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Contrary to what one would think prior to entering the exhibition, the Masters of Disorder do not attempt to make chaos, but rather eliminate it, in order to return to an equilibrium state–by any means necessary. On display until July 29 at Musée du quai Branly, the exhibition displays numerous traditions practiced across the globe that depict the struggle between order and chaos. To protect against the misfortune and unhappiness that reveal the imperfections of the world, intercessors or shamans appear as negotiators who interact with ambivalent and dangerous forces. They are called the masters of chaos–and they certainly scared any bad “forces” (not to mention, appetite) out of this visitor!
The publicity for the exhibition showcases a twisting modern art piece constructed from white plaster. But this isn’t exactly what’s in store for visitors. The show begins with “Outgrowth,” a well-known artwork by Thomas Hirschhorn that displays numerous globes, each equipped with a bulging tumor-like configuration emerging from a different location. Underneath, are photos depicting chaos and pain in the complementing region. And that’s where the exhibit begins to stray from what the publicity materials suggest.
A corner of a turn later, violent shrieks and creepy carnival music is heard coming from further down in the exhibition space, and we’re met literally head-on with Native American artifacts that were made in the name of religion to either protect from evil or aide as a guide after death. The wooden-carved masks, followed by animal-feathered structures to ward off voodoo, are rather menacing. No visitor would dare wish them any evil. It should be noted now, that this exhibit is NOT for children, and though the museum does have a warning sign posted, it does not specify what may be disturbing.
Visitors are next introduced to the intercessor, a figure who can cross the border between the worlds of life and death, and whose forces allow him to heal those under stress through various rituals, including exorcism. The exhibition features shaman costumes from Japan, Spain, The United States, and the Congo; all equally mesmerizing in scale and detail, while still representing the traditions of their region. A disturbing video from German performance artist Joseph Beuys is set amongst the costumes. Beuys is covered in rabbit blood and is seen taunting his sacrifice before opening the door to a flaming oven. (The animal lover in me lasted about ten seconds before clenching up and moving on.)
Among these intercessors are a certain breed, defined as “sacred clowns.” Emerging from the ritual North American clowns along with their African and Asian counterparts, these figures are said to be the most powerful among the exorcists due to their wild savage nature. Clad in rags and caked in dirt and mud, the clowns evoke repulsion not just by their looks, but by their ingestion of feces and various sexual acts. As a result, “he who consumes the unspeakable, can utter the unsayable.” Masks made from wood, cotton, and earth materials are both suspended from the ceiling and enclosed in glass cases. The accompanying costumes and accessories on display feature the number of spiritual helpers the clowns are aided by, and are shown through animal shapes or natural elements. Above the glass, a list of ingredients for different cleansing rituals wind around the walls in delicate French script.
Once everyone has their costumes on, it is time to party. As artist John Giomo wrote on the wall, “we gave a party for the Gods and the Gods all came.” Festivals for the winter solstice, including the Bacchanalia ritual associated with the Gods Dionysus and Apollo, consisted of dramatic performances, lyrical competitions, and most importantly, frenzied dances that often led to sexual processions to bring back both spring and female fertility. The costumes on display are made in the image of terrifying demons. Hanging on a suspended platform, the overwhelming figures loom above, casting their glare down at the visitor.
The “Shaman Tree” is constructed of fourteen branches that each hold a video screen dedicated to a specific cultural area. Visitors can pick up the corresponding telephone to the screen and “dial in” to the shamans speaking uninterrupted about their practices and beliefs. The entire exhibit itself matches the theme of chaos and work still under construction, as silver scaffolding seems to hold each white plaster section together. Though well-intentioned, the ensuing maze can also easily lead the visitor out of the story-telling order.
Deciding to tackle the carnival before the exorcism, I tip toe to the back of the space, where I’m met with a large, constructed “pirate ship,” that held modern interpretations of the sacred clown. These men undergo a profane process of transgression that allows them to bypass social institutions through means of cross-dressing, acts of rebellion, and rituals of protest and rebirth. A video set to “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine, features men going through this process before emerging onto modern day streets dressed in their often-disturbing clown costumes.
“Chaos is neither due to chance nor to abomination, it is tragically normal,” the sign reads. If an illness is related to the negative intrusion of the spirits, it is believed that an exorcism is needed. A video screen plays “Dancing My Cancer” by American artist and dancer Anna Halprin. The black and white video from 1975 features Halprin in a black shroud screaming and chanting in front of a large picture she painted depicting her illness. The dancer set out to release her fears of the disease and the ensuing shrieks are incredibly difficult to withstand as a viewer. A side panel tells the visitor that after she performed this exorcism, doctors never found another trace of cancer in her body.
Before “The Masters of Disorder,” I generally thought of myself as unshakable, but after seeing the ritual costumes and witnessing a woman conduct her own exorcism, I was proven wrong–and that is a good thing! Art is meant to shock and leave a lasting impression, and as I exited the museum and saw a dead bird on the sidewalk, complete with white feathers scattered on the pavement, I definitely quickened my step.
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