Tuber Matrix: Putting the Root Back into Ritual

Being a series of unrelated and quite disparate subjects for the student of the obscure.

By Shaun Caton

One day old sad croaky got deaded. He got lots of blood coming out of his head like you see in a fountain and it all sprays out. One day he got run over by a steam roller. All his guts come out and make a nasty smell. I run away scared and scream, help! Help! Horrible accident. The End.

— Childhood fantasy memory, Notebook November 2015.

I have a disturbing dream about tubers: elongated, black and testicular protuberances that nestle in the fecund earth, their hoary coating bristles in the stench and moistness of decay. Perhaps they are sucking the nutrients through the heaving blackness underfoot? The matrix is a cacophonous network of tubes and organs, all pumping sluggish fluids from one receptacle to the next in juddering motions, senile ejaculations. The intricate machinery of the matrix crackles and rumbles with synaptic triggers. All of a sudden, this vista is brown and rouged like excrement, the striated and encrusted pastes of Dubuffet’s demented whirligig, a screaming monotone baby and the immured denizens of the soil captured in exploded berserk intensity.

— Notebook November 2015, whilst working on the performance, Tuber Matrix.

In 2009 I began working obsessively again with roots, bulbs and tubers in performances, travelling across the city of Glasgow to buy a box of reeking and decomposing yams for inclusion in the National Review of Live Art, where I was performing over 2 days/nights in a narrow, basement room that would normally be allotted to someone such as a serial killer. Suspended from the ceiling grid structure and hanging from twine the yams twirled and rotated, casting grotesquely distorted shadows appearing momentarily splashed in green on the walls. On a small table I displayed the shriveled and monstrous fungal forms of ossified specimens for scrutiny and magical interventions/transformations. I had been drawing tubers for months in a Victorian ledger, with beautiful marbled endpapers. My friend, Valentin Manz, gave me a torn and grubby carrier bag full of dried fungi (tree ears) which he said ‘came from a forest in Bavaria’ with the prudent advice, ‘You will know what to do with them’. These objects resembled distended yellowish warts sporting their feathery tufts, bulbous protuberances of a hideous nature. I painted them blood red and tied them to scare poles and drew facial features, such as spots for eyes, and a gash of a mouth. Somewhere in my subconscious memory there exist Brassai’s photographs of graffiti and scabrous Parisian walls, with blotched faces and wormy forms creeping out of the peeling stratum to scintillate the enlightened eye from the pages of Lilliput in the 1940’s. The distinguished American poet, Clayton Eshleman (b.1935-) with whom I corresponded for a time, described my work as a ‘supernatural garden’. He then enquired if I used a club to bash people over the head when they entered my Cult House. Gravitating away from small, one-off donations of fungi and poetic musings, I soon discovered that people actually sold huge, dried out specimens on eBay. Inevitably, they cost more to post (owing to weight) than to purchase. Soon, packages were coming from Canada and the United States, from whence these had been plucked from tree trunks. If only my unsuspecting neighbor – who accepted parcels and packages on my behalf when I was absent from the house, knew of the strange organic and alien contents of these boxes! In performances such as Happenstance at the PS2 gallery in Belfast (also 2009) I wore 17 roots tied to a rope around my neck. These were very heavy and invariably cut into my skin. I switched them to a very long tree branch which had the effect of a pendulum swinging from side to side, with these appendages spinning unsteadily on taut string. The fascination with these organisms relates to my reading and intense study of Aboriginal culture (I am thinking of Geza Roheim’s seminal book, Children of the Desert and the Gates of the Dream) in which many totemic art works depict a universe of connected roots and sink holes. The visual significance of roots in medieval art is also of strong allure and my encounters with period woodcuts have lead me into a very lopsided hinterland of impossible scale and dimension, in these blackened and gouged woodblocks. I am drawn to the peculiarities of the medium and the colourless vignettes encapsulated therein.

A Swiftian digression:

‘I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at one year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, and I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout.’

—Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, 1729. P 207.

By some curious turn of fate and synchronicity I found myself dining in Swift’s bar and café in the nondescript and completely charmless harbour town of Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. At first, I was unsure about my placement in this somewhat bland looking restaurant and just assumed it to be another dreary eatery offering the regulation bucket of reheated Irish Stew or choice fingerprinted plate of pie and mash. However, spread before my gaze on one expanse of wall I saw a gargantuan facsimile of the map in the preface to Gulliver’s Travels, from the 1727 edition, complete with magnified spots and imperfections in the ink that seemed to form the islets and an isthmus of an abstract design floating in space; the province of Brobingnag and Glubdubdrib materialized like two wrinkled ganglions in a sea of satirical paradox. Behind me, adjacent to the entrance, I saw a large glossy portrait of Jonathan Swift, Ireland’s greatest Baroque satirist, complete with periwig and chubby of pink face. When I asked the skeletally thin waitress if they served fresh baby a la carte she looked at me in what can only be best described as a squint with a narrowing glare that so typifies the expression of someone in a state of momentary disbelief. ‘Human babies?’ she falteringly enquired, her eyes darting from side to side like windscreen wipers on the blink. I nodded and she sidled nervously through to the kitchen and I could hear through the cacophonous clatter of pots and pans a muffled conversation with the chef along the lines of, ‘this here fella wants to know if we can do a roast babby for him’. Naturally, I knew that it would not be an edible option and that for all my Swiftian studies the joke, if indeed it was one, would be over these unsuspecting good people’s heads. I am referring to Jonathan Swift’s seminal pamphlet of 1729, ‘A Modest Proposal’ in which the acerbic ‘Dean’ postulates the pseudo- timorous suggestion that the starving Irish poor should eat their own offspring and profit from the nutritious benefits so munificent of cannibalism. Swift posits this as a solution to their pointless suffering incurred by rearing large families of soon to be vagabond or abandoned children. Furthermore, he imparts particularly inspired culinary advice on the preparation of a stew or tasty ragut made with butchered baby meat, remarking on its tenderness, succulence, and its irresistible appeal to the fashion crazed hoy-polloy (always keen to try a new experience rather like today’s hispters) as a gourmet dish a la mode. At this point a heavily pregnant woman who was seated at an adjacent table, was heard to utter, ‘I am going to have a baby’ and my immediate thought was to suggest that she may have eaten quite enough for one day judging by the considerable rotundity of her belly. With this in mind, I conjour a water colour vignette that would not displease the visceral obscenities painted by Thomas Rowlandson, whose bestial Georgian characters chomp with oversize dentures that protrude in simian rudeness from thick-lipped mouths, at tables loaded with all manner of sickly sweetmeats running with goo and encapsulated in the grimaces of the age like those carbuncular Toby Jugs fashioned by Ralph Wood of the Burslem potteries. The vicious, spiteful, and commodious caricatures of James Gillray, also begin to jostle their way to the surface and swim into consciousness at this point too, with their emphasis on grotesquerie, and the topical terrors associated with over eating, corpulence and trumpeting flatulence, inevitably leading to a great torrent of diarrhoea – something which the contemporary art market would do well to study as a means of a metaphorical allusion and earmark as a comparison sketch. However, having contemplated such scatological digressions for several minutes under the watchful eye of Lilliput, I opted for the moribund pie in a lagoon of congealed gravy, in the dearth of any broiled infant. To my astonishment this powdery mummification imploded and its steaming innards – definitely some form of gristly ex-animal corpse – floated in a simulacrum of the glutinous Irish sea over a mound of yellowish mashed potato. Someone is whacking a gong with unparalleled fervor.

In considering a suitable subject for an essay I count myself as a conduit of Jonathan Swift’s opprobrium laced with mischief, probably because I am intrigued by his savage repertoire of outrage tinged with horror, penned so earnestly, in a mocking manner of faux obsequiousness. Surely this precipice recipe – if we may call it such – is the method by which he captivates his audience who feign revulsion when reading, but in all truth, keep turning the pages to find out what he’s on about and get stuck into the juicy bits.

Similarly, if I stopped to think about all the hapless insects I have killed in my life either by accident, by unwittingly treading on them, splattering their gore all over my ankles, or by designed intention born from annoyance or petty irritation, with a rolled up newspaper, then I would similarly find myself faced with an existential wake-up call of impossible karmic dimensions. Such an organ blast of an epiphany at this stage in my life would come at me like the rollercoaster cavalcade of cockroaches that shimmied over my shoes in the thunderous nocturnal street of Palermo last September giving me what is proverbially known as a dose of the heebie-jeebies. I envisage once again the menacing and defiant painting, ‘Ravine’ (oil on canvas 1979) by the Jewish Canadian born, Americanized artist, Philip Guston (1917-80), in which his ‘fanciful bugs’ parade about on the side of a huge shit smeared slope that seems to represent all that remains of civilization after some holocaust. Perhaps the appropriate music with which to accompany such a vision of an excremental nocturne might be ‘Stompin the Bug’ deftly played by Fats Waller on the thundering pipe organ in the hissing, whirring 1926/27 gramophone recording I have been listening to recently. It occurs to me that subjects such as this are cyclic and easily morph into one another with a little prodding, teasing, and persuasion, popping up from one essay to the next, and that my range of preoccupations, although obsessive and seemingly arbitrary, come back to haunt me with a regularity that is both as alarming and perplexing as the persistence of hemorrhoids. The study of mites living in the plumage of pigeons and in the foul-smelling ears of dogs has done nothing to assuage these tendencies towards the known fetishes of my everyday altar whereupon I worship with these dumbed down words. Working with such themes inherent in life and art for the past 30 years, I find myself writhing in my own idiosyncratic auto-cannibalism with these topics to ruminate or urinate upon. Happy in this place of profound grimness, I must grope myopically towards new incoming impressions and abnormalities of the imagination. Not knowing really if the pretense of writing a rambling discourse is just an excuse for me to indulge myself and the reader in a fractured excursion into pathologies hitherto unexamined, delivered with all the panache and pzazz of a psychotic wordsmith at the end of his days, or if I am actually activating a new scope for imaginative osmosis.

The wee suck, not an infant, but an incubus…

‘The wee suck’ is an expression particular to the Northern Irish brogue and refers to the youngest born child but not the runt of the litter. In my understanding it also relates to something that the venerable Dean Swift was whipping up in his manifesto on infanticide and the wholesale consumption of babes in broth. Whether they are shoveling vaporous food into their mouths, or words into other people’s minds, the audacity of the Irish wit, together with its penchant for the darkly surreal – think of Beckett – will always tantalize and surprise the English, with their innate insistence on (fake) manners and being nice (even when they do not feel quite so nice). Indeed, Beckett’s preponderance for odd sounding words constitutes much of his prose, peppering it with an otherness akin to an eccentricity of language born of isolation. So, The Wee Suck is one of those phrases redolent of an archaic community steeped in its own lore and old fashioned customs, that both entices and penetrates the poetic arcana of labeling. Thus, the suckling infant is on the one hand a gentle burbling creature to be dandled upon one’s knee, and also something feral and abhorrent in Swift’s horrific vision as described in A Modest Proposal. The use of dolls and mutilated mannikins in my own performances swings this morbid predilection with all things miniature and Brobdingnagian full circle again for me. I watch the clock spin back 30 years to my fledgling performances with dolls my Mother would ardently source for me from rubbish dumps and ousted from the crazed, venal, people who managed the local refuse ‘tip’. Her daily grappling and bargaining with these Dickensian characters formed many of the sub-plots and motifs inherent in many of my early (1980’s) performance works. It is amazing how much my own mother stage managed the props department in those formative days.

The nomenclature of the Colossus

As a Western society of fat and sugar addicted wobbling colossi, who salivate at every spoonful of delectable temptation, we are stumbling blindfolded into a stadium of competitive eaters soaked in the canteen medals of their own effluvium. Whether we force feed ourselves our own dogs through clogged funnels of canine gore – like Vincent Price’s devilish gourmet chef, cramming Robert Morley’s gullet in the comical horror film, Theatre of Blood (1973) – or force feed society on television programmes about eating and cookery, we are a species of human gannets fixated on the culture of the eupeptic, and our own selfish gratification which must end in virulent filth and cardiac arrest. Our appetite for the consumption of dross has never been more fanatical or insatiable. In moments of profound despair one can call this phenomenon the deification of the bland, as we watch yet another warbling wannabee woohoohoohoo through an overplayed popular ditty about shattered love, tearful to the end of a manufactured routine in yearning superstar parody. Stuffing our faces until we can no longer throw up all over the photographs of our media savvy pet hates, we herald the age of the glutton, in which both artist(e) and consumer are here to stay because they satisfy a need to pacify a heavily sedated, saturated, and disengaged populace from the more sobering questions of existence, and the imminent possibility of our race coming to an abrupt end by our own errant hand. In this impossible reckoning both must devour one another like the alchemical Ourobouros; that mystical serpent that swallows its own tail in an everlasting circle of self-gorging. Much of the culture that gives birth to revisionism in art is re-packaged and sexed up with day glow colours, as it fails to find meaning in its own mediocrity and is branded as a momentary sensation scooped up by the media until something more contrived and ridiculous comes along to replace it. Think of so-called ‘crapstract’ painting, which is the tomfoolery of those laconic, characterless pretenders, artists who churn out endless variations of the same nullifying imitation art. It seems that much of art is actually quite useless and pointless to the average person in society as it serves no practical function. It means virtually nothing to people who are uneducated in the deliberately mystifying rhetoric of conceptualism, yet their relationship to art may have some familiarity with the trappings of crass consumerism. The only question that intrigues most people concerning contemporary art is ‘how much is it worth?’

Indeed, we are not helped by feted conceptual artists blandly telling us in a studied form of low brow monotone chicanery, that nothing is interesting any more, and that all we have left to do with art is steal from other artists. This is fine so long as we don’t copy them exactly. These jowly dinosaurs of the art world make something they label as art in a mockery of Duchampian duplicity, cleverly elevated by the purple prose spouted by art blokes with greying beards for the uninitiated. Art is reduced to the half-arsed gesture, the lacklustre gimmick, hastily scrawled upon the back of a soggy beer mat, it is geared towards the ruthless pursuit of publicity through shameless self -promotion which is the formula for recognition, known otherwise as playing the media. Where will it all end? How much more recycled pastiche and re-hashed derivation can the general public stand before plucking out its offended eyes? Such is the level of overload we have now reached that people would rather view a work of art through the moveable screen of an iPad than with their own eyes because they no longer trust their vision. Hoards of tilted, lopsided people, can be seen squinting through their iPads in museums, migrating in voluble pockets of sheepishness across rooms filled with these devices, held in front of their faces like conspicuously glinting mirrors, recording the works of ‘great’ artists in a veritable homage of trophy hunting. Oblivious to the intrusiveness this behaviour engenders, is the use of the selfie stick, a sort of prosthetic clawed arm that is held at a distance so that photographic portraits may be made in front of art works by anyone who wishes to be immortalized in the frame. Again, this action is distractingly banal and ameliorates any serious contemplation or enjoyment of an art work by those who lack the limb, trivializing the art to the status of a key ring or tea towel, albeit in a somewhat pixelated, washed out apparition. Move with the times they tell you. How can one engage with a painting in a gallery when someone is busy poking your eye out with a probe that has a camera attached to it? I have actually witnessed a duel of sorts, in which two enraged people were attempting to photograph themselves with similarly protruding selfie-sticks in front of the same art work. Each became momentarily entangled and a technological contretemps ensued, in which both parties claimed belligerent ownership by siting themselves in front of the painting brandishing the offensive apparatus. There is also the question of the art work being scratched or damaged by such an appendage – who has considered that? They should be outlawed and people need to re-engage with their eyes again and process the wonder stuff of the imagination which is the fodder of dreams.

Art is (under) the belly

‘I am not a very arty farty person, and I do not know much about it or where it comes from…’

— Spectator comments on my performance, Widdershins, Phoenix Arts, Brighton, February 2013.

In an archaic sense ritual art comes from deep underground, from the churning guts of the earth that Aldous Huxley would elegantly describe as chawdron. In frozen primordial times our ancestors depicted their physical reality inhabited by a multitude of terrifying (and now extinct) beasts in red ochre and black pigment on sweating cave walls. It is not known what these pictures signify exactly but an intelligent guess might assume that these are inventories of everyday life, snapshots from an inhospitably cold world, a shaggy haired peek-a-boo at the Pleistocene, a much incised and over painted mappa mundi of all that was edible and growled on four legs. There is even defecation and disembowelment thrown in for a bit of pathos. Rather like a sort of slapstick graffiti, our forebears saw fit to paint the shape of steaming turds falling from a woolly rhinoceros’ anus. Our desire to magnify these images into sacred or magical iconography is purely driven by the premise that they must mean something special, this is often endorsed by the rampant egomania of certain anthropologists and self-professed ‘experts’, who by the magnitude of their accrued published reputations assume the dubious gravitas as unquestionable interpreters of our prehistoric world . One is obviously led to the now crass cliché that such imagery is representative of ‘hunting magic’ – however, this is a hackneyed 1950’s interpretation of something that existed before recorded language as we comprehend it, and is now possibly an overused theory, best left for the accentuated vowels of the modern troglodyte who shuffles to and fro in a precious ethnographic museum culture complete with hissing radiators and the gigantic collections of our great dead Victorian British eccentrics. Certainly, this marvelous visceral art comes from the belly of the earth, was painted in the half light of hand-held lamps flickering in the absolute darkness. Here, humanity gave birth to art through the gaping and bloody orifices of the rock wall, augmenting the dreams of beasts in monumental frescoes of awesome physicality punctuated by the shrieks and animalistic grunts of improvisation and imitation ritual. Perhaps one could view the art of the Ice Age as a stupendous bestiary? Initiation rites, dancing, bone gnawing, masturbation, blood letting, and role model enactments, may have taken place with furs, skulls, clacking bones, and pigmented bodies, deep in the farthest reaches of the cave system. Basically, what we are looking at could be the tumultuous backdrops of a prehistoric form of performance art. Crude musical instruments such as bone flutes and lithophones have also been discovered in some of the Ice Age caves in the Dordogne region of France. With all this taken into account, it seems probable that a kind of ritual drama was being staged in front of the paintings of zoological groupings. Thus, we have the birth of a very primordial tableau vivant and we as eavesdroppers, and occasional visitors become active participants in this magic, using our imaginations and intuitions to elicit presence from the tangle of images.

Great art, with its power to move and excite viewers, comes from an atavistic state of being. The artist imbues his/her work with an overwhelming pathos and drama that draws an emotional response from the viewer. Some museums present us with carefully manicured, pared down displays that aspire to this ideal of achieving a resounding wow factor – but often fail due to a fundamental lack of imaginative presentation, and an inability to accommodate a modern audience’s needs and interests above the constantly shifting agenda of the museum. Truth to tell, most people are more excited in what knick knacks, novelties and mugs, they can buy in the gift shops that are so cleverly situated at the exit to every exhibition a Museum puts on. This commercial formula is water tight and robust. People admire in art, what they think they cannot do or be themselves and they want the shopping bag and the place mat set to prove it never mind the real thing, which they can never own, they want a simulacrum and that is all. The general public may desire to be transported by an art work, not nullified and alienated by some posturing charlatan cleverly trying to beguile an audience through cleverly manipulated mock-notoriety. One only needs to see the deeply unrewarding excuses for exhibitions staged in the self-proclaimed ‘ground breaking’ galleries of the Shires right in the heart of the United Kingdom. The lame, the pastiche, the plagiarized, the glib one liner – all are celebrated and championed by those who devise such arid and utterly unrewarding programmes, merely for their own self-titillation and their back-slapping coterie of sycophants. When one sees only half a dozen glazed-looking visitors wandering distractedly around a provincial museum in search of the exit doors or the shop, one knows instinctively the reason for this weariness and malaise evinced by the disinterest and mistrust in so much meaningless contemporary art. Museum visitors are frequently disenchanted by the febrile, tiresome, efforts at controversy they meet with when they enter the space. We have all seen the burnt out wreck of a car in the gallery, the boring video installations that flicker on and off for hours, which people just walk past without giving a second glance to, or a pile of oranges described as a sculpture by some pretentious twit with a degree in curatorship. Art needs to be more than just mind-numbing rubbish. It seems that any true sub-culture of innovation exists under threadbare wraps, in the dimly lit alleyways and clandestine cubby holes of all great cities, and on the fringes of the tonsured mainstream where it clamours for attention against a tide of tomfoolery pretending to be art. What the man in the street doesn’t want is the snobbery and cynicism that some museum cultures foist on us, the fakery that is now called art, cooked up and served time and again by obdurate hierarchies who have run of out of fresh ideas and spunk. What people must surely demand is a return to the root of the ritual and not some derivation of a cliché drunkenly concocted by some prankster as an act of puerile outrage. Time to think again, time to say NO to what the museum culture dictates to us and time to go underground in search of potent new opportunities.

June-December 2015.