29 July 2019

The Artist Using Ritual to Reconsider Our Relationship to the Environment by Paul Carey-Kent

The Artist Using Ritual to Reconsider Our Relationship to the Environment by Paul Carey-Kent

Miriam Austin practices ritual and probes colonial pasts as she questions how we might relate to our changing world. She chats with Paul Carey-Kent about collaboration, her New Zealand origins and the fine line between poison and cure.

Miriam Austin’s performances often incorporate nature and nurture: blossom grows on her throat; honey cascades over her; she lies inside a fish. She believes ritual practices can really shift the way you live. Austin also makes films from the stories told—as a way to show her performative work more intimately and less theatrically—and carries the spirit over into organic sculptural forms. She slathers poisonous flowers in prosthetic silicone to monstrously gorgeous effect, picking at the connection between beauty and threat. Talking in her South London studio, Miriam explained how her New Zealand origins, engagement in collective actions and the writings of Julia Kristeva lie behind what she does.

How long were you in New Zealand?

Most of the time until I was sixteen: my father was from there but my mother was English, and they were backwards and forwards for twenty years until my mother decided to return here for good. I’m just about to start a PhD which looks back to that experience and will centre on an imagined dialogue with my great-great grandmother, who was one of the early colonists of New Zealand. The project explores the notion of kinship—intimate relatedness—as an ecological concept, using it to reconsider how we relate to the environment in the context of colonial history, globalization and climate change.


Miriam Austin, Ursa Major, 2017

Talking of kinship, you work in a collective called SSEA. What’s that about?

It’s a collaboration which has mutated over ten years but is now called SSEA to indicate “Science Studies, Spirituality and Experimental Art”. We started by making art together, and that led to a series of experiments using narrative and live action role play (LARP) techniques. We would enact scenarios in which we related to each other in fictional set-ups, out of which we developed a set of ritual practices. During that phase of the project we were experimenting with trying to shift our experiences and sense of identity by adopting alternative characters that we constructed for ourselves, drawing on folkloric and religious figures and practices, as well as sci-fi and our own fictional worlds. Often we used the objects we made in performative actions, for example in a “baptism” for Boris, one of the group members, in Cornwall. This involved covering his head in honey and goose fat, making special garments and an enormous headdress that he wore as we processed him into the sea. There are so many forces at work in capitalist society that direct desire towards individualism and consumption—ritual can create an alternative paradigm, a collective shifting of how we inhabit our bodies and the world.

So food comes into it?

Food is an ongoing element, yes, partly from the practicalities of six or seven people going away and working together. We were also trying to develop a symbolic system, often using the materials that we found around us—specific foods, particularly coconuts, honey, salt, bread and limes—became central to this, and we started to use them repeatedly. In one LARP, we imagined ourselves returning to our teenage identities and using our recurring materials to enact a series of burials on a hill in Cumbria.

“As a student, my desk was covered with vegetables at different stages of ripeness and decomposition”

That sounds quite close to your own practice…

Yes, I have always worked with food. As a student, my desk was covered with vegetables at different stages of ripeness and decomposition, feeding into installations—which sometimes became sites for performances. I’m interested in how organic materials have a life which relates to the body, and how the processes they undergo—growth, ripening and decay—speak to our own embodied experience. I like impermanence, or inserting elements which need to be replaced or require ongoing attention.

Read the full article here