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Phenomena aside from rationalism and scientific concepts are currently regaining popularity in the arts. Young artists are making use of the Satanist Aliester Crowley’s ethereal illustrations or historical spiritualistic photos as their source of formal inspiration, which for a while could only be classified as ‘outsider art’. The artistic fascination in the extrasensory is also fed by popular culture: mystery and horror films, hard rock and gothic subculture. The 1960s already witnessed a similar casual, even ironic handling of the theme; famous examples include Sigmar Polke’s ‘Höhere Wesen befehlen’ [Higher beings command], 1968, alongside the ‘ghost photos’ of the ‘metamorphosis’ of a mountain into a ball, produced in collaboration with Gerhard Richter. Mike Kelley’s ‘Poltergeist’, 1979, pantomimed the old turn-of-the-20th-century ectoplasm photography and thereby commented upon the role of photography in conceptual art. Of course the ‘progressive’ classical avant-garde had already pursued these paths beyond reason a long time ago: the surrealists’ experiments exploring sleep are well known. Lesser known however is the altercation with occult tutors of the Bauhaus, while theosophy and anthroposophy accompanied the development of the abstract paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich.

This exciting topic is presented here in a curatorially unexciting manner, the examples lined up in rows rendering them overly pedagogic and illustrative. Two earlier works could be considered as highlights. Allen Ruppersberg’s video performance ‘A Lecture on Houdini’, 1973 shows the artist, bound in a straitjacket, at a lecture about the escape artist Harry Houdini—he is not to be set free. The central theme of Jean Rouch’s classic documentary film, Les maitres fous, 1955, is not so much concerned with the exposure of the inexplicable, rather with its function. The director presents the west African Hauka sect’s spirit possession ritual and transposes it into a socio-historical context. During the ceremony, the possessed assume the role of French colonial officers.

Olivia Plender’s filmic research and installation about the Kibbo Kift Kindred has similar bearing, a so-called ‘Lebensreform’ [literally ‘life reform’ or ‘back to nature’] movement in 1930s England complete with esoteric ‘look’ and all-embracing standard of economic reform. In sight of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous slogan, ‘There is no alternative’, the artist hereby demonstrates ‘of course there is!’

Identifiable revolutionary ambitions such as these were persuasive in curator Chus Martinez’s decision to invite the artist group Claire Fontaine. It does, however, remain a little unclear what their request for the sharing of private property via the clicking of doors and locks of all kinds has to do with tactical magic.

The group that form the Center for Tactical Magic reconstruct experiments that prevent the growth of plants through the power of negative thought, or their alchemical one-man-rocket ‘Ride.1’, which catapults one around, seem rather curious.

Such works do exploit magic as an aesthetic component, but many don’t cross the line beyond illustration or formal reference: Goshka Macuga projects slides from an old publication which expose sideshow tricks, showing how ‘the lady without a torso’ actually works; Allen Jones constructs a photo gallery about the magician Kalamag who made his career during the Third Reich; Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan place sculptures into the cubist-geometric vocabulary of esoteric art. Robert Cuoghis ‘Ukh-Duggs Chant’ proves to be more complex, a sound installation dealing with the area of tension between ritual, documentation, noise, new music and experiment.

Unfortunately the artists’ references in this show are too divergent, the works themselves often too neat, drained of their ‘aesthetic’ magic. The dissociation from institutional religion, spirituality, occultist movements and individual use of magic remains diffuse—for instance, Eduardo Navarro’s building of an ‘Art Centre Chapel’, 2008, with an altar that has even been blessed by a priest. Mere suggestions of subversive potential are insufficient. One would have wished more for something from the realm of risk-takers and a curator’s appetite for the inexplicable such as that of Harald Szeemann.

Michael Krajewski is a curator and writer
Translated from German by Catriona Shaw