The artist self defining as magician, particularly in the context of European Modernism, has been linked to the separation of production and consumption due to the industrialised processes of capitalism. As Thomas McEvilley describes in his essay, ‘Marginalia: Thomas McEvilley on the Global Issue’, “if we can say that during the progressive modernisation and concomitant fading of religious experience in Europe and North America the artist remained one of the few ‘sites’ or ‘castes’ in which a knowledge of both production and consumption was retained,  then we can begin to see why the west invested its art with transcendental meaning. Perhaps this is why [Magiciens] tended to privilege traditional material processes; the fetishising of these processes as they are practiced both in Western culture and elsewhere reflects the yearning for some lost pre-industrial integrity of cultural ‘authenticity’.” (Making Art Global, 2014, p252)

The modern interest in magic and art dates back to the early 20th century and was particularly prevalent in Surrealism, with references to alchemy, tarot and shamanism. In 1957, the Surrealist leader, Andre Breton also published ‘L’Art Magique’, which included responses to the nature of magic art by writers, artists and ethnographers. (Dawn Ades, ‘Paolozzi, Surrealism, Ethnography’ in Lost Magic Kingdoms, 1985, p61)

Who are the magicians of the earth?
The concept of the Magicien was adopted by the curators of ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ as a method of standardising the concept of the artist in a global context. As the publicity for the retrospective of Magiciens describes: “Uniting artists from all over the world, “Magicien” was used as an umbrella term for artists using extremely different practices in cultures far distant from each other, where some possessed a pronounced otherness with regard to European culture…

“One of the aims of the Magiciens de la terre was to show the Western public what Jean-Hubert Martin called “visual and static objects, whose essential quality is to be vessels of the spirit” – a collection of works embodying a spiritual aspect and objects from ritual practices, which their creators had imbued with traditional codes while giving them a personal dimension. In this respect, Voodoo rites are particularly present in the exhibition archives, and so the terms “cosmogony”, “rites” and “rituals” are omnipresent in the surviving documentation”.

The title Magiciens de la Terre attempted to circumvent the problematic nomenclature of artist in a global context by equating the artistic transformation of materials with a kind of spiritual or alchemical practice. However, this attempt to create an equivalence between the artists, produced the effect of flattening out any socio-economic and political differences, thereby removing opportunities to celebrate difference within the production of art, as well as denying the different experiences and values placed upon artists by the international art market.

Responses from the Magiciens themselves
The concern about the title of the exhibition was acutely expressed through several of the works in the exhibition, particularly in the case of Barbara Kruger’s ‘Qui sont les Magiciens de la Terre?’ a large billboard suggesting a variety of professions, which functioned as a way of questioning the valorisation of the artist. (Making Art Global, 2014, p252)

In Kruger’s ‘Statement on Magiciens de la Terre’, which was reproduced in ‘Making Art Global’, she states: “I had problems with the methodologies of the exhibition and certainly with the title – I thought it was fraught with the conventional romantic notion of what art is and what it does. I knew that the only way my work could function productively within the exhibition would be to address the title and try to work critically in regards to it… My questions and criticisms did not extend to the actual work included in the show… And while the inclusion of difference, especially in terms of race, was a welcome addition to an exhibition with ‘global’ ambitions, somehow it all seemed a bit like escorting otherness into the capital”. (Making Art Global, 2014, p286)

Another artist who was interested in interrogating the exhibition concept was Daniel Buren. His four films, shown on video monitors at the exit to the final room at the Centre Pompidou, included interviews with the artists about their involvement in the show, and excerpts from films about the making of the exhibition. (Making Art Global, 2014, p149)

Magic and labour
My initial thoughts about the difference between art and magic (apart from Alfred Gell’s essay ‘The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology’) relate to ideas about the magician being required to hide their labour to produce the trick, whereas the artist needs to show theirs to produce context and value. With this in mind, I have decided to reproduce each of the images from the retrospective exhibition, spending an hour on each one. The image rights had been negotiated for the reproduction of the images and I discussed the possibility of my project with the conference organisers.

The framework of my project will reflect the equalisation of the works in both the original and retrospective exhibitions, and the hour long making process described both a way of allocating equal value to each of the works and also a typical unit of labour used to determine pay. The variable factor in this project will be the title, which, alongside appropriate credits will include the average hourly wage from the country of the artist’s origin, based on the Purchasing Power Parity framework. This aims to highlight the correlations between geographical, social and economic factors that the original exhibition ignored.

Further info:


The original exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ was staged in over two exhibition sites in Paris (the Centre Pompidou and the Great Hall of La Villette), and ran from 18th May to 14th August 1989. It was hailed as the first global exhibition of contemporary art. The exhibition presented contemporary works by living artists from around the world, aiming to expose the range of artistic practices in a global context.

History and context
As the promotional text from the retrospective exhibition explains, Magiciens de la Terre was produced in order to show “that objects seen in Western cultures as works of art, but embodying a functional, spiritual aspect for the civilisations they came from, had a legitimate place in the Museum environment… evoking the precepts developed by Joseph Beuys with his Peace Biennial and Robert Filliou with his “Poïpoïdrome”, whereby the practice of art should include otherness and exchange as fundamental components at the very heart of creativity”. However, due to Martin’s insistence on representing only living artists, neither Beuys or Filliou could be shown as they had both passed away during the making of the exhibition. (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, pp.26-27)

As discussed during my previous blog (from week 94), the Magiciens exhibition was contextualised by “colonial presentations within world exhibitions in the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries, the creation of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris in 1937 and MOMAs ethnographic projects throughout the first half of the 20th century” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p10). These early ‘global’ displays provoked various other large-scale initiatives, in an attempt to address cultural practices that had not originated in the West in relation to the Western art system. Such responses aimed to question the established art canon and introduce historiographic readings into contemporary art (Steeds et al. Making Art Global, p10). This expansion of the artistic canon, shaped by the end of the Cold War and the beginnings of globalisation, encouraged new ideas and approaches towards displaying ‘non-Western’ art. These projects included exhibitions which ran concurrent to Magiciens de la Terre, such as The Bienal de la Habana, and ‘The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in Post-war Britain‘, “with its formulation of an unrecognised modernism produced by cultural and racial minorities in the UK” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p10),

Methodology of Magiciens de la Terre
In an effort to present an evenly distributed number of artists, the curators of Magiciens selected 50 ‘Western’ and 50 ‘non-Western’ artists. It was also decided that each artist should be treated as an individual creator or group, rather than as representative of their country, as usually happened in a traditional biennale style of categorisation. Utilising an ethnographic methodology, the four curators set off on numerous missions across the globe, accompanied by around twenty project leaders. These studio visits were preceded by visual documentation and recommendations from curators from the different continents, which they then followed up by meeting each of the creators in their working context.

Rather than selecting existing work for exhibition, the curators were more interested in developing an understanding of artistic practice globally, and then inviting artists to produce new work specifically for the exhibition context. Curatorial work as a “two-stage process” had been developed since the late 1960s, beginning with exhibitions such as ‘When Attitudes Become Form‘, organised by Harold Szeemen at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p13).

The relationship between centre and periphery was also stated as a concern to the Magiciens exhibition design and layout. As Pablo Lafuente explains in his introduction to ‘Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre‘, “the figure of the artist was the structural unit that gave form to the exhibition… it assigned each artist a singular location in the world, a dot in a map pictured on each of the artists’ sections in the catalogue, always at its centre, so that everyone of them is presented as an inhabitant of a common space” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p13). However, despite this “universalist conception of the act of artistic creation… this equality was denounced as fictitious, as oblivious to the socio-cultural and historical context in which the different selected practices emerged, and therefore as exoticising;.. the embodiment of a neo colonialist attitude that allowed the contemporary art system to colonize, commercially and intellectually, new areas that were previously out of bounds” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p11).

The exhibition: selection, collection, and installation
The intention was for most of the artists to produce works onsite. However, the curators also attempted to respond to the contextual requirements and expectations of the artists involved. This necessitated different agreements with different groups. Therefore, some of the works were borrowed for the duration of the exhibition, some were required to be destroyed after the exhibition according to specific instructions, and some were purchased by La Villette.

The criteria for selecting artists were stated as an approach to “radicalism, a sense of adventure and excitement, their originality with respect to cultural tradition, [and] the relationship between the maker and his or her work”. However, the accusations in relation to Magiciens ‘neo-colonialism’, also led the curators to abandon key modernist tropes, while asserting others, leading to a confusion between the Contemporary and contemporaneity (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p11).

The exhibition form as decontextualised space
Lafuente continues by describing the decontextualising move within the exhibition space, and how this impacts on the work of art. He explains “The decontextualisation effected by the western museum […] begins with an initial step of abstraction. This abstraction from the everyday conditions constitute an essential moment in the (Western) definition of the aesthetic experience, as has been understood since the end of the 18th century” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p20). Such abstraction has been criticised as alienating factor, being an arguably more familiar strategy to some of the ‘Western’ artists who were used to working within the contemporary art context.

However, despite the problems of decontextualisation [of the object] within the exhibition space, Lafuente suggests that a wholly oppositional perspective can also neutralise the artist’s agency. In other words, a focus on only the circumstances of the production of the artwork, could leave the artist reduced to a series of “biographical, social, economic or historical determinations” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p17).

Lafuente concludes therefore that the questions raised by the possibilities of display enacted in the Magiciens exhibition could begin give rise to a new understanding of the exhibition space, one “in which mixed and shifting agencies are possible, [determining] perhaps what the exhibition form is: a place where nothing belongs, but where, because of this, objects and people (artists, curators and others) enter into relations, according to and against their will” (Steeds et al., Making Art Global, p22).


I’m still in Paris, working hard on the Magicens de la Terre conference. This week we heard paper presentations on a variety of subjects relating to the concept of global exhibitions and Magiciens de la Terre. The subject of the presentations included Latin America as situated between West and non-West, The Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts 1955 and the “non- aligned” artists, Gu Dexin and extended tactility through visual and olfactory qualities of the work, Congo contemporary artworks, Alfredo Jaar, The Anthropocene Project, and outsider artists in Japan.

This week we were joined by speakers including Andrea Buddensieg, curator and director of GAM – Global Art and the Museum at ZKM/ Karlsruhe, and Professor Monica Juneja, of the Karl Jaspers Centre, Heidelberg University.Discussions continued about the original Magiciens de la Terre project relating to how the work was conceived and delivered. According to Jean Hubert Martin, the point of magiciens was to problematise the relationship between anthropology and art through exploring the paradoxes and contradictions of reappropriation. The idea was to change Western viewpoints of art production, although the idea of ‘Western’ as a problematic term didn’t seem to figure as part of the conceptualisation.

The exhibition archive from the original Magicien de la Terre show was useful in showing the travelling notes produced in an ethnographic style by curators when visiting artists. These ‘mission reports’ detailed the objectives of studio visits and include letters written to representatives in different countries, showing the network of artistic and curatorial contacts. However, despite their intentions of producing a ‘global exhibition’, not all areas were able to be included. These were explained as mostly pragmatic decisions, specifically due to lack of documentation, contacts or money.

As part of our daily discussions around the different themes and paper presentations, we were able to question the original curators about how they felt their intentions for the exhibition were received and how they dealt with the criticisms of the show. The aim was to present the artists as individual maker and emblematic of Modernity. However, based on the works chosen, artists from outside ‘Western’ cultural centres appeared to be more specifically representative of particular aspects of cultural production. I felt that this created a tension and an ambiguity in the way that artists were treated which undermined the concept of the exhibition.

As described by Pablo La Fuente in ‘Making Art Global’, the decision to treat each of the artists as individual makers was seen as a generally positive move away from the ‘nameless’ artefacts displayed alongside Modernist ‘masterpieces’ in the 1985 MOMA exhibition, ‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’. However, such a decision can also be decontextualising, severing connections to cultural threads of artistic interpretation and knowledge, as well as further denying the impact of cultural context on the production of ‘Western’ artworks. (La Fuente, 2014, p18)

Production of retrospective
As well as the inclusion of images and other documents from the archive in the retrospective exhibition,  there were also audio visual elements which captured aspects of the production of the work. In particular, Sarkis was asked to leave four holes in the wall works for documentary videos to be projected. These space were labelled with Jean-Hubert Martin’s name and showed clips of artwork being produced, many of it by African artists. When questioned about the possibility of the videos exoticising the artists in question he replied that by showing production of artworks by non western artists he felt was giving more exposure and advantage to these artists over more established artists.

Overall I felt that the experience was informative and challenging, allowing me to learn more about the Magiciens exhibition and to meet other researchers in my field.  As the conference took place in the gallery spaces, we became active participants in the exhibition space. This was a point of contention for some of the participants who felt that we were being displayed as a spectacle in much the same way as the original artworks. Personally, I enjoyed being a part of the exhibition, and it seemed that the ‘objectification’ of the participants was an overlooked and unintended consequence of the format that would be addressed in any future versions of the project.

Before attending the conference, I’d felt that I needed to present my work in a more ‘academic’ style but after talking to the other participants, I realised that they were quite excited by the prospect of listening to an artist present their practice, so I decided to take that on board for the next time I present. They were also keen to see examples of my work and I even had a meeting with the artists book librarian at Centre Pompidou.

Our legacy in the retrospective exhibition was the journal that we produced while we were there, which documented our responses to the archive and continued to be distributed throughout the exhibition after we had left. The journal is also held in the Bibliotheque Kandinsky collection.

Further info:
SubTerrain: Artworks in the Cityfold
Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan
The Global Contemporary: Artworlds after 1989