Germination of an idol: Reflections on animistic totems in life and art

By Shaun Caton

I would like to introduce you to a friend who lives in my bag. She’s actually a London stone, picked up off the street. You see, she looks a bit like a person and some think she resembles an owl. I take her everywhere with me. Visitor to the London Tribal Art Fair, 2017.


Swerve from nape of knoll
to meander
gutted and barbed
stone age cult
through stumbled myopia
we snag on spikes
pinked blood clots
through intermittent wipers
yesteryear melts into
a green interregnum
through recorded sighs
evening unfolds
shifting silhouettes
move inside snapshots
through borderline sweat
a sodden flesh mound
quivers in the drench
this is home

The germination of an idol is a curious thing; it’s not something you come across in everyday, quotidian reality and you have to dream yourself into its solitary enclosure, to find meat and grist in its rarified jiggery-pokery. Perhaps, I have been inspired to write about animism by a chance encounter with a book cover, upon which a grimacing fetish is bobbing in the waves of an inky Thames, the shoreline delineated with unreal looking dwellings. I recall the voluminous eyes of the figure, which are so evocative. These eyes also recreate a scene in the 1933 film version of King Kong, which keeps playing over in my mind, that may even be an imaginary sequence, supplemented by my own faltering memories, in which the great ape peers through the window of a New York hotel room, at a terrified, perpetually screaming, Fay Wray. The eyes of the ape slide from side to side in an absurd, mechanical fashion. One realizes that this was actually a colossal pair of model eyeballs operated by someone off-screen, turning a grinding lever covered in axle grease. Such ruminations may be the fodder of contrived nightmares, but for me they represent signifiers, a bony finger pointing the way into terrain fecund with intoxicating imagery, ripe for greedy consumption. Although I am intrigued by the totemic power of African fetishes, I understand little of their supernatural intention, other than impressions I have gleaned from those affiliated with the cult of the idol, intoned to me by word of mouth by hawkers in the know. I am more inclined to imagine their possible use in sorcery from studying ethnographic books, with their emphasis on staged photographic representations of ceremonies. As the cubists were enchanted by the sculpture of the Congo, as source material for their anatomical geometric abstractions, I too, am attracted to these power objects, as they beckon for our attention through the miasma of a dissipating daydream.

Kindred Spirits: ‘Outside of photography, I never knew if he told the truth. With the photograph, we have at least, some evidence. The photograph is a definite fact susceptible to corruption.’ Opening sentence to an abandoned essay, on truth and lies in photography.

A collection of grotesque Imborivungu owl flutes came into my possession quite by providence rather than design, and I find it ghoulish that they have real matted hair that could have come from a scalped child, or it may be nylon and originate from some crudely shaved doll (authenticity is tested with a lit match, as real burnt hair gives off a bitter smelling, acrid smoke), their bodies are formed from a human femur, opaque glass eyes stare sightlessly out at us, one wears huge, Betty Boop metallic earrings, and orange-red, minuscule beadwork adorns their necks, they have stumpy legs or none at all, and are sometimes stained with a violet-blue pigment that I have been told is washing powder. These bizarre instruments were used to invoke terror and target a marked victim by being blown within earshot, producing an unearthly note. After the victim died from a carefully phased and planned bout of poisoning he was buried in the local graveyard, the cannibal cult dug up the corpse, ‘they usually ate the liver, it being the largest organ, to absorb the person’s power by witchery’.

‘In the future the children will eat one another from one country to the next. The End.’ Story told to me by an infant.

I am like the 18th century begrimed stump effigy freed from beneath the floorboards of some rotting house where it lay undisturbed for 200 or more years as a token against some hex or pox, hurled into the water by a spooked workman, doomed to eternally traverse the river’s bend, never finding a stretch of sludge to surface upon and call home. I am drawn to elucidate my own peculiar immersion with a mode of collage which stems from a primordial scatological impulse, and which in turn, becomes assemblage and through an artful process of transformation, shifts from one to the other with an apparent sleight of hand. I have noticed that a layered paper cut out which I am gluing down, will adopt the semblance of a totem cavorting on torn sheaves of wrinkled wallpaper ripped from a 1960’s sample book. Almost certainly, it will worm its way inside a ritual that I am concocting, boring into the thrumming matrix with fervid assiduity.

Now Here – Nowhere

Inside the fickle world of art, with all its delusions and delectations, its raving egomaniacs and drink-sodden bores, its poseurs with their nasal, monotone commentaries, its failed artists masquerading as misunderstood geniuses muscling in from the margins of the mainstream, such an offshoot into ‘craft’ may appear obtuse to those seeking the sacred and the profane through measured degrees of angst, and proclamations of a farcical, invented poverty, cleverly devised to gain sympathy and attention. This is the enigma carried by a fever in the brain, and it might only materialize on the surface of a battered table top, scored and incised, ragged, splintered and gouged, as a piece of flotsam – a lump of ply driftwood washed up on the muddy imprint of the city’s chemical foreshore. On such a platform, with paper, cardboard, and wooden fragments, components of the lost and found, we must travel to the threshold of the haptic, a world far away from the bored indifference of yawning curators, who fiddle endlessly with their mobile telephones trying to get hold of their dope dealers, to the place where disconnection is the new vibe word, spouted by the insane hoarder who thinks he is an outsider artist because someone once, told him so. Warning… beware, the deification of the bland.

Puddles of rain contaminated with oil, diffuse rainbow bleeds and halos of colour, taking on the semblance of heinous, swollen, heads, bloated bodies with puny appendage-like limbs, growing more hideous with every rippling downpour. Red notebook, November 2017.

When I was 25 I resided in Paris during one long summer and made many collages with an alcoholic, mediumistic artist. Arriving at an epoch of collage creation is a cumulative merging of the technicolor moment in paper magic. It is a process of trial, and mostly error, with shadow totems, affected by an avid curiosity for the witchcraft (that embryonic potency) inherent in prehistoric and primitive art, that pops right out of the pages of almanacs with their monstrous births and miracles rendered in crudely gouged cuts. Finding the right plethora of materials is a constant endeavor, and I am trawling through grubby, fusty, dog-eared reams, mindful of pink mites that inhabit and gorge upon the paper, searching for a certain type of blue that’s so intense it will scintillate the eye’s bloodshot vessels for a long time afterwards – the neon blue of all the rooms I have ever dreamed about or inhabited. My pursuit is not just limited to paraphernalia, I have been stockpiling squashed plastic items (flattened by car wheels) roadside memorabilia, scrawled with spray paint insignia, numbers, arrows, pointing this way and that: the language of the gutter. Grunts, elongated involuntary belches, that mimic sentences, whimpering farts teased from hermetically sealed buttocks, like the whinnying, ribald laughter of world weary prostitutes. What are these talismans that adorn the way – synthetic roadkill? An inventory of dented screw tops, pulverized receptacles, limp packaging, eviscerated, inhaled capsules, litter for the ledger. All have been summarily crushed to a sliver of their former selves by the tonnage of trucks. Twenty eight years ago, I collected tin cans from rat infested car parks, wiped them clean, and decorated them, to form an ensemble of apocalyptic idols festooned above the mantelpiece. In Winter we took an axe to the studio chairs and instead of freezing in modes of existential self-punishment, charred their wooden legs in the grate and were thankful for the meagre comfort and spitting warmth, contemplating the dead insects on the cracked window ledge, that were once part of our living microcosm. The painter, Philip Guston, would have had an extravaganza with these shriveled up, dead bugs, laying belly up and immobile. Enticed by urban detritus, I make mental notes of location, position, and accessibility, recorded on semi-aimless walks along the scattered highways and byways of the city’s clandestine offshoots. Usually, these cast offs have etiolated, owing to acid rain and battery leakage, happenstance exposure to urine by beery human fountains full of braggadocio and the rising urgency of imminent curry flavoured vomit, the squirting vitriol of marauding hounds, affords them a jaundiced mien, the agglomeration of rancid foodstuffs lends them the guise of pus filled carbuncles on the brink of eruption. Clearly, selecting specimens such as this to work with poses us with an entire manual of hygiene problems. Incidentally, did you know that the expressionist painter, Chaim Soutine’s hands were very graceful? Despite his predilection for squalor and stench, the artist of spoiled meat and exploding gladioli, possessed the most delicate of gestural hands. This can be attested by a photograph, taken in 1943 of Soutine on his deathbed, hands folded neatly over his unbreathing thorax. I wear latex gloves when rummaging through the mire and use a stick to prong and turn things over, generally heaving with a turmoil of vermin that the Victorians might refer to as ‘animalcules’ as they spied them through a quizzing glass darkly and penned the phrase ‘horrible discoveries’. Once earmarked, these tokens are transformed into eyeballs, genitals, lips, noses, appendages for the unborn. The best trophy I have found to date is a collapsed cardboard tape reel that is completely ingrained with filth, obscenely beckoning like some carnal orifice withered at the extremities. I instantly bagged it for employment in one of my Kitchen Stink Dramas. Thus, with the snipping of scissors, and some deft knuckle work, these objets trouvees can be fashioned into the apparatus and ganglions of archaic looking homunculi. Emerging from a grey, subcutaneous morass, they incline towards the millefiori so redolent in the kitsch glass ornaments of Murano, and reveal a delirious palette of inflamed orange, iridescent blue, and fluorescent green. A bit of razzle dazzle for the prosthetic eye of our modern times yanked out of its socket by the stalk.

‘Yes we can, yes we will’ taunted the tottering inebriate on the Narroway. I was amazed to see him parading about with a framed Matisse reproduction collage, presenting it to nonplussed passers-by with a leering, Bacchanalian smirk.

My dalliance with the spurious impersonators in society who pose as the great experimenters and the avatars of a fringe subculture (now possibly quite bald) in pursuit of some higher motive, does not just limit itself to the phenomenon of poets or other less convincing people. One evening, I happened to exit a local supermarket and noticed a woman with an old fashioned pram standing a few strides ahead of me, rocking it back and forth, and speaking to its concealed occupant in a plaintive tone. On closer inspection, I noticed that the woman wore the sort of garish floral print dress that was in fashion about 40 years ago and which fills the groaning racks of any typical, heavily urine scented charity shop. She had lank, greasy hair, and thumbprint smudged spectacles cascading across her face in something of a homage to abstract expressionism. Crimson lipstick was applied to her mouth in the most brutal guise, giving her the countenance of a circus clown recently escaped from a lunatic asylum in some sleazy horror movie, made on the cheap. I paused momentarily, as her tone suddenly altered and became irate, and she directed opprobrium at the buggy, becoming all the more shrill. I wondered what annoyance or disturbance the occupant of the buggy could have possibly incurred to cause such distress in this relatively short time. Finally, I saw the woman reach into the vehicle and snatch a small body out and throw it to the ground with a litany of demonic curses. She proceeded to stamp up and down on the little figure with much rage and animosity and I began to fear for its life. However, my concerns were rapidly unfounded, as I soon recognized that this woman had been assaulting a large, plastic toy doll, and not a real child at all. Such are the surprising vagaries of metropolitan life and we are almost oblivious to the daily dole of weirdness that seems to pass us by on an invisible conveyor belt, whose apparitions pop and evaporate all around us.

Recently, I have been in self-imposed exile, at the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in County Kerry, Ireland, where I set about making a last minute performance in this remote gallery, against the staunch, and somewhat stern advice from a well-meaning but fair weather friend. I brought very few objects into the room and relied on a makeshift blackout system (achieved by pushing sheets of black paper onto the skylight with balls of ultra-sticky gaffer tape attached to a long bamboo cane traversed by runaway spiders). Once the desired blackness was realized, I began projecting cut outs onto the wall in pulsating ruby and emerald phosphorescence. The performance was attended by a large contingent of children all eager to assist. Operating in a motely clan, I involved them with holding and moving shadows on sticks, shining torches, and creating vocal characterizations – which they did with terrific pathos. During the flow of events, I introduced various new characters and handed them to selected children to utilize (a voluminous pig, a venal crow, a head of hair). We succeeded in creating great distortions and phased alterations in scale, with the addition of tangled wire and a medley of hybrid creatures dangled repeatedly in front of strobing flashlights. There was no letting up even after 3 hours, the gang still wanted to continue with the action and none had tired of it, or sought other means of entertainment, such as picking noses and wiping fingers on the clothes of their kin. I felt that this intervention was a tremendous connection and something I might revisit at a later stage despite the baleful warnings of dead thespians like W.C. Fields.

In terms of idols, I sourced images of Sheela-na-gigs and other such oddities to make my grotesquerie more pertinent to the environs of Ireland, in some misappropriated attempt at engagement, or what arts organisations usually describe as: a partnership enterprise with the local community. Better still, to augment my event, I presented three fabulous fabric art works, made from scraps of dyed cloth stitched together to resemble paper collage works. Looking back into the annals of distant history as a way of probing the arcane mouth of this bountiful reservoir, to find allure in an evolving story that trickles from the lips of a blathering antiquity. My studies of ancient rock carvings, fetishes, bas reliefs, and stone deities thrown in bogs and wells, all led me to this realization with the help of several dozen highly animated little people, and these dazzling totemic tapestries, sewn by my sometime collaborator, the very versatile and accommodating Mike Sprout.

August 2019.