesoamerican iconography. The coexistence of different worldviews and semantic associations is intended, making the throne into a syncretic sculpture.
There is no answer. Is there a question?
The question could be whether the work of every artist today contains the Lascaux Caves and/or the ancestor sculptures of Easter Island. Have we really risen above the so-called primitive? In his book We Have Never Been Modern, the French philosopher and theorist of science Bruno Latour calls into doubt not only the break between modernity and the time before it, but also the distinction that is made between the modern and the unmodern – between supposedly modern western people and members of other cultures – as if there were winners and losers. Reason and a belief in science and progress are considered to be defining characteristics of modernity. Key to the project of modernity is a rigorous distinction between nature and culture, nature and society. To put the question another way: Were we never primitive? And what makes us believe we no longer are?
Text: Sonja Baeger
Translated by Nicholas Grindell