Michael Taussig. Wassily Kandinsky. Three Sounds (Drei Klange), 1926 - Artforum Sept, 2000
A talisman in the form of a postcard I stuck onto a sheet of paper in 1984 in New York placed by my IBM Selectric and soon covered with appointments, telephone numbers, and a reminder to deposit money. And here it still is, the paper curled, the names passed away, the money spent, but Kandinsky's image fresher than ever, mindful of works accomplished and a history we now share. Not an object of art-historical study but a revelation when unthought things were piling up awaiting their turn at the writer's table, waiting because the words were going one way but the music another. Over and over I would play the tapes I had collected during my visits to the Putumayo region of the Colombian Amazon. In my tiny room with an inch of view of the Hudson River I sat numbed by the far-awayness brought close by the chanting such that the very heavens were shaking inside me as I reached for the fire of that beauty halted, the stories pitched forth. Then the world would open again with a sound like a gun crack from the back of the shaman's throat, his fan alive, rustling and sighing between a drumbeat and the wind. The words were going one way, the music another, and I was stuck knowing I had to go one better than I had as the manuscript piled up of what would one day be published as Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing.
Look at Kandinsky's Three Sounds, at the black spaces and the way geometry breaks into light through color experiments. The terror I was writing about was not so much the inverse of the healing as it was intricately meshed with it. That was my point. Note the darting black arrows and spots of color drifting out of focus into the dark sky with its promise of text in the grid at the top right-hand corner. The genius of the shamanic use of the hallucinogenic vine yage, in my experience with Santiago Mutumbajoy in the Putumayo lowlands, lay in the way it used the sounds of a universe shook up by nausea and spirits to destabilize both perception and certainty--beginning with flashes of color, shooting stars, and gateways to incandescent patterns no sooner lodged than gone. And where did they go? For there was no more observer, no little me or you watching secure in our bodies, for that body you thought you knew so well was cascading into the black light and the lost promise of colored geometry as the shaman extra cted the enemy's envy from you as physical, bodily, substance, and spat it into the cold night as so many upside-down red triangles. Terror and healing were no less intertwined than chaos with order. Trying to separate them was mistaken. Configuring them to the benefit of healing--that was the art I was after.
Three Sounds suggested there were spaces provided by European modernism that could help me think this through and make the translation from there to here--from the Putumayo to New York and from image to text-- provided I never abandoned that threshold where sound and color formed formless forms by virtue of an incandescent palette from which other sorts of images could arise, as when the shaman became a jaguar sitting in his hammock, with the feet of a human swinging relaxed above the floor. Or the face of the sorcerer would be staring at you, only to dissolve back into the palette as stories behind the stories started to reel forth. Three Sounds got it pretty right, I thought, the fearsome song weaving and cutting into laughter and always, always, the interruptions, a song of sounds, not words, three sounds, four, five hundred sounds becoming color suffusing the line like magic, like colored illustrations in children's books converting physics into poetry such that the language of nature and the nature of l anguage become one.
That was 1984 and few people in my field had written on terror, much less on its relation to healing with hallucinogens. And here I was led into just that, drawing on what I saw as connections between lowland Putumayo shamanic theater and Dada vintage Zurich 1916. Hugo Ball, who had passed through Kandinsky's Munich, especially caught my eye with his Magical Bishop performance and Futurist sound poems that broke the language apart, and this connection was, incidentally, made stronger for me by that footloose proto-postmodernist William Burroughs, who was in the foothills of the Putumayo in the mid-'50s drinking yage with shamans and writing letters about his experience to Allen Ginsberg. But it was an earlier scribe--that larger-than-life human rights advocate, the Anglo-Irish rebel Roger Casement--who had led me to focus on the consequences of the epistemic murk so typical of our representations of violence. His letters to the British foreign secretary concerning the atrocities heaped on the Putumayo Indian s during the rubber boom of the early twentieth century made me uncomfortably aware of how the stories we tell of terror thrive on the razor's edge of ambiguity and are as likely to frighten listeners into submission as to inspire the wit and courage to fight back. Now Colombia has become immeasurably more violent, and the use of Dada-like uncertainty to control populations has become as much an art form as was that invigorating anti-art form.
If there is a way out of this dialectic that binds violence to art, it lies for me in the controlled yet mysterious beat I found in Three Sounds as an echo of Putumayo shamanism and as a way of traveling, magical in its own right, between the known and the unknown. Of course this works best when unthought and unsaid. Only now has that statute of limitations passed and memory been allowed to speak as its mediation disappears into the things mediated.
MICHAEL TAUSSIG is professor of anthropology at Columbia University. His books include The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford University Press, 1999). This month, for an ongoing series in which writers are invited to discuss a work of special significance for them, Taussig reflects on Wassily Kandinsky's 1926 painting Three Sounds (Drei Klange).