The Magic of the State (#1)

Review of The Magic of the State at Lisson Gallery, London, and Beirut, Cairo, a two-part exhibition over March and April 2013. Look out for the forthcoming publication, as it was not ready in time for this review. I’ve written a second review, with more of a focus on the institutional collaboration, and looking at different works, for Masquerade Magazine, to be published soon. 

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Anja Kirschner and David Panos, Ultimate Substance, 2012, single-channel video installation

This two-part exhibition and editorial project took place at one of Cairo’s newest spaces, Beirut, and London’s Lisson Gallery. Curated between Lisson’s Silvia Sgualdini and Beirut’s team Jens Maier-Rothe, Sarah Rifky and Antonia Alampi, it’s an unusual and possibly quite strategic collaboration between established and new spaces, European and Middle Eastern, and not-for-profit with commercial (it’s important to note that only one of the Lisson’s artists, Ryan Gander, is in the show). Most of the seven artists exhibited different works across the two venues. Though I feel like I’m one of about five people on the planet who might get to see both shows, neither show feels incomplete seen alone.

In Michael Taussig’s book The Magic of the State (1997), as the New York-based anthropologist noted in an interview with David Levi Strauss, he argues that the modern state is characterized as ‘a reified entity, lusting in its spirited magnificence, hungry for soulstuff’. For Taussig, an endless array of rites and sacred objects are necessary to keep us spellbound in the conviction that the state is, as the kids say, a thing.

But I should be candid: I haven’t read the book, so let’s profit from that admission. At least this way I’ll avoid making an assessment of how closely this project gets it academically ‘right’. This also raises a question of what is at stake, curatorially, when exhibitions borrow from, or are inspired by, books. What can I claim to learn about Taussig’s ideas through this show, and does it matter? Rather than expecting to see the film-of-the-book, this exhibition instead took a performative, interpretative tack.

Accordingly, a dominant tactic of the exhibiting artists was the collaged, associative thesis: many assembled works intertwined mythologies and speculations that dissolve the state’s matter-of-factness like a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola. You’d wear yourself out seeking empiricism, but then magic isn’t meant to be defensible. Instead, it’s best to be dazzled, as in the case of Rana Hamadeh’s work at Beirut, Al Karantina (2013), a many-drawered cabinet that served as the site of a performance lecture in which the artist drew connections between the practice of hygiene and the figure of the alien. Later, the cabinet’s drawers could be explored, little windows opening onto connected images, objects and innumerable drawings; a set of free postcards offered a take-away version of the argument.

Christodoulos Panayiotou’s Flowers (2012) was much simpler, displaying (at both exhibition venues) a set of archival photographs from the Press and Information Office in Nicosia, some time after Cypriot independence. A gorgeously decked-out bishop is being taken on some sort of municipal tour by local dignitariesThey all look willing to be pleased, gazing benevolently at statues and feigning delight at the petals thrown at their feet by children. Almost every aspect of the tour is symbolic or rhetorical: a performance of approval, a successful date between the Church and state in the formation of a modern national identity.

At Beirut, Goldin+Senneby presented The Decapitation of Money (2010), an audio lecture by their frequent ‘spokesperson’, economic geographer Angus Cameron. He speaks of that most ordinary of miracles, money, he connects its increased virtuality to the ideas of Georges Bataille and the concept of sovereignty. His voice plays in a pitch-black room, in which a strobe occasionally lit up a painted wall map of the Bois de Boulogne, where the lecture was recorded. It was initially a pleasure to see Goldin+Senneby’s generally immaterial work take a physical form. But it’s slight: leaning heavily on Cameron to give his stump speech, and the addition of the tantalizingly glimpsed map does little to add to the brilliance of Cameron’s own thoughts. At Lisson, the formal qualities of the duo’s Money will be like dross: A replica for the August Nordenskiöld alchemy furnace (2012) assist the work much further. In an elaborate wooden case are included all the maquettes, digital files and photographic details necessary for the reconstruction of an alchemist’s furnace from the 1780s. He had been commissioned by King Gustav III of Sweden to pursue the alchemical manufacture of gold. However, Nordenskiöld obeyed with an oppositional agenda, wishing to rendering gold valueless through profusion. A contract is attached to Goldin+Senneby’s replica-kit: those who sign will receive the case and its plans, but the artwork is only authenticated once the furnace replica has been built to the artists’ satisfaction. A pert parallel is made – not for the first time but in a succinct and beautiful form – between two spaces of highly inflated value (art and gold), each with their own subversions.

This thread is sustained by Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s video installation Ultimate Substance (2012), slightly reconfigured for each venue. Filmed mostly in the Greek municipality of Lavreotiki, it is one of the most demanding, but ultimately rewarding works in the show. In its collaged scenes around an ancient silver mine, we see muscled, naked bodies mining by hand in a fire-lit cave, implicitly primitive. Contemporary scenes show the exploration of the same land’s history: dirt bikes ride over the same ground; schoolchildren explore archaeological material in a museum. The loose thesis of Ultimate Substance is most clearly enunciated by the voiceover of archaeologist Andreas Kapitanios: “Moving from the Lavreotiki landscape to the Parthenon and vice versa, one passes from the bowels of the earth to the top of a rock. And through this route, you experience … the material expressions and the symbols of a political society, of a society with power structures.” A lot to do with art and power came out of those mines: stone carved into sculptures and buildings, the silver to pay for it, and ultimately, the model of the Greek polis.

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