Masters of Chaos 29.06.12

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The French art world took an ethnographic turn this spring. This year's Triennale, which takes place across a number of venues in Paris including the newly reopened Palais de Tokyo (Icon 108), has chosen as its theme, "intense proximity". In the words of its director Okwui Enwezor, it's an attempt to "unlearn the notion that ethnography is necessarily 'bad'". Meanwhile at the Cartier Foundation, Histoires de voir: Show and Tell is exploring the notions of "naïve" and "primitive" art. But in the Musée du Quai Branly, founded to house artefacts culled from France's former colonies and/or "the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas", there's a hybrid show that is heading in the other direction: towards the contemporary. Masters of Chaos brings together anthropological artefacts and new artworks, aiming to unite the two through the figure of the shaman.
As written about by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and as viewed in this show, the shaman is a transgressive figure who acts as an intermediary between unseen, uncontrollable forces, such as the gods and the weather. The show divides shamanism into three sections: "The Chaos of the World", "Mastering Chaos" and "Catharsis", but this progression seems like an afterthought, a feeling reinforced by the emphasis its curator places on the contemporary; Jean de Loisy is not an anthropologist, but a critic and curator (and the new president of the Palais de Tokyo). Twenty artists, including Cindy Sherman and Thomas Hirschhorn, responded to his call to install works inspired by the theme of "chaos", and each of the rooms within the main sections opens with the contemporary work. So the space devoted to illness begins with one of Annette Messager's stuffed squirrels clothed in woollen knits, and around it, her Anatomie, in which skeins of wool are draped across drawings of internal organs. In one of the show's more successful arrangements, this area also contains the famous, miniature Hellenistic sculptures which show figures with cancerous growths, or after a Caesarean section – as far removed from our usual view of classical sculpture as it's possible to get.

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De Loisy has described the exhibition as "unusually subjective", but it conforms to a view of "primitive art" that doesn't seem that far removed from MoMA's blockbuster 1984 show "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art. Nearly 30 years later, the appropriation of ethnographic objects as art seems as problematic as ever. Although Picasso was bowled over by seeing African masks in 1907, that doesn't seem reason enough to view a 1927 Harlequin painting and a Seneca Indian mask from 1899 together. The juxtaposition also overly distances the latter in a move by which, as Susan Hiller has pointed out, "the far-away is transformed into the long ago".

The exhibition design by Jakob + Macfarlane, based on an Aboriginal myth of a rainbow snake that swallowed three sisters and then spat them out, is another case in point. You make your way through a winding steel structure covered in gypsum plaster that opens out into clearings but doesn't allow you to see where you've come from or where you're going. And since in each clearing you're greeted by a contemporary object, which is often immediately familiar compared to its more vaguely labelled companions, there are a number of imbalances at work.

The high-concept exhibition does, however, have the unintended effect of making the Quai Branly's permanent collection, arranged by region in Jean Nouvel's dark, spot-lit galleries, all the more effective. Here, the labelling talks only of geography and who the objects were collected by, emphasising that these objects are part of other histories than that of Western art.



Musee du Quai Branly



Fatema Ahmed

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The appropriation of ethnographic objects as art seems as problematic as ever

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