[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Stuart McLean as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Stuart is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2004). In 2013, together with Anand Pandian, he convened an Advanced Seminar at the School of American Research on Literary Anthropology.]
What if anthropology were to suspend its claims to be a social science, whether of a geisteswissenschaftliche or a positivist variety? What if it were to turn instead to exploring its affinities with art and literature as a mode of engaged creative practice carried forward in a world heterogeneously composed of humans and other-than-humans? I am prompted to reflect on these questions by an encounter from my recent fieldwork.
In February 2013, I participated in Frogtopia. At once no place and multiple places, Frogtopia is the creation of Frog King, who in turn is the creation, or the costumed alter ego of Kwok Mang-ho. Born in Guangdong province in 1947 and educated in Hong Kong, where he now lives, Kwok is recognized today as one of the pioneers of multimedia and performance art in China. His output consists of a proliferation of works in a variety of media: video, photography, ink on paper, costumed performance and found materials such as plastic bags. His approach, typically, is to fill his canvases and exhibition and performance spaces with his characteristic motifs, including calligraphy, inflated plastic bags suspended from strings and the frog image that has played an increasingly conspicuous part in his work. Kwok has stated in interviews that he was drawn to the figure of the frog because of its metamorphic life cycle and its capacity to move between land and water. At the same time the image is meant to evoke a range of other associations, its bulging eyes embodying watchfulness and suggesting too a bridge for exchange and communication between Chinese and Western artistic influences and a sail boat for journeying to new places. The title Frog King alludes to a parable attributed to the 4th century BCE Taoist philosopher Zhuang-zi, which tells of a frog living at the bottom of an abandoned well, who considers himself the king of his narrow domain until a passing turtle draws his attention to a world extending far beyond its confines. Unlike his namesake, however, Frog King is well traveled, having toured mainland China, Korea, the United States and Europe and represented Hong Kong in the appropriately amphibious setting of the Venice Biennale. Wherever he goes, he carries with him the characteristic trappings of Frogtopia, incorporating found objects along with photographs and photocopies of previous projects to produce new works, many of which are distributed free to audience members, who are in turn invited to participate in the creative process through calligraphy, drawing, painting, paper folding, or dressing up in improvised costumes, including his signature “Froggy Glasses,” transforming an exhibition or performance space into a version of Frogtopia, where, in his own words, the principle “Art is Life, Life is Art” holds sway.
Frog King’s densely packed canvases and installations have sometimes been interpreted as evoking the crowded living environment of contemporary Hong Kong, where humans, consumer goods, automobiles and garbage jostle for space. I met him however in a very different setting – that of Papa Westray (or “Papay” as it is known locally), population around 70, the second smallest and second most northerly of the Orkney islands, lying approximately thirty miles north of the northernmost tip of Scotland. The occasion for Frog King’s visit was Papay Gyro Nights, a weeklong contemporary art festival held annually in mid February. Organized by Sergei Ivanov and Tzs Zima Chan, two artists who moved to Papay from London, the festival is now in its sixth year and has become increasingly international in its range of participants, who have included musicians, storytellers, painters, film-makers and artists working with ambient sound, digital media and performance. The 2013 line-up also included a “Philosopher in Residence” (Rick Dolphijn of the University of Utrecht, a specialist in contemporary continental philosophy) and an “Anthropologist in Residence” (me). The festival takes its name from the figure of “Gyro” (aka “Grýla”) – a giantess who features in a number of North Atlantic performance and storytelling traditions and who is identified as a hybrid figure, combining animal and human, marine and terrestrial, male and female attributes. Participating artists are invited to create site-specific works that respond to the singular materiality of the island environment by drawing inspiration from the composite figure of Gyro. The festival begins each year with a torchlight parade, culminating in a bonfire celebration. This time, costumes were supplied by Frog King, including an assortment of conventionally male and female clothing, colored wigs, hats and, of course, froggy sunglasses. Thus attired, a procession of islanders of all ages, artists and visitors (plus a philosopher and an anthropologist), led by Frog King, made its way toward the Old Pier on the eastern shore of the island, where the bonfire was to be lit. A strong wind blowing from offshore sent showers of sparks flying from the flaming torches as we left behind the island’s six street lamps and advanced into the surrounding darkness. Arriving at the pier, Frog King put his torch to the bonfire. As the flames climbed, swept upward and outward by the wind, he shouted: “Papay Gyro Nights Art Festival 2013! Heat it up! Fire action! We are making energy! Hot Beauty!” and was joined by a chorus of “Gyro! Gyro! Gyro!”
… For the remainder of the festival, Frog King established himself in a vacant room in the island’s school, which he bedecked with a variety of frog regalia, covering every inch of the walls, turning it into a Frogtopia cum workspace. Here he held an open studio throughout the week and, on the final Saturday afternoon, hosted a gathering of artists, audience members, parents and children, who talked, dressed up, played and made art, while Frog King distributed a selection of previously produced works to everyone present. Reactions to the afternoon were varied. One visitor, a retiree from London, now living in Stromness on Orkney Mainland, was sceptiical about taking part in what he took to be children’s entertainment. Others, including the island’s oldest resident, a sprightly octogenarian, were appreciative of the fact that, for several hours, children and adults, islanders and outsiders, had played together and in doing so produced an assortment of artworks in a range of media. But what sort of play was it that we were engaged in? If Frog King’s performances seem intended to draw audiences into a participatory practice of collaborative making, many of the materials used – discarded clothing, scaps of paper, plastc bags – serve as a reminder too that such play is, inevitably, an engagement with a world that, even when it is composed of humanly manufactured objects, nonetheless exists autonomously of us and the meanings we acribe to it. Take the assertion “Art is Life, Life is Art.” This can be read as affirming, simultaneously, a generalized human creativity (as evoked by Frog King’s frequently and unabashedly universalizing rhetoric) and the ‘artistry’ (in Nietzsche’s sense) of an other than human life, an aesthetic drive – at once creative and destructive – immanant to the very substance of the material universe and as such, finally, indifferent to humans, who are, by comparison, like Zhuang-zi’s frog, ensconced in his well with his kingly delusions, an insignificant speck amid the vastness of a universe of which he knows nothing. To experience a Frog King performance in Papay was to be made aware continuously of the unstoppable encroachment of this other-than-human world – not only through the assembled materials of Frogtopia, but also through the cries of sea birds, the wind that blew continuously throughout the week and sometimes made walking out of doors difficult, the waves beating upon the island’s rocky shores and, less conspicuously but no less tellingly, the marine erosion to which the islands of Orkney and its northerly neighbor, Shetland have been subject since their formation between 400 and 600 million years ago and that will eventually cause both island chains to disappear beneath the waters from which they first emerged. By that time, of course, it is entirely possible that Orkney’s 8 millenia long human presence will have disappeared too.
If anthropology too is an art, what kind of art is it? An amphibious and metamorphic one to be sure, an art that plays – with great absurdity and seriousness – at the interface between differentiated human worlds and at the theshold of their making and undoing. Far from being the holistically conceived study of humanity – as some would continue to have it – anthropology as a creative practice is marked by a constitutive inhumanity. Like Frog King’s art, anthropology’s encounters with other humans and other than humans remind us that what we may refer to as “our” experience is never exclusively and unequvocally ours but is always also the medium of a desubjectification and disposession at once individual and collective. I propose then that anthropology is nothing more or less than the performative enactment – through writing or other media – of this simultaneous grounding and ungrounding of human worlds in the elusive commonality of their non-coincidence both with themsleves and with one another, a commonality that is one of participation in difference rather than identity. Every document of an anthropological encounter is also, therefore, wittingly or unwittingly, the transcript of a becoming inhuman, of the unraveling of observer and observed into the untotalizable whole of what came before and will come after.
As Saturday afternoon drew to a close, Rick, the festival’s Philosopher in Residence, asked Frog King whether he still subscribed to the view that Art is Life, Life is Art? Frog King – or was it Kwok Mang-ho, or both? – answered that he had once considered that to be the case – “But now I realize, Art is Frog.” Art is Frog. I can currently think of no better answer to the question: what is anthropology?