Art

Entangled Objects Through the Ages, from Sorcerers’ Amulets to Voodoo Dolls

The latest show at La Maison Rouge is a collection of hexing creations that are difficult to disentangle and fully interpret.

Inextricabilia, enchevêtrements magiques, installation view of Judith Scott sculptures (image courtesy La Maison Rouge)

PARIS — Inextricabilia, enchevêtrements magiques at La Maison Rouge is a feast for the horror vacui eye. What ties its wildly diverse elements together is a visual style of burdened entanglement that overloads the specific intentions and functions behind contemporary art, magical charms, sorcerers’ amulets, witchy spells, spiritual worldviews, psychic theories, Christian religious beliefs, African community healers, and other indigenous cultural habits.

There are a lot of outlandish things here that just won’t lie still and be art. For the most part, entangled meshes of funky fabric provide a vague visual itch, but what is interesting is that these lavish but itchy objects of surplus allow a feeling of encountering sacredly wild cryptic drives. Standouts include perplexing and eccentric pieces by Arthur Bispo do Rosario, Pierrette Bloch, Cathryn Boch, Louise Bourgeois, Jules Leclercq, Man Ray, The Philadelphia Wireman, Annette Messager, Marc Moret, Michel Nedjar, Virginie Rebetez, and Borbála Remmer. Also on display are numerous anonymous creations: a voodoo Nikisi divination statue from the Congo, an undated Nala charm from Madagascar, and multiple 18th-century French and German reliquaries. One of the most powerful entanglements is a Doton magical amulet from Togo (Lome) that was created before 1832, but nearly all the works are vivid and richly animated by this kind of compositional imbroglio.

Anonymous, Doton magical amulet from Togo (Lome) (before 1832) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Anonymous, “Nala Charm from Madagascar” (undated) (image courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)
German reliquary box (undated) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Prominently featured are the mysterious string sculptures by Judith Scott, who suffered from Down syndrome. Institutionalized since 1950, Scott saw a fiber art class being conducted by visiting artist Sylvia Seventy and began making anthropomorphic and zoomorphic sculptures that resemble cocooned body parts and elongated totemic poles. She began these by recovering (sometimes stealing) all kinds of miscellaneous objects, like umbrellas and bicycle wheels, using these thief’s treasures as the hidden core of her powerful sculptures.

Scott, as with all the other creators in this show, displays an inextricable love for the magic of visual excess that curator, art historian, and former director of the famous Art Brut Collection in Lausanne Lucienne Peiry clearly values too. That said, her curatorial method is to join right in with the globalizing ahistorical curatorial style that has been branding the Maison Rouge for years. In the interests of visual correspondence, the viewer must intellectually skate over an array of widely divergent intentions, functions, and different belief systems, thus lending the work in the show a sense of false equivalency.

It would be excessive and even erroneous to seek among the works here any universal principles that would respond to concrete paradigms. But at least the curatorial stance of mental immoderation and false equivalency has echoes within the general sense of magical workings at play here. This is a show where charmed wanderings and distributions of assemblages prevail; the artists mix psychic and erotic perspectives and points of view into a general sense of the entwining, entangling, and knotting of hemp cord, hair, strips of leather, gold threads, blades of grass, raffia, rope, and fabric.

Anonymous, “Sac magique Nkisi Ma bi ala” (Angola, Cabinda, Hoyo) (before 1933) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Anonymous, “Nkisi Kula magic object from the Congo” (undated) (courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)
Anonymous, “Nkisi Kula magic object from the Congo” (undated) (courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly, Paris)
Jules Leclercq, “Erotic Composition with Blue Nudes” (1950–64) (image courtesy Musée d’Art moderne, d’Art contemporain et d’Art brut de Villeneuve-d’Ascq)
Rosa Zarkikh, “Reflection” (2005) (courtesy of the Museum of Outsider Art, Bar, Monténégro)

Marvelous mishmash works of great diversity become a means of altering our ideas of what an object is expected to “do.” It is always a pleasure to encounter Man Ray’s “L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse” (1920, remade 1972), which consists of a sewing machine wrapped in a blanket and tied with string — a reflection on Comte de Lautréamont’s famous phrase, “beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” But some of the most engaging pieces come from outside the art world. I was mesmerized by the old “Sac magique Nkisi Ma bi ala” from Angola (before 1933) and an anonymous Nkisi Kula magic object from the Congo. They allowed me to imagine being engaged with these makers in ritualistic activities that involve the powers of excess. They generate an extraordinary network of emotional wonder that is achieved by what I think of as the responsibility of re-appropriating our fragile capacity to visualize. Within their magical context, well-known contemporary art, like Louise Bourgeois’s floating “Arch of Hysteria” (2000) and Annette Messager “Mes vœux sous filet” (1997–99) is enriched. They seem to contain as many possibilities of interpretation as the human skull trophy from Borneo — and thus appear more supernatural. Even when we understand the art’s history and context, the associative voodoo confers on them an anti-modern canon of non-causality.

Annette Messager, “Mes vœux sous filet” (1997–99) (image courtesy of La Maison Rouge)
Michel Nedjar, “Dolls” (1998), partial view (image courtesy of La Maison Rouge)

Ending the show is Michel Nedjar’s cunning wall installation of twisted “Dolls” (1998), in which disorder and spell-like savagery jostle each other, vying to preside over an emergence of the grotesque that is typical of the private dream register. It is an adequate conclusion to this collection of hexing creations that we are unable to disentangle and fully interpret. Like magic, this wall acts upon us by extoling enchanting operational possibilities that are not always realizable in the rational world.

Inextricabilia, enchevêtrements magiques continues at La Maison Rouge (10 Boulevard de la Bastille, 12th arrondissement, Paris) through September 17.

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