Commentary by Ryder McEntyre, Campus Carrier Graphics Editor
When I first heard about Shana Robbins’s show Indigenous Bodies, I immediately googled Joseph Beuys for some perspective on conceptual shamanistic art. Once I reached the show, however, I realized that her work is totally separate from the iconic artist turned philosopher, Beuys, despite their shamanic roots.
Robbins’s works are as symbolic as Native American totem poles, but please do not think I’m actually comparing the two. Her medium seems to be ‘spirituality in essence,’ and the photography work in the show captures a wild authenticity with a raw feeling of nature and humanity peacefully at one. Her paint works are, according to Robbins, a blueprint for her performance and installation pieces, but that should not disguise their merit as works of art themselves, as she frequently goes backwards: creating blueprints to commemorate original performances.
| Nealie Smith, staff photojournalist
Shana Robbins’ painting “Swallow the Snake Who Swallows Herself”
I think her most powerful paint and mixed media works are her single female form on a blank background with elements surrounding or above, particularly her piece “Epiphany II,” which features a blue bird interacting with an elegantly drawn yet simply performing nude woman. Her hair covers her face as the bird flies close to her head, and the movement within the piece is suggested by faint glitter above the bird’s beak and its wing’s implied flap. This work captures a lot of what I think Robbins is attempting and succeeding at with this show—primarily the importance of nature’s interaction with our bodies while acknowledging the nude form as an equally indigenous part of nature and the world in which we exist.
And yet her work seems to imply more than just nature’s contextual addition to our existence. She deals heavily in the feminine form, which makes total sense as many of her works are blueprints for her performance pieces but also the idea of womanhood and nature’s connection creating a kind of “mother nature’s abundance.” Her piece “Axis Mundi “ features her posing in a full body suit which is stained and nude colored with a reflective mirror mosaic mask and an equally reflected tree beside her.
Her stance seems as if she is being lifted by the wrists upwards, and the frozen glaciers and clear waters in the foreground are a harsh contrast to her vulnerability, which is depicted by her nude stained body suit. The reflective mask and tree create unity between her body and the small tree beside her, which reflect the natural world back.
This reflection is both a window and a mirror for the viewer of the performance, which I think says something about her preferred relationship with the natural world. The usage of mirrors not only demonstrates a mirroring of external expectations, a perspective she gained during a modeling career in New York City, but it also shows an overt connection to the space her performances inhabit. She considers modeling to be a form of shapeshifting, and that idea is, funnily enough, modeled in her works. “Ancestral healing” combines with a consideration of space to kind of fashion her fluid approach to art. She uses artifacts in her self portraits, usually antiquated items symbolizing femininity, and appropriates their use as a talisman for spiritual connection. She reformed their original contexts by going against their originally prescribed, expected meanings.
She truly brings her paintings to life in a three-dimensional sense by performing the arrangements she made in the two-dimensional realm. There is definitely a sense of Joseph Beuys alive within her work, as she believes that artists are the new cultural shamans. A cultural shaman would be someone who exists in different plains of being—or media, in a way—and are in search of ways of spiritual healing.
Beyond aesthetic symbology, her work’s ritualistic atmosphere explicitly focus on the process of shamanism, which is a subject I admittedly know little about. What I do know, though, is that the shamanist’s goal is to minimize the divisions between the spiritual (natural) and the physical (our mind space, essentially) in order to gain understanding about oneself and the world around oneself in order to begin a kind of healing. The process is shown through a looping video of a performance piece called “Shana Robbins and the Nomadic Love Mesa” which seems like a much more tribal version of a fantastic Fluxus performance with their methodological movements and seemingly arbitrary arranging, which has a culturally linguistic purpose.
In terms of materials, she uses a lot of naturally sourced ones like coffee, tea, crushed crystals and different kinds of imbued waters as a way to bring the implied values of shamanistic art to a more explicit sense. In this way, she succeeds by fulfilling the theory of cultural shamanism within art as these materials have historical notions of medicinal use within shamanic cultures. She continues her appropriation of classically feminine objects with the use of hand-stitched lace which cover her in a photoshoot in Iceland, and in other performance pieces.
Her movements within the pieces reflect an appropriation of the Butoh dance, a ritualistic Japanese dance which by definition avoids definition, as it attempts to give the image of a kind of psychic automatism where the body seems to be forced into movement against its well either from an external or internal entity. The results are chillingly fascinating.
This show is as varied as it is technically great, which made this review difficult to write. Everything she discussed in her talk was relevant to her body of work, and she has so many ideas and influences drawn into one cohesive show, and yet this makes sense for Robbins. The best way to describe her work is that Robbins takes an earth-based shamanic worldview by combining durational performances and rituals and visual media with a feminine edge which yearns for gender fluidity. She creates her own allies within her work through discovering rhythms in nature as a shamanic practice. She is led by art, like shaman are led by ancestral spirits. For her, there is no difference.