The Magic of the State
An Exhibition between Cairo and London
Among the varied and multiple interpretations of the recent, global upending of society and politics, the role of magic is one idea not heard often. Yet, it was almost two decades ago, in 1997, when anthropologist Michael Taussig brought his work of surreal, ethnographic fiction The Magic of the State to life. The text, which in many ways is grounded in Taussig's extensive fieldwork, suggests a fictive world where spirits of the fetishised and exterminated (a term artist Rana Hamadeh finds particular purchase with) bodies of the past (Africans and Indigenous peoples) possess the bodies of the living. For Taussig, this act is a metaphor for the transference between spirit and matter, revealing how the modern state is possessed by its history and by the dead. Further to this, it becomes a means to trace the 'magic' lurking in modern machinations of power and the creation of the colonial and post-colonial state.
It is the title of Taussig's book that an exhibition recently opened at Lisson Gallery in London takes its name (27th March to 4th May 2013). This is the second part of a project that began at non-profit space Beirut in Cairo (3rd March to 6th April 2013) with an exhibition of new commissions and contributions that features the same group of artists – Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Liz Magic Laser, Rana Hamadeh, Ryan Gander, Goldin+Senneby, Anja Kirschner and David Panos and Christodoulos Panayiotou. But in London, different works are presented, with a public programme of events and performances and a publication that will be released at the close of the exhibition at Lisson Gallery. The Magic of the State adopts Michael Taussig's position that, from a historical viewpoint, magic operates side by side with power in the functioning of a state. From the mysticism of propaganda and political rhetoric to the supernatural qualities imbued in political figures, parallels can certainly be drawn. It is an interesting premise for an exhibition of contemporary art that straddles one country (Egypt) in the throes of a seemingly irresolvable revolution and another (United Kingdom) that is constantly observing the other, with its own rumblings of political unrest and disquiet.
Lili Reynaud-Dewar introduces the exhibition with Cléda's Chairs (2010), an installation comprised of video, Louis XII chairs and fabric panels that can be viewed from the street outside Lisson Gallery's Bell Street space. This installation weaves together Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Notes for an African Oresteia, her grandmother Cléda's antique chairs – handed down to the artist – African prints and snatches of phrases from Pasolini's film. The mise-en-scène contrasts domesticity with modernity, highlighting the role of ritual and magic as described by Taussig. Here, it is seen as a way of understanding the formation of personal histories, as Reynaud-Dewar's work often does, extrapolating her familial connections to Jazz and Pan-Africanism via Sun Ra, with references to Greek Mythology and the allegorical potential of objects.
The wonderfully named Liz Magic Laser contributes a new work for the exhibition: Stand Behind Me (2013). Performed on the opening night, what remains in the space is a video of her enactment of the postures and body language of political figures. Among those studied are US President Barack Obama and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Labour Leader Ed Miliband and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With each, the artist isolates and exaggerates their hand movements and facial gestures. There is an absence of sound, but the speeches of each politician are presented on autocues. In this, the artist wittily lays bare the artifice inherent in the contemporary realm of politics and the absurdity and ritualistic quality of the politician's charade.
Rana Hamadeh's The Big Board or…And before it falls, it is only reasonable to enjoy life a little (2013) is a stage set that will be activated through a performance by the artist during the run of the exhibition on 25th April 2013. This smorgasbord of historical, scientific and cultural references brings together, among other allusions, Sun Ra's declaration in his film Space Is the Place (1974) that the African-American is both an alien and a myth in today's society. It also brings to light the narrative of Doctor Schnabel of Rome, 'The Beak Doctor', who was believed to posses the ability to cure the Plague (while being immune to it himself). A board game aesthetic that riffs off Oskar's Schlemmer's Diagram for Gesture Dance (1926), The Big Board or…And before it falls, it is only reasonable to enjoy life a little playfully invites the viewer to construct a non-linear timeline of the creation and destruction of states and societies, unravelling myths and revealing unseen parallels. Exploring the reciprocal nature of resistance and contagion and the various interpretations of both – from (pseudo-) medical terminology that denoted both bacteria and human cultures in both respects – the artist presents a confounding yet convincing thesis on the current, ongoing uprisings taking place across the Arab world.
The Magic of the State brings various 'case studies', via alchemy (Goldin+Senneby), ancient mythology (Anja Kirschner and David Panos and Lili Reynaud-Dewar), the sacred (Liz Magic Laser) and historical archives (Christodoulos Panayiotou). Such ideas are brought together to propose an understanding of the modern state in terms of the mystic, the intergalactic and the microscopic. The exhibition's simultaneous presentation in London and Cairo draws inevitable parallels between the two divergent geographies and raises questions surrounding the nature of a collaboration between a London stalwart of the commercial gallery scene and a less-than-year-old non-profit space in Egypt. It is described by Beirut and Lisson Gallery as an: 'innovative model of collaboration…highlighting the different social and political contexts in which the two organisations operate'. And further, the collaboration signifies an opportunity to bring 'a number of international artists to Cairo for the first time'.
But how exactly have these 'contexts' been highlighted in the exhibition? Placed within a national narrative, affiliation is perhaps an extension of increasing activity and partnering between British institutions and those in the Middle East. These include Tate Modern's Project Space recent collaboration with the Contemporary Image Collective Cairo (with exhibition Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear). Such collaboration points to the heightened interest in the region that has certainly peaked since the 'Arab Spring' erupted in early 2011. Internationally, countless exhibitions and public programmes have been dedicated to understanding, reflecting and theorising art, citizen journalism and newsfeeds produced in and around political uprisings from Egypt to Syria. These impulses are not only culturally motivated but signify a commercially driven expansion to capitalise on artists, ideas and untapped wealth (patronage). But this is a two-way street: these developments have been to the benefit of artists and institutions from both the west and in the region, giving new access to resources not provided locally by the state or private infrastructure.
In the end, The Magic of the State, carefully curated by Lisson's Associate Director Silvia Sgualdini in conjunction with Beirut Co-Directors Jens Maier-Rothe and Sarah Rifky, provides an incisive curatorial framework while maintaining a certain beguiling complexity when it comes to the specifics of their collaboration. Perhaps what this exhibition tells us about the operation of secrecy, theatricality and the suspension of belief in terms of political power is an appropriate – if less noxious – paradigm not only for the production of art, but for the functioning of the art world itself.
The Magic of the State is showing Lisson Gallery, London, until 4th May 2013. For more information, visit www.lissongallery.com.