In December 2019, I got a call from Philip Baldwin, one half of the renowned glass artist duo Baldwin & Guggisberg. They were working on a new solo exhibition at Glasmuseet Ebeltoft in Denmark and the work they were making had been strongly inspired by their reading of the Dark Mountain manifesto. Over the months that followed, we spoke regularly, and our conversations deepened into a collaboration.
Among the fruits of this is a book, WALKING IN THE VOID, in which Christoph Lehman’s photographs of the twelve installations Philip and his partner Monica Guggisberg created for the exhibition are woven together with THE ASTEROID: An Anthropocene Whodunnit, an essay in which I investigate the trail of evidence leading from the broken shards of glass that bracket the timeline at the centre of the exhibition.
What follows is the eleventh of the twelve chapters that make up that essay. Last October, during one of the rare moments in 2020 when travel across Europe was possible, I took the train from Sweden to Denmark to join Monica and Philip for a bonfire ritual which would originally have taken place at the autumn equinox and marked the close of the exhibition.
To learn more about the exhibition and the book, you can join us on Monday 12 April for a free Zoom event to mark the book’s publication.
I wonder what exactly we are burning. Lately, I’ve run into people who talk about the need to ‘reboot civilisation’ in order to rescue it from a trajectory of collapse, and I find that both words leave me cold: I’ve little fondness for computing metaphors, or for this big, simple story that always left too much out. Still, I don’t know if you can burn a story.
What do we think we’re doing, with this ritual?
‘You may think when you look at our ritual, it’s like your theatre, because we dress up and we paint our bodies and there’s costumes.’ This is Takumã Kuikuro, a filmmaker and member of the Kuikuro people. ‘Perhaps the word “theatre” and “ritual” do translate each other, but it’s not really what we’re doing. What we’re doing is the nature; the dance of the fish is the fish. There is more than representation there.’
What separates theatre from ritual is a safety line. The deal is, we suspend our disbelief: we let it trail in the water for a while, knowing we can reel it in when the curtain falls, or sooner if we choose to walk out. When the dance of the fish is the fish, the line has snapped.
I catch Kuikuro’s words in a video where he’s speaking with the theatremaker Simon McBurney. They talk about The Encounter, a one-man performance in which McBurney tells the true story of a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre. Lost in the Amazon, McIntyre is drawn into the world of the Mayoruna tribe, whose language he cannot speak, but who seem able to communicate with him through what they know as the ‘Old Language’. The Mayoruna are on the move, retreating deeper into the forest to evade the destructive forces of economic development. McIntyre follows them, losing his watch and his camera along the way.
There’s a moment in the journey when the group that McIntyre is with converges with other groups of Mayoruna. He meets a man who speaks some Portuguese, who can answer his questions about where they are going, what’s going on, what the Old Language is. (‘It is not learned,’ the man says, ‘it is remembered.’) There is a ceremony taking place, a great fire is lit and onto it they begin to throw their belongings: tools, weapons, fishing nets, headdresses of egret feathers; all the beautiful and useful things that make up the material existence of their culture.
‘These things die here,’ McIntyre is told, ‘so we can return.’ So the people can be released from the bind these objects have over them, can become unstuck and make the journey to ‘the beginning’.
On stage, McIntyre or McBurney turns from this scene to picture its counterpart: bonfires in every garden along America’s most affluent streets, people dragging out their belongings to be burned, Washington in flames, torching the Library of Congress – and by this point he’s leaping across the stage, taking a hammer to the sound equipment, yelling, Are we going to get rid of all this fucking shit, motherfuckers?!
It’s not a ritual, though; it’s an artfully constructed work of theatre. As he’s about to bring the hammer down on his iPhone, it starts ringing, and he’s interrupted by the voice of his small daughter, woken from a bad dream.
The anthropological study of ‘rites of passage’ starts with the work of Arnold van Gennep in the first decade of the twentieth century. He described the rituals through which an individual or a cohort of individuals pass, marking a ‘life-crisis’ and a transition to a new social status, and observed that a whole community can pass through such a rite. The burning ceremony for which McIntyre is present marks a ‘life-crisis’ for the Mayoruna: with this dramatic gesture of destruction, they are leaving behind the social reality of their recent existence, to begin again.
In the 1970s, Victor Turner and Richard Schechner brought this anthropological work into dialogue with performance studies. Identifying the resemblance between modern theatre and the space of ritual, they made the distinction between the liminal spaces entered into in the rituals of a tribal culture and the liminoid spaces characteristic of a large-scale complex society, where an evening at the theatre has become a leisure activity.
What are we ready to burn, I wonder now. Behind the safety line of artistic performance, how much is at stake in our ritual? Do we expect to be changed by it? Do we risk to come unstuck?
As long as the linear chronology of the classroom timeline held sway, the encounter with the liminal seemed to belong to the worlds studied by archaeologists and anthropologists, but we know that this timeline is fraying. The liminal is not done with us; it is not only the Mayoruna who are faced with the end of the world as they have known it, such an ending is coming to us as well.
John Berger writes somewhere that all mass demonstrations are rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. If the encounters we stage just now remain stuck in the liminoid, representations of a transformation we may long for, then perhaps they can serve as a kind of rehearsal. If so, let us rehearse care. Let us practise discernment, learning to choose what we do well to burn and what to try and save, in the thin hope that when the safety line does snap, we might somehow forge a ritual that can hold the hammer-wielding fury that haunts our dreams, that we might bring a world worth living for through the flames.
The online book launch with Dougald, Monica and Philip takes place on 12 April, 2021 at 20.15 CEST / 19.15 BST / 14.15 EDT / 11.15 PDT. To book a free ticket, go to the HOME website.
Bonfire photograph: Lars Clement
Exhibition photographs: Christoph Lehman