Thoughts On Ideology and Dandelions:
A Commentary on Zina Swanson’s Exhibition, For Luck,
at Dunedin Public Art Gallery 2015
Zina Swanson’s exhibition, For Luck, made me think about the different kinds of beliefs and rituals we have in relation to nature. Inspired by the superstitions we continue to enact in relation to the natural world, For Luck draws attention to the way we still blow a dandelion head and make a wish, even though we don’t really believe it will come true. Such superstitious beliefs relating to fortune rest behind all of the material artefacts included in the exhibition, which references the domestic space of cleansing (the bathroom in particular, complete with tiled surfaces, plug hole, hair net and bath towel).
A dandelion ready to be blown, wishbones, eyelashes on the back of a hand ready to be thrown over a shoulder, lucky bamboo, the four leaf clover, and an acorn in a pocket – all are arranged or drawn in an anticipation of luck. But as we are invited to have faith, doubt festers. Questions are raised. What ideological, irrational or outdated beliefs do we still have in nature that remain unfounded in the modern, rational and scientific world? And how do we continue to live out these unfounded beliefs in our daily life, in the private sphere, as represented by the bathroom?
The critical theorist of our times, Slavoj Zizek, posits that the new form of ideology today is one of ritual, rather than sincere belief. It is thus termed a ‘cynical’ ideology, because Marx’s original formulation of ideology (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”) no longer holds true. Today we know that capitalism is leading us to an environmental dead end. The scientific evidence tells us that economic growth cannot continue forever, because we cannot continue to consume and pollute at our current rate. But, although at a collective level we talk about change, we continue to act as though we don’t know. Convinced that our individual actions won’t really make a difference, we have become cynical. So, instead, we blow a dandelion into the wind and pretend to believe in the modernist dream of capitalist progress continuing forevermore.
We collectively imagine New Zealand in the hyperreal as 100% Pure, even though many of us are wincing at the blatant contradiction our largest industry, agriculture, now poses our rivers, wildlife and soil. We wish upon this hyperreal image and hope problems like climate change will go away. Pretending to believe means we don’t have to change our lifestyles or sacrifice the things we have become accustomed to enjoying. Today we practice a therapeutic, ideological and cynical form of belief, rather than a critical and sincere one founded in the scientific evidence at hand.
Swanson must return to her exhibition to water the lucky bamboo if she wishes it to remain living. Here a different kind of belief is practiced. One that forges a belief in the value of keeping the bamboo alive with scientific knowledge that plants require unpolluted water to do so. This kind of belief is a sincere one that exists in an honest relation to the natural world, rather than a cynical one that exists in relation to a dominant hyperreal image of it. Thus, Swanson’s exhibition allows us to critically address the beliefs that will serve us in the present (of the bathroom, the private sphere), compared to those that will serve us into the future (those backed up by the scientific evidence, which will serve us collectively). In doing so, we are invited to critically realise not only the rituals we base on an outdated belief system, but how we continue to reify this system through our cynical actions alone.