Drain Magazine: Contagious Animism in the Artwork of Felix Gonzales-Torres and Dane Mitchell (2012)


This article discusses two installation artists—Felix Gonzales-Torres and Dane Mitchell—whose work explores a dispersion, or residue, of materials in ways that engage audiences in forms of unwitting participation. A unique aspect of the article is that these forms of participatory installation practice are explored through theories of so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ magic ritual. To be more specific, magical concepts of ‘contagion’, ‘animism’ and ‘ritual participation’ are employed to open up a range of hotly debated questions about reciprocity between people and things, and, in turn, where ‘liveness’ lives.

The article is based on a provocation—Jacques Derrida’s notion of the ‘trace structure’ is profoundly ‘savage’ in its assertion that the sign has a real connection with its world. That word ‘savage’ is used by late-nineteenth-century British anthropologists Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) and James George Frazer (1854- 1941). They were baffled by the continuation of so-called ‘savage’ beliefs and practices in their own contemporary societies. They managed, in fact, to disavow aspects of their own Christian heritage that involved some of the very animistic operations they saw as ‘savage’ in their concurrent ethnographic work. Their disbelief in the force of magical ritual was partly due to their racialized and evolutionary-driven concept of ‘primitiveness’. In their minds, Culture, in opposition to the darkness of savage Nature, gradually became more and more civilized until its culmination in the white male Victorian intellect. What those anthropologists observed in ‘savage’ magical practices was a breakdown in oppositional structures of life and death, organic and inorganic, subject and object, whiteness and blackness, linked to the possibility of a ‘force’ that precedes those terms related and contagiously infiltrates all materiality beyond reason. This, it turns out, is a staple of Derridean deconstruction and the notion of différance or the ‘trace structure’. Discussing Felix Gonzales-Torres’s ‘Untitled’ (Lover Boys) series (from 1991), and New Zealand artist Dane Mitchell’s 2011 Radiant Matter series, this paper argues that the label ‘savage’ is always already in excess of those ethnographic and historical constraints. Put another way, there are no savages, there never were. Or, put another way again, we are all savages.[1] Through the consumption of candies (Torres), or the activation of vaporous environments (Mitchell), these artworks provoke ideas of contagious and vital fields of affect that provoke unwitting forms of participation that operate beyond the senses.

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