For a piece that clashes ancient themes of shamanism with layers of neon paint, Cult House feels remarkably cohesive. A solo work “triggered” by lost items coughed up by the Thames, and accessorised with gel pens and antique cabinets, tin-foil babies and cut flowers, Shaun Caton’s work is indebted to our ancestors, but delivers a smooth, if fleeting, reconciliation of past and present. The mood is British Museum meets down-beat rave, all wrapped in neo-noir psychological horror, and the emphatically mysterious Caton navigates a trance-like state with a deliberate mournfulness that bridges the gap between arts centre and artefact.
But while there’s comfort in this unlikely blend of the historic and the contemporary, Cult House is not an easy piece to experience, and the work is as frustrating as it is hypnotic. Alongside his curious and provocative props, Caton’s quietly villainous alter ego sprinkles and sidesteps a number of intellectual traps. It would, for instance, be easy to criticise the artist for his unapologetic Primitivism. With crude masks and Neanderthal movements, the artist plots a shortcut to a simpler time where ritual ruled reason – yet there is much more at play here. On the table nearest the entrance, we immediately face a small cabinet of curiosities, surrounded by pins and roses; at the opposite end of the room, Caton has arranged neat rectangles cut from ready meals and toothpaste boxes. As our modern-day shaman attempts to understand the powers of the objects that surround him, this piece shines an anthropological gaze back onto the ethnocentric and judgemental art of curation.
Within all of this, there’s a sinister romance in how the colonising man, in his thirst for worldly knowledge and eagerness to fill his wunderkammern, seeks to pin down the rituals of his predecessor and, in doing so, acknowledges and echoes his ancestor’s desire to own and map out the spiritual world. As the night progresses, grotesque hybrids of organic matter and scientific apparatus begin to appear more natural; our timescales are shuffled, and the judgemental historian whose materials scatter the performance space is presented with as much imaginative distance as the medicine man. The theme of reappropriation does not stop with the found objects lifted from the Thames in order to decorate this piece; repetition and anachronism reward the conceptual archaeologists within the audience with layers upon layers of recycled and reinterpreted ideas.
While Caton’s work is challenging, contradictory and frequently unpleasant, the artist uses the methodological stances of both the shamanist and the scientist to deliver an experience that is transformative both to the physical space, and the unwitting curators that occupy it. As these three hours of ritualistic behaviour pan out, there’s a spiritualism in the struggle, and after animal skulls are tapped and embryonic fluids sucked, Caton draws from his environment a surprising – and oddly meditative – alternative logic.