For this exhibition, The Magic of the State at Lisson Gallery, artists from different parts of the world (Britain, Sweden, the US, Lebanon, Germany, Cyprus and others) have gauged the force of mysticism in the making of national identities and state-driven narratives, or in other words, they explore the rhetorical power of speeches as well as the wonders of alchemy in 21st century environments. But perhaps because the curatorial direction tries too hard to preserve a certain indelible magic, the artworks sometimes fail to capture those more supernatural aspects of state apparata, and rather spiral into obscurity of meaning and unwarranted connections. So, if you are ready for a mind-boggling introspective journey, treat yourself to The Magic of the State, because you will certainly get a full menu of metaphysics – enough food for thought!
Anthropologist Michael Taussig's book The Magic of the State has been foundational for the exhibition's theme. In 1997 the author addressed the ways in which the so-called "theatre of spirit possession" seeps into the living body of society, as propaganda in its secular form, whilst claiming supernatural powers in more mystical terms. Although his overarching theory could have been more directly linked to the artworks for the sake of clarity, the show's unobtrusive openness allows you to drift freely and turn it into a tailor-made experience.
Christodoulos Panayiotou's New Office and The Invention of Antiquity (2012) display a series of photographs culled from the Press and Information Office in Nicosia, which were likely to have been used for propaganda purposes. The images expose a visual dialectic of officials, poses, objects and archaeological ruins of ancient Greece that became germane to Cyprus's constitution as a modern nation state, and its construction of a national identity after its independence from Britain in 1960. They exploit the magical force of the photographic snapshot, so that discrete instances are subsumed into a lasting collective consciousness, aligned with Greece's prosperous classical past.
The very substance of national identity and the potential to transform it is also visited by Lili Reynaud-Dewar in her work Cléda's Chairs (2010). A multimedia installation with several thematic strands, the first is the myth of Oresteia which has been transposed onto modern Africa of the 1960s and 1970s, following film notes by Paolo Pasolini. At the same time, a 20-minute video communicates oral histories told by the artist's grandmother in France, including an account of her acquisition of Louis XIII chairs after the war, four of which have been blackened and are shown in the gallery. This somewhat convoluted installation prompts the question of national and cultural mutability – for instance, how could we synthesise the ancient belief systems of the Wagogo tribe and the aspirations of "modern" (but also Westernised) Africa? This transformation is compared to the Oresteian story of the Furies who are turned into Eumenides, but on the whole, it leaves the visitor more puzzled than inspired, and relies on much too classical a conception of modernity.
Other works, such as Ryan Gander's or Goldin+Senneby's recuperate the tradition of alchemical magic. In their work, Goldin+Senneby present a replica of instructions for making the Nordenskiöld Model, which is a copy of the furnace designed by August Nordenskiöld in the 18th century to produce gold by alchemical means. It is a re-enactment that bears parallels with today's fragile and uprooted financial markets. Ultimate Substance, a 34-minute video by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, similarly taps into the idea of the financial market's melt-down, focusing on Greece and establishing a genealogy of its coinage system as well as the origins of metallurgical processes and mineral exploitation, and examining their implications on cultural consciousness. In a very sensory and sensual way, body, stone, dance, light and history are brought together to produce an enigmatic and powerful film that excavates the magic of history.
Finally, Liz Magic Laser's enrapturing performance Stand Behind Me (2013) draws on the complexities of rhetorical persuasion, demonstrating that in order to have an effect, speeches must necessarily enact a mystical synthesis of gestures, spoken language and tone, because without this magnetic force, the speech becomes uncommunicative at best and impenetrable at worst. In her performance, the artist replicates the gestures made by high dignitaries in recent speeches (Barack Obama, Ahmed Dogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Angela Merkel). Although the text of the speech can be read on two screens on both sides of the plinth, her outright abolition of language turns the whole experience into a weirdly vapid spectacle. We realise how essential is the joint symphony of words with visual language, but we cannot quite explain why. And suddenly this hits you as something supernatural.
All in all, The Magic of the State sparks intriguing reflections, but in its attempt to foster a sense of magic, the motivations and thought underlying the artworks remain a bit too occluded. Perhaps a more apt title would have been the "The Hidden Magic of the State".