– Spring 2009

Great Transformations: On the Spiritual in Art, Again

Dieter Roelstraete

For as long as it is ineffective, magic = knowledge at rest.

- Friedrich Schelling, On the Nature of Philosophy as Science

I. The Magic of Muscovy

On the whole, the Second Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2007) wasn't that memorable an affair, but it did have its fair share of fine, amusingly symbolic and/or revelatory moments: having to weave one's way through the fur-clad, shopaholic trophy wives of oligarchs (I presumed) on the upper floor of the TsUM (Tsentralniy Universalniy Magazin, or Central Universal Store) to reach the biennial's venue dedicated to showcasing recent video art from the US (a bizarre navigational experience made even more disorienting by the relentless broadcasting, throughout the whole of TsUM, of the proceedings of the biennial's opening conference, featuring the likes of Giorgio Agamben and Chantal Mouffe); seeing art on the thirty-third floor, if I remember well, of a World Trade Center-style skyscraper still in the process of being constructed - most of the art on display, which was predominantly painting and photography, seemed to be merely waiting for the office furniture that would soon surround it); the decidedly oddball installation of Jeff Wall's Cibachromes, some of them tilted at extraordinary angles, in the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture (the selection of still-lifes and 'diagonal compositions' a sly, angular nod to the city's troubled constructivist legacy); Oleg Kulik's exuberant Moscow art extravaganza at the former wine-bottling plant Winzavod, a show simply named 'I Believe' - a choice of title we shall be returning to shortly. Best of all, however, was the experience of meeting biennial director Joseph Backstein, a highly-regarded veteran of Moscow's 1970s Conceptual art scene, in his brightly lit, paper-littered office

  1. 'To write notes upon notes, to produce glosses upon glosses and to always remain subordinated to the "main text" could be a condition that for a long time - say, since the disappearance of a certain type of "modernist" understanding of art and thought - has haunted contemporary experience: a sense of being relegated to the margins of history, power, geopolitical space, language and culture.' Sven-Olov Wallenstein, 'The Footnote Condition', in Nikolai Molok (ed.), 2. Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art: Footnotes (exh. cat.), Moscow: Artchronika, 2007, p.24.

  2. Joseph Backstein, 'The Origin of Species (Theses on Art in the Era of Social Darwinism)', in N. Molok (ed.), 2. Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art, op. cit. , p. 30.

  3. A group show consisting of some sixty-plus, primarily Moscow-based artists, this exhibition sought to address, without the slightest trace of irony, 'the mystery of being'. See N. Molok (ed.), 2. Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art, op. cit. , p.93-95. The historical echoes of Russian mysticism and nineteenth-century Slavophilia resonated in the exhibition's righteous ambition 'to take a look at man … not from the perspective of the latest fashionable philosophy, but through the eyes of someone who believes in life in all its manifestations, which is a radical departure from the conventional outlook of modern art'. Kulik's short catalogue entry concluded on the following note: 'The "I Believe" project will not be about religious doctrines. Central to it is not the believer, who already knows the truth, but the doubting person still seeking the truth. Central to it is the shaking experiences when person [sic] is faced with the mystery of life that is akin to a religious revelation.' Ibid., p.95. See also Slavoj Žižek in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: 'In our officially atheistic, hedonistic, post-traditional secular culture, where nobody is ready to confess his belief in public, the underlying structure of belief is all the more pervasive - we all secretly believe.' Slavoj Žižek, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)Use of a Notion, London and New York: Verso, 2001, p.88.

  4. Etymological precision, of course, is everything in this semantic minefield; when discussing 'magic', it is clear that we are not referring to the illusionist art of conjuring tricks (although that 'reduced' view of magic has become a powerful artistic and curatorial metaphor in its own right; we will be coming back to this point later in this essay), but to the generalised realm of the 'supernatural', and to the regime of the spiritual as opposed to the material. 'Magic' (or sorcery) here signifies both a technique and a model of essentially religious thought - either a type of 'enchantment', in Max Weber's sense of the word, or a form of thought that is anchored in an enchanted view of the world.

  5. Press release for the exhibition, available at http://www.centrepompidou.fr/Pompidou/Manifs.nsf/ AllExpositions/8FFCAB4983627A50C12574B00043BDF9?OpenDocument&sessionM=2.9.1&L=2 (last accessed on 30 October 2008).

  6. Ibid.

  7. As we already know, the curators of 'Traces du sacré' departed from a view of art that identifies it as 'the secular outlet for an irrepressible need for spirituality in a completely secular world'. Many critics and commentators have argued, however, that we no longer live in such a secularised world (did we ever?) but in a 'post-secular' one instead; see for instance Jürgen Habermas's widely read 'Notes on a Post-Secular Society', first published in German in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik in April 2008. If anything, the deluge of spiritual-themed, occultist or 'mystical' art exhibitions in the last couple of years - and perhaps we could even go as far as including documenta 12 (2007) in this list - has certainly signalled the advent of such a post-secular society: a society, precisely, that looks at art with explicit hopes of partial re-enchantment as a way out of the arid cul-de-sac of complete secularisation. It is clear that the revival of strong (and strongly politicised) religious passions in East (Islamic fundamentalism) and West (Christian fundamentalism) is part of this cultural shift - as is the general pathology of that which is known as 'New Age': a throwback, in fact, to a really Old Age.

  8. I am writing this essay at a time when everywhere around us financial markets are teetering on the brink of collapse, forcing governments around the world to come to the rescue of bankers who built their improbable fortunes on deregulation, on haute finance as sheer hocus-pocus (no pun intended) - a fact which has led some impatient commentators to venture the rebirth of socialism. One particularly stirring example has been the BBC's feature on the renewed popularity of Marxist thought (complete with seriously increased sales of Capital) amid the credit crunch; see http://news.bbc.co.uk/ 2/hi/europe/7679758.stm (last accessed on 30 October 2008).

  9. Manifesta 6 was cancelled following a dispute between the curators - Mai Abu El Dahab, Anton Vidokle and Florian Waldvogel - and Nicosia for Art Ltd., a city-run organisation in charge of coordinating the exhibition. The dispute originated in the curators' intention to locate the 'exhibition' (an experimental art school) on both the Turkish and the Greek sides of the island. For the curators' account of the dispute, see http://www.e-flux.com/shows/view/3270 (last accessed on 18 November 2008).

  10. Anselm Franke and Hila Peleg, 'The Soul, or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls', in Rana Dasgupta, Stephen Haswell Todd and Dan Kidner (eds.), Manifesta 7: Index (exh. cat.), Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2008, p.119.

  11. Anselm Franke, 'Something Is Missing', in Anselm Franke et al. (eds.), No Matter How Bright the Light, the Crossing Occurs at Night(exh. cat.), Berlin: Kunst-Werke, 2006. The work of American anthropologist Michael Taussig (who also participated, as an artist, in Manifesta 7) is an important point of reference here, in particular his seminal 1987 study Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, in which Taussig sought to prove the anchorage of the 'demonic power of colonialism in the foundational difference and binary opposition of civilisation and savagery'. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.467.) It is interesting, of course, to revisit this notion of shamanism in the current post-Beuysian art climate, marked by endless oscillations between the (apparently) opposing extremes of lethal cynicism and New Sincerity.

  12. A. Franke and H. Peleg, 'The Soul, or, Much Trouble in the Transportation of Souls', op. cit., p.122.

  13. A life-size wooden sculpture dressed in a dark velvet robe, Goshka Macuga's Madame Blavatsky

  14. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Best of 2007: Gerhard Richter/Cologne Cathedral', Artforum, December 2007, p.306.

  15. Witnessing the sunlight filter through Richter's 11,500-plus colour mosaic and light up the musty interior of the Cologne cathedral is an enchanting experience for sure, and it would be disingenuous to discount the sheer beauty of the work - which has of course played its part in the Domfenster's popular success, bringing to mind the highly ambiguous triumph of Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at Tate Modern in London in 2003. Back in London, however, a recent exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery of the same colour charts that were used in the Cologne Cathedral window project thankfully helped to remind us of Richter's unscathed gift for ironic (some will probably say cynical) deflation: they were described, by at least one colleague of mine, as 'bathroom tiles' - a far cry from the lofty claims of sublime, luminous ecstasy that incessantly spiral around the Domfenster.

  16. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique', Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, Cambridge, Mass and London: The MIT Press, 2000, p.42.

  17. The historical conflation of early cinema and magical practices is a well-researched subject, theorised by Tom Gunning in his landmark essay 'The Cinema of Attractions' (1989) among others; it centres, in part, on the pre-eminence of Georges Méliès (who saw cinema as a vehicle of boundless fantasy) over Thomas Edison (whose impulses were more journalistic). See Tom Gunning, 'The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde', in Robert Stam and Toby Miller (eds.), Film and Theory: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000, pp.229-35. Early cinema's roots in a culture of illusionism and related spectral concerns or 'ghostly matters' (dreamstates, hypnagogia) have been dug up time and again in the laborious process of film artists' transformation of the white cube, as the quintessential, primordial space of art, into a black box. Matthew Barney's appropriation of Harry Houdini is an interesting case in point - as is that of Aleister Crowley by Joachim Koester.

  18. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 'Reconsidering Joseph Beuys, Once Again', in Gene Ray (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy, Sarasota, Florida and New York: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and D.A.P., 2001, p.75-90.

  19. The reference here is to Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (Scarlet and Black, 1830), the story of Julien Sorel, an aspiring dreamer of humble birth whose status-anxiety casts him back and forth between the contrasting worlds of the military (black uniforms, worldly power) and the Catholic church (red robes, celestial power). Marcel Broodthaers invoked Stendhal's binary symbolism of black and red in a now-famous letter sent to Joseph Beuys, then still a colleague of Broodthaers's at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf, in which he criticised (with a good deal of neo-Dada humour, it should be added) Beuys's Wagnerian inclinations. Broodthaers's indictment of Beuys's delusions of grandeur, written in 1972, took the shape of a fabricated letter from Jacques Offenbach to Richard Wagner, dated sometime in the late 1850s. Broodthaers/Offenbach's letter to Beuys/Wagner (published in a German newspaper that same year under the title 'Politik oder Magie') served as an important point of reference for Buchloh's subsequent assault on the Beuys myth; it ends with the following exclamation, prefiguring the air of resignation I recognised in Joseph Backstein's voice back in 2007: 'Wagner, à quelles fins servons-nous? Pourquoi? Comment? Pauvres artistes que nous sommes! Vive la musique!' ('Wagner, what purposes do we serve? Why? How? Poor artists that we are! Long live music!')

  20. Francisco Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, 1797-98.

  21. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (trans. Michael Eldred), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp.3-4.

  22. See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.