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I’ve been invited to participate in a 10 day conference and research residency at Pompidou Centre, Paris from 1st – 10th July 2014. The topic we will will be discussing is the exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. The exhibition was, and still is, the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, concerned as it was with unifying modes of artistic practice across global dimensions.

Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper moons from Nahuatl
In preparation for this visit, and to further contextualise my practice of working with museum objects in an art  context, I decided to investigate previous examples of artists producing exhibitions using cultural artefacts from different countries. One such example was the work of the Scottish artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, a sculptor best known for taking bits of machinery or other found objects, and synthesising them into new associations”.

Paolozzi’s inclination towards finding inspiration in found objects, led to him curating the exhibition ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ at the Museum of Mankind, London in 1986. The invitation to work with the museum collections came at a time when other institutions were expressing an interest in the relationship between modern art and ethnography. However, unlike the Museum of Mankind’s previous retrospective of Henry Moore’s work, or the exhibition ‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art; Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’, concurrently held at MOMA, New York, Paolozzi’s exhibition was to focus directly on the question of the production of contemporary art within the context of a museum collection (1985, p15)

Exhibition style and themes
The exhibition (of several hundred items) existed as a bricolage installation of elements, exploring such themes as: the artist as curator, material semiotics and technologies, classification, authenticity, reproduction, and divination. Drawn from an early interest in visiting the collections at the Museum of Mankind and Le Musee de l’Homme, Paolozzi was influenced by the contemporary ethnographic style of display, where artefacts were densely packed in cases and were mainly intended only to show the objects, rather than to provide interpretation. (1985, p26)

Furthermore “the majority of these displays were organised on one or more of a small number of principles. The first was the wish to show something of the life of a particular region or group by exhibiting ‘typical’ items of material culture. The second principle was that of [showing] underlying similarity [between objects]… Thirdly, some displays were organised to show how societies and their material culture might have evolved…” (1985, p26)

Object identities
Such decontextualisation of objects and images has proven to be destructive through “a dismemberment and denial of the normal associations between phenomena and an expunging of the contexts which helped give them meaning”. However, it is suggested that Paolozzi’s process of continuing this disassociation of elements, was intended both to critique the strategies of the museum and also to discover “how far the item’s meaning is contained within itself and how far it changes by being placed in association with other items”. (1985, p25)

Paolozzi’s methods for investigating the meaning of objects incorporated explorations of material and form; for example, how different cultures use similar materials to produce objects, and what functions those objects might have. The use of recycled or repurposed materials within artworks was also a subject of interest within the exhibition, which included a Mexican mask with electric light bulbs for eyes. (1985, p35)

Art and magic
Although Paolozzi stated that his interest was in highlighting “the sublime of everyday life” (1985, p159), and in subverting the tendency to exoticise the other, the choice of the exhibition title ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms’ and the inclusion of divination tools within the selected objects, seemed to run counter to this suggestion. Such techniques were intended to expose the artist’s practice of producing meaning through the correlation of images and objects, but the title also suggests that these original techniques and societies have been superceded or ‘lost’.

The relationship between art and magic has continued to fascinate artists and curators, throughout, and despite, modernity, and I will continue to consider this within the context of the ’Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition in the coming weeks.

Further reading: