The aim of ‘The Great Transformation’ – a group show curated by Chus Martinez, whose title is borrowed from the political economist Karl Polanyi – is not to simplistically explore the basic similarities between art and magic but rather, as explained in its subtitle: ‘Art and Tactical Magic’, to examine how artists use occultism and spirituality to address social and political issues and even to engender change. ‘Tactical Magic’ is a paranormal campaign: a martial plan – masculine, logical – whose weapon is entirely abstract, non-logical and intuitive.
The scene is set in each room with sound, video and/or film pieces – both documentary and fictional – that relate to cult activities, rites and sects. Together they create an aura of the uncanny, incorporating disguise, role-play and the merging of reality and fantasy. Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1947–51) poses as a scientifically disengaged record of Voodoo practices; yet the artist herself was eventually consecrated as a Voodoo priestess. Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (Mad Masters, 1955) documents the Hauka in West Africa, a sect that used trances and possession as a way to cope with Colonialism, while Werner Herzog’s Invincible (2001), tells the life story of Zishe Breitbart, a Jewish magician who worked for the Nazi’s Ministry of the Occult. Other works have a less documentary bent: Joachim Koester’s evocative Tarantism (2007) captures dancers recreating the origins of the tarantella, a captivating dance that echoes the convulsions induced by a spider’s bite. The work creates a trance-like mood, which spreads to the basement and elevator via Roberto Cuoghi’s sound piece Ukh-Dugga Chant (2008), a magical incantation written and performed by the Italian artist in the ancient language of Akkadian.
Reaching the top floor, visitors can pause for thought in Eduardo Navarro’s Art Centre Chapel (2008), an area that has been transformed and officially consecrated by a local Protestant priest to function as a place of worship. Around the corner, a piece by the art collective Center for Tactical Magic aims to activate energies towards ‘positive social transformation’ with the help of community-based projects. Vital Psigns: A Social Experiment in Psychobotany (2008) consists of three plants – labelled ‘Positive’, ‘Negative’ and ‘Control’ – which are all nurtured under the same conditions. Visitors sit in turn before the plants, projecting onto each the corresponding sentiment; in all such experiments to date, the ‘Negative’ plant’s development has been significantly diminished.
Adrian Williams also invokes the natural world in Hardwater Highway (2008), for which she travelled to Lake Superior to record the ‘miraculous’ appearance of a solid, frozen road from liquid water that, during the winter months, connects Madeline Island to the mainland. Williams’ photographs document this makeshift thoroughfare and its surrounding landscape of Narnia-esque, snow-encrusted slopes and ice-bedecked trees. These are accompanied by the disembodied voice of the American artist emanating from a nearby answering machine, where she intermittently leaves messages in real time to create a tale connected to this fantastic frozen roadway.
One of the most stunning curatorial feats in the show is the intriguing chamber containing an arrangement of works by Goshka Macuga and Maria Loboda – a spectacular orchestration of film projections, sculptures and music in a subtly illuminated atmosphere that evokes a demonic and mysterious experience. Shadows play around Loboda’s sinister sculptural piece Four or five manifestations of a nightmare (2008), accompanied by the sonorous humming and flickering of a projector beaming the 240 slides in Macuga’s Magic (Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions) (2006), a work which reproduces pages from a 19th-century book exposing magical illusions. The entire room is filled with an eerie music: the sound piece Moral antithesis of the perfect consonance (2008), in which Loboda takes Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (1875) as a starting point and then has a violin play the tri-tone interval, also called the Devil’s chord, based on the presumption that disharmony is the defining sound of Beelzebub. Just as these pieces function seamlessly as a whole, so do all the works on show – incredibly diverse in technique, approach and historical relativity – hold together as a unit. Martinez’ show not only makes for compelling viewing, but convinces the visitor of her curatorial premise: that magical thinking can indeed have a transformative power, not only for the initiated but also for scoffing non-believers – rather like art itself.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 118