While working towards a bachelors, Upper-Division General Education courses were the bane of my academic existence. I was good at two things, reading and writing about what I had read. Thus, these G.E. courses, which required me to take classes in the mythological discipline that is known as the sciences, were outside of my area of expertise. Nevertheless, requirements were requirements, and I soon found out about the “soft sciences,” which proved to be, how do I say this, easy. Among these soft sciences is an area of study called Anthropology, the study of cultures, religions, and basically anything that does not start with the word “micro.” In short, I dove into these courses like Clark Griswold into a Christine Brinkley infested swimming pool. What I learned is that female breasts likely developed as a result of bi-pedal walking and that shamans were intermediaries between the physical world and the spiritual realm (also, that the Hmong shamans of Merced, CA drink Bacardi 151, but that is another post, perhaps for another website—AA.com?).
In a series called “The Shaman Suit,” Nadine Byrne exemplifies one aspect of shamanism: the dress. Clothing plays an integral role in our society. Consider dress codes, official and unofficial. We are defined by the clothes on our back—the clothing adds to our aura. Religion is no different. In Catholicism, for example, the code of Canon Law stipulates that “Religious are to wear the habit of the institute determined according to the norm of proper law as a sign of their consecration and as a testimony of poverty” (Canon 669, 1). In other words, the habit is another level of sacrifice and sanctity of the religious. While clerics do not derive any special powers from their attire, they do project an air of divinity.
Byrne’s textile work creates a similar mysticism (albeit a creepy one). Much of the power of these habits (i.e. their creepiness) is derived from their evocation of the all things occult, which literally means hidden knowledge. While the attire itself conceals, the characters adorned in the habits are cloaked in their ritualistic pose. We are blind to the significance of their pose, which further places the images into mystical obscurity. Ultimately, though we know the textile work is simply art, not the divine. We know this because it is called art by the artists and by the viewers. However, it does not feel like art. It feels like the we are peering to the sacred. What a wonderfully confusing feeling.