The Magic of the State (#2)

A second review of The Magic of the State at Lisson Gallery and Beirut, this time for Masquerade magazine and published last year. This review discusses different works as well as focusing slightly more on the institutional collaboration. Unfortunately the magazine did not run their edit past me so here I present the unedited version. 

In London’s Marylebone and Cairo’s Agouza, two very different art spaces staged a dual exhibition. The exhibition The Magic of the State was the result of conversation started up between Silvia Sgualdini of the Lisson Gallery, and the co-directors of the new art space Beirut, Jens Maier-Rothe and Sarah Rifky. The two exhibitions, which overlapped each other in March and April, involved the same grouping of six contributors presenting mostly different, but related works in each venue.

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Documentation of Liz Magic Laser’s The Digital Face (2012-ongoing) performance. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

The project was inspired by Michael Taussig’s eponymous book, which lays claim on the operations of magic in the creating and sustaining of the modern state. For example, the conferring of sovereignty by coronation can only work if we collectively believe in the power of ritual; and the ‘magic tricks’ performed by treasuries to manipulate the value of money have long been characterised as devilish. The exhibitions don’t aim to illustrate, or ‘prove’ Taussig’s ideas ‘right’ (if you think about it, this would somehow defeat the point). Instead they are handled as possibilities for artworks within the domain of the exhibition, as well as speculating more broadly about constructions of statehood.

This mercurial approach is tricky in itself – it evades criticism as easily as it produces associations. The skill lies in conceptual sleight of hand. Ryan Gander’s Alchemy Box series – one shown at each space – are small, antiseptic white cuboids accompanied by a list of items purportedly contained within. At Beirut, the box’s contents were often defined by their ability to become larger and more valuable than they are – an unscratched lottery card, fool’s gold, fake snow. Like Mary Poppins’ bag, it’s hard to accept that the boxes contain everything listed, but the lyrical feel about the objects (‘A glass bottle, 6cm tall, sealed with a cork stopper, containing what appears to be fragments of gold colored metal’) effectively grabs your will to believe it.

Such chutzpah does not always win the day. In Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s 2010 Interpretation, an arresting performance at Beirut, a creamy-skinned, bottle-blonde Venus of a narrator intones Sun Ra texts from a panel while Reynaud-Dewar DJs excerpts of jazz records originating from her father’s record shop in La Rochelle. At the Lisson Gallery, the mixed media installation Cléda’s Chairs (2010) counterposes her grandmother’s history with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 Notes For An African Orestes. On one screen, we see two skinny white blondes in bikinis and blackface makeup, applying boot polish to the surfaces of Reynaud-Dewar’s grandmother’s chairs. Pasolini’s film plays nearby, while the actual chairs stand in a circle, now adorned with African-style printed fabric panels. In both cases, Reynaud-Dewar sidesteps between cultural inheritance in the strictly familial, personal sense; and in the sense of the expression of racial politics through culture. As Jens Maier-Rothe mentioned to me, one possible interpretation of this is a commentary on how ‘white trash’ so readily absorbs black popular culture. However, with all the other references not really adding up, the white female bodies ventriloquizing ‘black’ voices, it feels appropriative of black culture and politics and, combined with the use of blackface, sets teeth on edge. Not a state of mind to be charmed by.

One of the more direct works is Liz Magic Laser’s 2012 performance series The Digital Face, documented on video at Beirut and performed live at Lisson Gallery. At Lisson, the audience stands behind the performer, who steps on a box. An autocue, visible to the audience, displays excerpts from political speeches by Barack Obama, Mohamed Morsy, George W. Bush, and so on. The performer’s only act is to mime, exactly, the body postures made by the speakers (Egyptians will be able to identify Morsy’s speech through the sheer amount of stubby finger-pointing). An image of the watching audience is projected facing you; in this topsy-turvy situation, bodies do the talking. After all, politics at its most raw – whether at a violent protest or in the gestures of politicians – relies on the presence of the body, as much as the spoken word.

Beyond the effect of the works, there’s a tangible sense that the exhibition as a whole is consciously meddling, Merlin-like, through the institutional politics of this dual collaboration. Many eyebrows were raised at the interaction of a young, Middle Eastern, not-for-profit space collaborating with an established, European, commercial space. Beirut’s raison d’être is based around institutional experimentation, while Lisson’s venture into patently not-for-profit territory (with only one of their gallery artists, Ryan Gander, in tow) echoes this sentiment. And of course, in straitened financial times it’s a model we’ll probably see repeated. This maybe isn’t quite as radical as it seems; after all, this particular and complex trade-off between various strains of intellectual and commercial value is what seemingly keeps the entire art world afloat, and in this case it certainly doesn’t involve artistic compromise on either side. The Magic of the State’s approach, as Beirut’s Associate Curator Antonia Alampi puts it, is more ‘controversial in its transparency.’

Making a meal out of this might just be another act of institutionally critical self-flagellation. But in Egypt, it resounds in a usefully odd way. Egypt has little market to speak of, and the majority of commercial galleries exist one or two rungs up the interior design ladder. But at Beirut, The Magic of the State prepares the ground for what? At the very least, a discussion of what a credible and internationally-connected commercial practice might someday take place in Egypt. And the conversation is introduced in a powerful way.

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