Fotograf Magazine

Jeremy Shaw

The Death of the Artistic Ego

Jeremy Shaw’s profile could easily be presented as the trajectory of a succesful artist in which long-term themes are convincingly developed, the productive complexity of their elaboration increases, and in which exhibitions in the world’s leading institutions increase as well as the works represented in their collections. Given the nature of his work, however, a more compelling question is what the artist’s presentation would look like if it mimicked the experience of a dissolving ego, as promised by drug-induced highs or states of spiritual ecstasy.

The close-ups of Jeremy Shaw and his acquaintances show the ecstasy of hallucinogenic DMT. These videos of individual heads are supplemented by subtitle transcripts of the corresponding statements recorded immediately after the effect of the substance has expired. “Do you know what I mean?” asks one of the participants. The time shift dividing the experience and the attempt to describe it is wedged between what is visible and what can be read. In what is not visible, conscious time seems to decompose beyond recognition, as evidenced by the difficulties with which returning psychonauts try to express their experiences. Shaw himself talks about half-visible sound-like creatures similar to figures from Predator and an environment reminiscent of Hellraiser. References to science-fiction cinema provide an insufficient but instructive framework in which altered states of perception and consciousness can be shared.

Similarly, another of Shaw‘s videos consists of transitions between different worlds, as portrayed in science-fiction films, through vortices and tunnels. In his selection and presentation, the special effects do not appear only as film tricks, but literally as something with a specific effect, as methodical cognitive specializations in which the line between the psychedelic expansion of the mind and McLuhan‘s extension of man in media is blurred. “ I didn’t want the piece to be about hypnotism, I wanted it to be hypnotism.” Shaw says of another piece. This collapse of content into form represents the key movement of all his work. Psychedelic films are psychedelic in themselves. The effects are not only effective, but also affective. Whether Shaw represents facts or fiction, any such representation at least potentially produces affects associated with transcendence, spirituality, or psychedelia.

Old newspaper photographs of various religious séances scatter in kaleidoscopic effects, created either digitally or using large plexiglass crystals. In other images, contours of figures splinter chronophotographically as motion studies turn into something like diagrams of the trance. At other times, following the example of Semyon and Valentina Kirlian, Shaw photographically captures the electromagnetic field around various objects, including his own hands, to see if he can detect changes in his mood while listening to music. Shaw’s artistic practice occasionally seems like a kind of self-experimentation, not only for the creator and the protagonists of his works, but also for their audiences. It thus follows the tradition of the romantic naturalists and critical pioneers of modern psychonautics, including Walter Benjamin, who—before he came to associate aura with old photographs or works of art—described the aura of “all things” glimpsed in his hashish highs. Narcotic protocols fit into Benjamin‘s philosophical project, in which he studied the conditions of possibility or impossibility for modern experience primarily in reference to the effects of drugs and the effects of the media. It is as if Shaw were calling for something similar in the era of start-up microdosing and ayahuasca tourism.

If the documentary mode of portrayal represents reality in conventional opinion, the post-documentary mode to which Shaw subscribes reveals the psychotropic nature of experience, as described by historian David L. Smail. Smail connects the concept not only with psychedelics, but also with cultural practices and artifacts that affect neurochemical processes at the interface of the brain with whole bodies and the wider environment. What happens during intoxication is then only a particularly striking case of a much more common phenomenon, which is at once biological, social, and technical. Thanks to this, Smail outlines the deep history of the human species as a kind of cultural alchemy.

Shaw‘s videos of recent years appear to offer a speculative sequel to this interpretation. They mix evocative historical references as well as eclectically futuristic science-fiction projections. Shaw takes special care to work in these videos with a variety of media formats: the aesthetics of television documentaries with typical voice-over commentary, black-and-white 16mm film, or faded VHS and hi8 colors. At the cathartic peaks, the ritual-rave videos then turn into digital datamoshing psychedelia. Films set tens and hundreds of years in the distant future consist of seemingly documentary shots taken, as it were, at some point in the second half of the twentieth century – that is, at a time when psychedelic culture and therapeutic procedures of subjectivation intersected with consumer “pharmacopornographic” society and neoliberal techniques of governance. Our future evolution is not yet wholly decided.

JEREMY SHAW comes from Vancouver and is based in Berlin. In his work he examines and tests transcendental experiences, be they in religious, psychedelic, subcultural or other contexts. Within the framework of his post-documentary approach, he works with a variety of media and procedures. He has had solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1 in New York (2011), the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin (2013), Kunstverein Hamburg (2018) and Centre Pompidou in Paris (2020). He is represented by the Berlin König Galerie.

VOJTĚCH MÄRC is a historian of contemporary art. He works at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, where as part of his doctoral studies he deals with the chemicalization of culture. He is one of the curators of Fotograf Gallery.

Vojtěch Märc

#39 delight, pain