In our secular time, when mystics and mediums are considered speculative at best, the realm of art holds space to account for today’s totemic objects and practices. A universal phenomenon among pre-industrial societies, totems protected a community’s prosperity by implicating each member in the responsibility of protecting the totem. This obligation ranged from not harming a specific animal or plant, to actively feeding, rescuing, or caring for it as needed. In today’s modernized and globalized world it’s easy to feel alienated from any such responsibility, while, at the same time, the urgency for environmental conservation has grown exponentially. To this end, TOTEMISTS is an exhibition of seven contemporary artists that each, in their own way, reinstate totemic practices.
As symbols of identification, totems connect a signifier, seemingly pregnant with meaning, to the fantasy of a primordial kernel of the signified. But when peeling back the layers of familiar symbols, mascots, or trademarks that traffic in significance, we find that they don’t so much hold some pre-existing fullness, already containing all of the meanings attributed to them, but rather, the totem is an empty place from which to see the other and identify the self, only retrospectively recognized through difference.
Drawing on the writing of Donna Haraway, the exhibition explores her notion of “kin” to describe the complex intersections of human and nonhuman systems and the continued necessity to map these relationships. To restate Haraway’s sentiment, “to be a one at all, you must be a many.” Haraway’s multi-species act of “becoming with” illustrates ecosystems’ interdependence while working against a human-centric model of forced production and extraction from the natural world. By recognizing totem’s patriarchal and hierarchical legacy, the exhibition affirms the historic failure and continued relevance of totems as facilitators of coexistence and biodiversity.