TJ Shin: Malaria, Devouring Mother

January 25, 2023

TJ Shin, series from Breath of Preservation, 2023. Herbarium sheet with specimens in the Asteraceae and Rubiaceae family, fungicides, pesticides, smoke, linen, envelope. Courtesy of the artist.

You were already born inside death
(echos 49 times)
Already / day twenty eight
Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon
Translation by Don Mee Choi
The Garden is an exercise in place-making. It is a project of world building and of what is neither here nor there; of containment and dispossession; of persuasion and faith; of [a little louder for those in the back] [again, this time with feeling].

Today the garden is a swamp. The garden is the life of muddied waters, the shrapnel of drones, the hum of something not quite like you, and losing yourself to what can’t be helped. The garden is an invitation to fall into someone else’s rhythm—to listen between the lines of devotion, dispossession, and deviation. Without metaphor, the map, the garden—where does one lie?

– Anna Cho-Son

John MacCulloch was a Scottish geologist who wanted to discover the panacea of the world. In 1827, he introduced “malaria” into the English language, derived from medieval Italian mal’aria (bad air), also known as pollution or miasma. He described the disease as an “insensible and imponderable poison” alongside odor and contagion, what he described as the three chemical mysteries of the world. He would travel to Europe to study the origin of the mysterious substance that inflicted his kingdom and conclude that it was decay, the stage between life and death, that caused the invisible malady.

Decay comes from all points of the compass. What, if anything, is immune to decay? What ceases to continue and embalms without time? If death happened to touch upon a soul, its body would rest on the ground, feeding the threads of vegetation, mats of our habitation besmirched back into the consuming body. Decay is the grave of Osiris. And it births itself back to life. Decay is an eternal visitation that reincarnates in metamorphosing shape and form.

Decomposing rocks, aquatic plants, fluvial life, rotting matter, verdant greens, crawling invertebrates, refuse from indigo, moldy bed sheets, stale mushrooms, dusty old books.

MacCulloch counseled against wet woods, moist meadows, fetid swamplands, and marshy spots that form malleable clay and pathologies. The mercurial spirit was a vaporous substance of a particularly moist character composed of poisonous breath. Of muck, it could travel as a fragrant breeze blowing towards town at sunrise, mingled with the mist of effluvia in linear and horizontal, capricious and curvilinear paths. The clod of earth and vegetation could lie hidden in a body and manifest decades after ingestion. He spoke of the “Angel of Death” that could kiss the lips of victors and dig the grave of armies. Malaria was nothing less than the soul of the world, prima materia, fifth element of the cosmos, the anima mundi that united all living beings. Decay that transcended corporeal form went by many names, such as er (air), aether (ether), flos aeris (flower of the air), vapor, and fumus (smoke). Alchemists interpreted prima materia as a form of pregnancy, fetus spartacus from which this alchemistic fetus, also known as Eva or filia (daughter), was conceived. If malaria is Mother, every clay-dwelling critter is her dependent and redeemer, consumed by the impregnated waters for her own integrity and symbolic self-completion.

Malaria can be found everywhere and should be found nowhere. Give me the most malarious district of the globe, and in time I will remove from it every trace of malaria.

Alchemists also believed that the corpus of prima materia was an impure, obscure mass, enclosed in the abyss of matter, and it was the alchemist’s task to expunge the soul from its chaotic substance, the anthropos (primordial man) from darkness and obscurity. MacCulloch would point to the jungles in Africa, Asia, and the Americas as notoriously malarious and insalubrious. He would advise against penetrating the rivers in Africa, the “most destructive seats of this pestilence,” and instead slipping into the desert as a military strategy. He would describe the inheritance of inhabitants who resided in marshy countries and tropical climates that resulted in the “degeneracy of the races.” He imagined a military fortress and naval powers protecting the European Kingdom from Malarial Judgment. He laid the foundation for prognosis, treatment, and cure. He became the accomplice and the beneficiary of Malaria’s order.

By tracing the geography of disease, MacCulloch mapped out a vertical hierarchy of life, the great chain of being, in which Angels, the interchangeable spirit without earthly form, watched from above; then sat Sophia, the goddess of Wisdom on the limbus microcosmi (strip of man); down in the muck were animals, then vegetable, then mineral; and in the center was “Blackness.” Here was the void, nothingness, without attribution or sensation that defined its plane. The sanguis (blood) of Man that united the firmament, as above, so below, was moored through the comparative grammar of Blackness and racial ecology. In the universal bourne of matter and spirit, anything inside the plight of darkness would be assigned less-than-human, non-human, and non-being. Alchemy became a project of traversing the columns, of finding the “missing links,” between the great nest of life, of bridging discontinuous beings into continuity, of suturing racial immiscibility into the Human fold, the Western schema of Man, and bringing forth Absolute Knowledge, Science, and Spirit.
Described as a world clock, the musical harmony of spheres, or an astrological system, the circle was a compass that conjoined heaven to hell, through the earth. It was a symbol of a perfect form that created the first light. It was the sacred geometry of a halo or the hole through which followers believed themselves to be carnally attached to the divine. Like the radial symmetry found in the arrangement of certain plant forms and flowers, the circle seemed to possess perfect nature — a sphere which rested on a point.

In a mandela, a subject occupied a central position and spiraling geometries radiated concentric states of consciousness. The circle came to describe the phenomenology of the spirit, the primordial principle thought to reveal the innermost structure of the psyche; the psychoid sphere bridging matter and matter containing the psychic plane. Form and matter each became a movement of its own integrity and self-recognition. Any opposition or bifurcation was a process of self-Othering, only to return back to itself for restoration and its own becoming.

A series of bio-matter, namely thin plants, are arranged and scanned against a sepia-toned background. These backgrounds faintly portray various archival photographs.
What MacCulloch diagnosed as the miasma theory of disease as being the state of decomposition is not far from the function of an ecosystem where one thing, living or dying, depends on its interstitial relations— fungal, viral, bacterial, and microbial—for collective survival. Life and death are compost. They ingest one another to remake the other. An ecosystem outlives any singularity or any individuated form. It is the ouroboros, the eternal, the transmigration of matter and soul made through the molting of one’s own skin. MacCulloch’s terrestrial projection of malaria was emphatic, except that he, by possessing, became possessed himself. He too, was at the mercy of his own order.

If we are the children of malaria, we too breathe in toxin and we seethe toxicity. With that first breath, we enter an agreement with Malaria, to ingest and impart into the field of apparition of at once spiritual diffusion and atomic death. We are constantly offshoring. As we draw breath from the prima materia, living presses on the experiencing power of masochism. We are always near the presence of Mother, both torturer and victim. With every gulp and expulsion, we propagate as particles of vapor; into a large swath of the peat soil, debris of bark, the black lard of fossils, and the oil rings left on water.

French philosopher Georges Bataille theorized that eroticism is the desire to assent to life even at death, in that we desire to remain continuous despite our existence as discontinuous beings. Bataille explained in Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, “We can not imagine the transition from one state to another one basically unlike it without picturing the violence done to the being called into existence through discontinuity.” He posited that violence and death anticipated the passage of expression for one’s excitement for life. For violence could bring about the spiritual erotic, a transverberation of the highest order, accession to life in the face of decay.
Only through the grave could MacCulloch ultimately achieve profound, carnal joy for life. Only through erotics could he achieve continuity in the great chain of being. It was not mastery but absence that brought him closer to his erotic object of desire, the displacement of the Other that sustained his desiring. It was disease that resurrected his faith and failure that defined the discipline. Malaria was the divine negativity made anew. With the indestructible nature of Jesuit sensuality, he would yield to the form that spelled black death and surrender to the exuberant effusion of abject desire, the nuptial flight of holy orders.

As much as his non-human subjects of study were chained to the prima materia, MacCulloch too was held captive in their tautology. The non-human can not be slain, for a cure persists through its aberration. The non-living must be subjugated so MacCulloch can consume his form. The Other was the cure that defined MacCulloch’s sacrifice, the miraculous healing that endowed his malady. Malaria consisted of an epistemic circularity that reproduced the conditions that justify boundless displacement and recomposition. MacCulloch created a head and completed its tail, and ordered the two to duel, to struggle to their inexorable ends so that his very idea of lordship was not complete without his bondsman. He depended on the non-being, nothingness, to shape his form, unity, and the sense of his judgment— consciousness.

MacCulloch would continue his pilgrimage. He would plunge into life. He would seek the disguised deity of the fallen seraph to supply his billows of joy. He would mire in the swamp, drown in the sensuality of the swarm, the haze, amidst mal’aria. After all, there is nothing more profound than the erotics of mysticism for an alchemist.

About the Artist

TJ Shin

TJ Shin (b. 1993) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. Inspired by decentralized ecologies and queer sociality, they create living installations and imagine an ever-expanding self that exists beyond the boundaries of one’s skin. Shin has exhibited internationally at the Queens Museum, Lewis Center for the Arts, Roots and Culture Contemporary Art Center, The Bows, Doosan Gallery, Knockdown Center, and more. Their forthcoming solo exhibition, The Vegetarian: the Swamp, the Swarm & the Cross, opens at the Buffalo Institute of Contemporary Art in January 2023.

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Active Cultures programs have been made possible this year with generous support from the Active Cultures Board of Directors; the Gatherers Annual Fund; the California Arts Council, and the Los Angeles Visual Arts (LAVA) Coalition.

Audio: TJ Shin, Malaria, Devouring Mother, 2023. 12:00. Sound by Michelle Helene Mackenzie and TJ Shin. Michelle Helene Mackenize: composition/final arrangement, combining electronics, modular synthesis, digital instruments, and the processing/manipulation of field recordings. Mastered by Joshua Stevenson. Commissioned by Active Cultures.

Images: TJ Shin, series from Breath of Preservation, 2023. Herbarium sheet with specimens in the Asteraceae and Rubiaceae family, fungicides, pesticides, smoke, linen, envelope. Courtesy of the artist.