Keely Shinners

transference michel groisman.jpg

Michel Groisman, Transference, 1999. Courtesy of the artist

The artist, poised on his tailbone, balances a flame. The flame dances on the crown of a candle which is leather-strapped to the artist’s body. There are four in all, ligatured to each forearm and foot. The artist moves, contorts. The body, a flickering vessel, encounters itself. Wick kisses wick. Light drinks from light. The artist, posed now as a pigeon, balances two flames. He blows, hard, into a tube which snakes down the length of his limbs, and the flame behind him snuffs out. In a continuous movement, he passes the light from one candle to another, becoming, for the duration of an hour, an organism mechanised by light.


The stage is the solitary human form. The exercise is one of endurance and confinement. The body acts as both machine and driver. In this work, breath is actor. Breath is drama. Breath is gesture. Breath is script. The piece is titled Transference. 


In a pandemic, the transference of breath becomes the subject of much fear and confusion. Never in my life have I paid so much attention to it. Fixated on breath. Cried about breath. Lost sleep over breath. Every day another set of sighs, another dead name in my prayer book. 


One might think about our world as an economy of breath, engaged in a dialectic between the chokeholders and the choked. It was not lost on me that last year’s uprisings were sparked by a state-sanctioned choking; neither was it lost on me that it seemed the only antidote was to set the breathless streets alight. Hannah Black said it best: “All riots emit a world-historical shine, but the George Floyd uprisings were extra radiant because they opened the doors of the world.” [1] For those weeks and months of fire — of broken windows and upturned statues and love-cries and pain laid bare — the grieving, wearing many layers of mourning clothes, at last made space to mourn. For those weeks and months of fire, the soul of the world aired its grievances and was, in some moments, restored. 


In ancient Greece, the word for the soul was psyche. It is likely related to psykhein, meaning “to breathe” or “to blow,” which may come from the Indo-European root -bhes, meaning “breath.” In the story known as “Cupid and Psyche,” Psyche has, unbeknownst to her, won the love of the god. Each night, Cupid visits her in the dark of night unseen. Urged into suspicion and curiosity by her sisters, Psyche develops a desire to see him. She lights a lamp in the darkness. It drips one burning drop of oil that scalds him with pain. “So often in these myths we hear how the human becomes divine, immortal, impervious,” Rebecca Solnit says, “but there should be a story heading in the other direction, whereby a god becomes human, for love, because of pain.” [2]


This is a parable about pain which brings gods down to the realm of the living. A fire which restores the soul to the realm of the breath. A transference.


Light leaps through the darkness to encounter the body. "What the light reveals is danger," says Baldwin, "and what it demands is faith." In a continuous movement, light leaps from light, demanding love, revealing the untried. 

[1] Hannah Black, "Go Outside," Artforum. Vol. 59, No. 3, December 2020.


[2] Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby. London: Granta, 2013. 

[3] James Baldwin, "Nothing Personal," Contributions in Black Studies. Vol. 6, Article 5, 2008.