Art as Symbolic Action

Penny Siopis
The Giant Soul (2020)
glue, ink, oil stain
and newspaper clippings on paper.
27.5 x 37.5 cm. See my reading

My thinking about art has been influenced by anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt’s discussion of ritual as “symbolic action,” rendering external and tangible that which had been up until that moment inaccessible, even manifestly unknowable. In Paul Klee’s terms, art does not show that which is visible, instead it makes visible. Significant works of art in this important respect are “performative,” calling into being vital levels of understanding, relations with other persons, and relations with transcendent presences that would otherwise be amorphous, at risk of slipping away. For this reason, profound works of art hold up the most challenging mirrors to ourselves, in ways that are often disturbing and uncanny, helping to diagnose that which ails us, highlighting contradictions and paradoxes of past and present, and impelling us, at times, to take on the great work of social repair.

Robyn Penn, Warped Time. Oil on canvas. ,120cm x 100 cm 2020 See my rading

In the blog space “Art Beyond Quarantine” I write on artistic responses to the Covid-19 crisis around the world,,including Penny Siopis’ The Giant Soul (2020), above, and Robyn Penn’s Warped Time, 2020, to the left. My founding co-editors Pamela Allara and Susan Platt and I, with contributing editor Ellen Schattschneider and others give particular attention to works of art that highlight the ways in which the pandemic and its many sorrows highlight deeper crisis of social inequality and the promise of building a more just world.

Empty Pplae Aprillers. Collection of Marjoire Agoisn.

I have particular interest in how works of art make manifest or even summon the presence of the Dead, or in sense ressurect relations of symbolic exchange between the domains of the Living and the Dead. In this haunting arpillera embroidery from Chile, for example, the disappeared child is made palpably present in his absence through the empty dinner setting, reinforced by his photo and the plaintive question, Where is he?

Mark Auslander’s writing on art as symbolic action:

2020. Inspiration from the Waters: Apay’uq’s Art and the Bristol Bay Struggle (Post)

2019.Singing the Future: Between Absence and Presence. (Post)

2019. Museums as Sites of Healing. Developing the exhibition “Finding our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak” (co-authored with Amanda Thomashow)Museums, the journal of the American Alliance of Museums. October/November issue.

2018, December. Masks for the Holidays: Mystery and the Regeneration of Life (Post)

2018 (September) A New Tabernacle: Remembering Lynching in Montgomery, Alabama. (Post)

2018 (June) Making Visible: Hanford Sturgeon and Indigenous Nuclear Art (Post)

2018 (April) Turning Points: From Pickett’s Charge to Facing the “Anthropocene.” (Post)

2018 (January).  Worlds Lost and Worlds Regained (Holocaust Memories). (Post)

2018. Object Lessons: Reencountering Slavery through Rose’s Gift. The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery. Rochelle Riley, editor. Wayne State University Press,

2017 (November) “My Youth Still Lives With You”: Images and their Paradoxes at the Museum. (Post)

“By Iron Possessed: Fabrice Monteiro’s Maroons: The Fugitive Slaves.“ African Arts. 49, 3 (Autumn 2016)

2016. “Chief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the  Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria” at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts [Exhibition review essay] African Arts.

2015.  “ReMixing Possession: Dreaming Futures Past in the Work of Jim Chuchu” General Anthropology. Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 14–15, Fall.

“She Speaks with the Wisdom of God”: Traversing Visible and Invisible Worlds in African Environmental Arts. Catalogue Essay for Environment and Object in Recent African Art. The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College.

2007 Divination in the Age of DNA: (Re)reading the Entrails. In Steve Miller: Spiraling Inward (Rose Art Museum exhibition catalogue, pp. 31-48. Brandeis University)

2005 First Word: Assemblies: Paradoxes of Excavation and Reconstruction in Contemporary African Art. African Arts

2004. Trans/Script: The Art of Victor Ekpuk (exhibition statement, by curator Mark Auslander)

  1. Landscapes and Bodies: Transpositions and Mirror Images. [Review of exhibition, “Coexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa.”] American Anthropologist, 105 (3): 621-3 (September)

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