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Portrait Of The Artist As A Shaman: Exhibition Links Modern Art To Exorcism

A new exhibition in Paris aims to show the fundamental link between Art and Anthropology, the connection between artist and shaman, both conquering chaos through rituals and cathartic masterpieces.

Portrait Of The Artist As A Shaman: Exhibition Links Modern Art To Exorcism
Judith Benhamou-Huet

PARIS - A strange exhibition that tells a strange story. It is the story of a man whose job is to communicate with the spirit world, interceding with the gods to chase evil and demons away. It is the story of the shaman, from Antiquity to today.

At the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, the exhibition "Les Maîtres du désordre" (Masters of Chaos) is the brainchild of Jean de Loisy, the museum's former independent curator who was recently appointed as head of Paris' Palais de Tokyo modern art museum. de Loisy believes there is a common language between anthropological objects and contemporary works. He uses modern art to "open the spectator's eyes' to traditional artifacts. In his opinion, contemporary artists are like the shamans of tribal cultures, messengers, "sentinels' of society. Quite a complex concept...

The exhibition opens on an impressive work by Thomas Hirschhorn, the Swiss-born, Paris-based artist. It consists in a row of small globes covered in bandages – an allegory of the injuries inflicted upon our planet. At first-glance, you might think these were 21st-century votive offerings. But in fact, Thomas Hirschhorn is simply criticizing today's society with his usual tools: everyday objects, cardboard and Scotch tape.

Primitive influences

So-called "primitive" arts have been influencing artists long before Hirschhorn –a perfect example is Picasso and the role African sculpture played on the birth of cubism. According to de Loisy, when visiting the Musée de l'Homme, Picasso found in African art "more than mere shapes, he found the power of exorcism." This is what the French surrealist writer André Breton called "L'Art magique" in the 1950s: "The works which for thirty to forty years have enjoyed the highest prestige are those that offer the least ground for rational interpretation, those that confuse, those that set us almost without bearings on a path different to the ones we have been given since the so-called Renaissance."

Can an exhibition explain the inexplicable? The Masters of Chaos leads the visitor on a journey through different civilizations, from the ancient Greeks to the Inuits, paved with installations that evoke ritualistic practices, a walk through different cultures and eras. One of the most successful confrontation is the presentation side by side of a powerful painting by American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and a Brazilian Candomblé ritual statuette, both representing the same character: Exu or Eshu, a spirit that connects the material and spiritual worlds.

Body fragments

An important part of the exhibition is devoted the French artist Annette Messager. In her 1995-1996 installation Anatomy, she represented body fragments in small frames linked together by colored string. A network of hanging images. The artist explains: "Anatomy is a way of taming things that terrify me, like the inside of the body. In general I try and exorcize dangerous things. "

In the "invisible world" of past societies, diseases were often attributed to evil spirits or to failures of the soul. Addressing these evils directly by representing the body part in question –as Annette Messager did-- together with performing specific rituals then served as exorcism. An ear in ancient Egypt, a breast in 18th century Upper Bavaria…

The anxiety of man is universal, and comes out in different ways. Shamans and artists serve as megaphones.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Thomas Hirschhorn

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