Friday, 12 December 2014

Magicians of the earth

Xmas is a time to go away from college and recuperate. This has been a long term and I am exhausted, full of cold and at this moment in bed recovering from a chest infection. Last weekend though I managed to get down to London to see a few shows including the Kiefer at the Royal Academy and the Polke at Tate Modern. For many of you this holiday is perhaps a chance to see some exhibitions and they can, if you are lucky, be significant and life changing.
In 1989 Jean-Hubert Martin curated ‘Magicians of the Earth’ at the Pompidou in Paris, and for me it was as if a rug had been pulled out from under my feet. I was bowled over and it re-energised my whole practice. The exhibition contrasted ethnocentric practices with the contemporary art world and it featured 50% Western and 50% non-Western working artists. The artists were presented as individuals rather than by geographic region and the work was not separated out as between Western or non-Western art. It was all just there to confront and it really did confront you, or it did me. On the one hand it helped to give new insights into work I had already seen, for instance Richard Long’s mud circles of hand prints could be thought of as being sites for rituals, or you could look at Western art as if it was the product of some archaic ethnographic practice and when you did, you began to realise how odd it really was. The biggest issue for me at the time was that most non Western art was occupied with real stuff, life and death or sex and ritual, it was utilitarian and practical as opposed to being art about making art. After looking at that show, I became determined to find a way to make art about what I was experiencing in the real world.
You can download a reaction to the show here

Editions Xavier Barral have this year brought out a memorial catalogue in memory of this highly significant show and its accompanying catalogue. 

However it seems to me that we have not learnt the lessons that ‘Magiciens de la terre' had to teach us. I find too many art exhibitions still highly euro-centric and concentrated on art about art. It makes me feel sad that so much art is totally ignored by the majority of people, ignored because its concerns are not about life but about art. I read an art review by Will Self the other day and he had actually had a cathartic moment when looking at some work by Ron Mueck. 

Mueck’s piece, ‘In Bed’ is a large illusionistic sculpture of an over life-sized woman in bed. It seems to tackle a similar theme to his earlier work, ‘Dead Dad’. Both become meditations on death, and for Will Self, a man not known for sentimentality, his confrontation with ‘In Bed’ allowed him to be, in Aristotle’s term, ‘purified’. I suppose I better explain.
Plato did not like the fact that art imitated nature, he thought this dangerous, as we might not eventually be able to trust our senses. Aristotle refuted this and argued that on the contrary art was useful in that it modeled itself on the world in order to allow us to see what was actually happening. The ‘purification’ of an audience occuring at the moment when the model allows the audience to ‘see’ the reality. (In this case Aristotle was referring to stage plays, and in particular tragedy). Art for Aristotle was based on life experience but it simplified, or clarified that experience and opened it out for contemplation. Therefore it was not a copy of the world but a model or framework against which we could test out our real world experiences and come to some sort of ‘realisation’ about them. Mueck’s sculpture distances itself from life by being ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ its scale being vital to its reception. In effect the scale change allows us to ‘see’ the work as art, if it was the same size as the original it would fall into Plato’s trap, it would be too easily indistinguishable from the real world and therefore confusing.

This is a list of all the artists that were exhibited in ‘Magicians of the Earth’, it is interesting to see how their career paths have differed.

Marina Abramovic, Dennis Adams, S.J. Akpan, Jean-Michel Alberola, Dossou Amidou, Giovanni Anselmo, Rasheed Araeen, Nuche Kaji Bajracharya, John Baldessari, José Bédia, Joe Ben Jr., Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Gabriel Bien-Aimé, Alighiero e Boetti, Christian Boltanski, Lousie Bourgeois, Stanley Brouwn, Fréderic Bruly Bouabré, Daniel Buren, James Lee Byars, Seni Camara, Mike Chukwukelu, Francesco Clemente, Marc Couturier, Tony Cragg, Enzo
Cucchi, Cleitus Dambi / Nick Dumbrang / Ruedi Wem, Neil Dawson, Bowa Devi, Maestre Didi, Braco Dimitrijevic, Efiaimbelo, John Fundi, Julio Galan, Moshe Gershuni, Enrique Gomez, Dexing Gu, Hans Haacke, Rebecca Horn, Shirazeh Houshiary, Yongping Huang, Alfredo Jaar, Nera Jambruk, Ilya Kabakov, Tatsuo Kawaguchi, On Kawara, Anselm Kiefer, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Per Kirkeby, John Knight, Agbagli Kossi, Barbara Kruger, Paulosee
Kuniliusee, Kane Kwei, Bojemaâ Lakhdar, Georges Liautaud, Felipe Linares, Richard Long, Esther Mahlangu, Karel Malich, Jivya Soma Mashe, John Mawandjul, Cildo Meireles, Mario Merz, Miralda, Tatsuo Miyajima, Norval Morrisseau, Juan Muñoz, Herny Munyaradzi, Claes Oldenburg / Coosie Van Bruggen, Nam June Paik, Wesner Philidor, Sigmar Polke, Temba Rabden, Ronaldo Pereira Rego, Chéri Samba, Sarkis, Twins Seven Seven, Raja Babu Sharma, Jangarh Singh Shyam, Nancy Spero, Daniel Spoerri, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Yousuf Thannoon, Lobsang Thinle / Bhorda Sherpa / Lobsang Palden, Cyprien Tokudagba, Ulay, Ken Unsworth, Chief Mark Unya / Nathan Emedem, Patrick Vilaire, Acharya Vyakul, Jeff Wall, Lawrence Weiner, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jimmy Wululu, Jack Wunuwun, Jie Chang Yang, Yuendumu, Zush.

Wesner Philidor drawing. He was an artist from Haiti

Jivya Soma Mashe shows some of his work.

Jivya Soma Mashe

Perhaps the point is to look for drawing everywhere. Art galleries only host a certain sort of work, and in particular after doing a tour of the private galleries in Cork Street, I’m not sure that contemporary galleries are looking for art that operates either in a ritualistic manner, as so much of the art in ‘Magicians of the Earth’ did or in an Aristotelian ‘cathartic’ manner. The art I saw was simply a commodity exchange based on a rarity and significance given value by a particular set of ‘art world’ agreements. A bit like our money now that it is no longer tied to the gold standard. Provenance and listings replacing emotional power and artistic insight. 


Karva Chauth (Hindi: करवा चौथ) is a one-day festival celebrated by Hindu women in North India in which married women fast from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands. This festival continues to this day and many women still have themselves decorated as part of an accompanying ritual. These drawings are often beautiful and meaningful and still fulfil a vital function. Mehandi a technique using turmeric and henna paste is derived from the Sanskrit word Mendhika, and has a long history in Hindu ritual.


Karva Chauth drawings.

So have a good break over the Xmas holidays and try and keep on the look out for drawing in all its guises, perhaps above all look for how drawing can engage with life. 

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