e-flux, New York
Through July 28
by Sarah Demeuse
It's a bold thing to do, making an exhibition about an "-ism." Bold and complicated, especially in the case of a lesser known term like Animism. Coined by the anthropologist Edward B. Tylor as a way to classify a host of different practices ("primitive religion") whose commonality is the location of spiritualism in nature and which suspends a boundary between things animate and inanimate, "animism" as umbrella term for an exhibition features a variety of references, from more clear-cut historical cases of 'animistic' practice, to explorations of a psychoanalytic ilk, as well as philosophical speculations about its relevance now. Such a proposal to denaturalize the distinction between subject and object, or the animate and inanimate is certainly the order of the day. Moreover, it’s refreshing to see such a palimpsestic exhibition come to New York, where most exhibitions are purified by the demands for market specificity.
If a spectator seeks a clear position, i.e., a perspective from which the exhibition was conceived, she'll find this question unanswered. The exhibition mixes photocopied excerpts from printed matter (Theodor de Bry's Brazilian engravings, to early 20th-century children's literature, to ethnographic treaties) with documentary film (from Marker's and Resnais's exoticist Les statues meurent aussi to Melitopoulos's and Lazzerato's Assemblages) as well as with modern and contemporary artworks (for instance, Len Lye, Ana Mendieta, Joachim Koester). All appear to run on parallel tracks: the historical material telling one aspect of the birth of Animism in the Western mind, the documentary material critically (or uncritically) embracing the "other" as a model of subjectivity, and the artworks either illustrating an animist aesthetic (Lye's Tusalava) or enacting an animistic approach to the object (Jimmie Durham's The names of stones or Daria Martin's Soft Materials).
While the predominance of the moving image in this exhibition may have been a question of logistics, it is fascinating to think that the moving image may be better suited to suggest, or talk about, animism—the specter, after all, has accompanied film since its inception. Not insignificantly, film was also a prime tool for anthropologists studying the animist other and this embedded colonial gaze within the medium is, in fact, taken up in Vincent Monnikendam's Mother Dao, the Turtlel ike.—a work that uses found footage shot in the Dutch Indies which it occasionally overlays with mythical narrative to undermine the documentary gaze registering Western industry and bare-chested "primitive" local life.
In this panorama, two works that stand out and are able to run on various tracks at the same time: Joachim Koester's To Navigate, in a Genuine Way, in the Unknown, Necessitates an Attitude of Daring, but not one of Recklessness, has an inescapably humorous effect that riffs on early anthropological documentary film, with a host of layers that make it transcend mere illustration. Tom Holert's associative meditation on shine (The Labours of Shine) puts the object, and particularly the work of art (not insignificantly, a Brancusi sculpture), rather than cultural practices and their classification, center stage, thus making one aware of how looking and displaying can unchain a set of prejudices with a hidden affinity to animistic thinking. Both Holert and Koester avoid statement in favor of speculation. The documents as well as documentaries, by contrast, pull one back into statement mode.
All in all, curator Anselm Franke, who is critic of Western taxonomy and ordering of knowledge uses a Western colonial term as main reference, and in so doing takes an ambivalent position. Is it a question of embracing this 'other' (whomever/wherever), or of showing historical and cultural developments of the approach to the animistic mind (which equally results in the continuation of a self/other dichotomy)? What does it mean to resuscitate a term from anthropology and transfer it to contemporary art? It seems that Animism wants to have it many ways, forcing the recourse to documentary vitrines and an expanded gallery brochure. Perhaps this method of exhibition making, which some may deem didactic, contradicts some of the very ideas the exhibition explores and as a result fails to fulfill one of its promises, namely "to reflect on the way museological processes partake in such processes." In this iteration of Animism (other versions were organized previously at Extra City in Antwerp, Kunsthalle Bern, Generali Foundation in Vienna and at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin), authorial text functions as a primordial instrument of communication (Franke's two volumes of Animism are also available for consultation), threatening to turn the objects on display into thumbnail visualizations.
Sarah Demeuse reads, translates, edits, writes and makes exhibitions. Together with Manuela Moscoso, she founded rivet, a curatorial office that currently focuses on object-oriented approaches in philosophy and contemporary art.