Jim Carter

While it is not my intention to present sacrificial animals as willing participants, there is, I believe, much symbolic value in a system that recognises the limits of human endeavour. Regardless of our ethical assessment of the merits of sacrifice, it does acknowledge that human activities have profound implications for the rest of the created order. Rather than being a cruel or wasteful practice, it can be perceived as an act of humility, deriving from a sense of human accountability for the perpetuation of suffering. Moreover, it seeks to establish boundaries that can mitigate anthropogenic violence and serve as a catalyst for environmental health.

According to this reasoning, the sacrificed animal plays a glorified and complex role, leading us away from a paradigm where humans use them to remedy purely self-inflicted crises. Kimberley Patton argues that an examination of sacrificial thought often reveals not only a bond between sacrificer and victim, but also a sublimation of the animal; to dismiss sacrifice as oppressive is to preclude any deeper comprehension of the animal’s role in such systems. As Patton states, ‘we must be [...] humble before beliefs [...] far more psychologically and mythopoetically complex than our own self-righteous and often sterile postmodern platforms.’

In my practice, sculpture and language interweave in an attempt to reappropriate through ritual violence the destructive patterns of the anthropocene. They are, in essence, votive offerings that attempt to allay the breach between human affairs and the natural world. Regenerative and cathartic, I endure the self-imposed oblivion of my work because I believe it functions as a katabasis for self, animal and land. For the logic is such that any given ritual, be it burial, immersion, immolation or concealment has power to secure memories of suffering in perpetuity as well as habitualising rubrics that can prevent its reoccurrence.

Writing of the primitive’s predilection for destroying artefacts prior to deposition, Cook notes that ‘damaging a work that must have taken weeks to produce then deliberately burying it requires strong emotions and powerful motives’. Although we can infer that premeditated fragmentation was central to rites of passage connected with a profound sense of interdependence, the motivation for such acts can only be surmised. As Cook goes on to caution, ‘we cannot be sure we understand them because their [...] context[s] are unknown and can only be constructed from archaeological evidence with uncertainty.’ For me, buried artefacts perform a generative function for, as Lucy Lippard suggests, they possess ’possibilities of the transformational at its most profound – energy buried in the neutral (“dead”) form and activated (“brought to life”) by the idea.’ Loaded with organic material, my work is intimately linked with earth, water and natural life cycles and I imagine their exequies bring renewed life to threatened habitats. For the Iron Age primitive, deposition of votives with human and animal sacrifice in rivers and fens had a multiple function, for they served as powerful taboos preventing transgression of boundaries as well as symbolising the sacred marriage of the sovereign to the territorial god. Maurice Bloch suggests fertility is a finite resource, so that the sacrifice of an individual (for which, in my system, read: artefact) releases fertility for another person, an animal or the land - whatever is conceived as essential for maintaining the natural order. In this scheme, fertility is regarded in its a wider meaning as related to fecundity or productiveness, in which case an artefact becomes a metaphoric container for life, death and sympathetic magic. Further, if after a period of incubation, an object is retrieved, it can function as a kind of fetish or autochthon, resonating with the power given to it because of its dialogue with the elements. Lippard does however raise important questions for artists seeking to restore this kind of primitive ritualism to contemporary art. She warns that immateriality and impermanence, though sometimes valid strategies against commodification, can often miscarry, leading to the same kind of isolation and inaccessibility that artists have hoped to overcome.

Although creation, destruction and deposition are contemplative activities, they do not however preclude the reality of pain. Human blood and tissue, being materials integral to my work, find their way into the whole through (mostly) unintentional bruising and laceration. Of dual purpose, bodily substances not only transfer a sense of identity and vitality to an artefact but the attendant emotional and physical pain serves as a trigger for remedial action. As Patrick ffrench notes, ‘the sacrificer himself is touched by the blow that he strikes, he succumbs and is lost with the victim.’

Girard, referring to the double nature of violence as both harmful and beneficial, defines ritual as the exercise of beneficial violence achieved through sacrificial rites. In this system, the metamorphoses of spilt blood illustrates that the same substance can ‘contaminate or purify, drive men to fury and murder or appease their anger and restore them to life.’ My ritual gestures likewise seek to relieve tension by tricking violence into spending itself on victims (that is, my work) whose destruction will provoke no reprisals.

Arthur Danto, addressing the topic of violence in art, coined the term “disturbation” to describe art in which painful realities are a critical component. Danto defines art as disturbatory when ‘the insulating boundaries between art and life are breached’, the artist’s aim being to sacrifice himself so that an audience may be transformed. In so doing he can restore to art ‘some of the magic purified out when art became art.’ Disturbation can however fail as affirmative ritual when it serves only to provoke visceral responses of shock and distress. The practice of Herman Nitsch, juxtaposing slaughtered animals with quasi-religious icons in his theatrical performances seems anathema to my own intentions where ritual is private, meditative and discrete. Nitsch, however, denies any intention to provoke, believing his work to be a purifying ceremony for all: a primal and life-affirming act that dismantles cultural taboos and serves as a release valve for humankind’s aggressive instincts.

If we apply Girard’s concept of the sacrificial crisis, the risk here is that through such acts the audience may not be experiencing catharsis. As Girard goes on to suggest, ‘if the gap between the victim and the community is allowed to grow too wide, all similarity will be destroyed. The victim will no longer be capable of attracting the violent impulses to itself.’ In the face of modernity’s denial of suffering, perhaps we can be more sympathetic, for such apparently nihilistic methods show a determination to shatter false realities. Artists can affect such change because, as James Hillman suggests, they have an amplified permeability, are companions of the dead and are more ‘with the dead than those who [are] merely living the denial of death.’ I nonetheless remain hesitant in aligning myself with extremities that, to my mind, overwhelm any transformative function with Dionysian excess. I am more at ease with understated rites that illuminate the small gods of nature and with a voice that is the ‘breath’s tooth’, with speech that is ‘the antler of the mind’.