“Magiciens de la terre” in Paris

Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle


According to the Great Encyclopedia, the first museum in the modern sense of the word (meaning the first public collection) was founded in France by the Convention of July 27, 1793. The origin of the modern museum is thus linked to the development of the guillotine.
—Georges Bataille1

The slaughterhouse is linked to religion insofar as the temples of by-gone eras . . . served two purposes: they were used both for prayer and for killing. The result (and this judgment is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows.
—Georges Bataille2

Let us begin with a historical moment: the French Revolution, whose bicentennial commemoration was the pre-text of the “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the earth) exhibition, and whose Terror constituted modernist Europe’s first ritualized spectacle of human sacrifice. Let us then shift to a location: the grand hall of La Villette, the old Paris slaughterhouse, now cleansed of its bloodstains and converted into a museum space looking remarkably like an industrial Notre-Dame. This was the site of more than half the exhibits in “Magiciens,” the rest being located in the Musée national d’art moderne, at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Introduce into this context 50 Western artists and 50 “third world” artists whose work claims a space in the ritual life of its culture, and we have the making of a scenario worthy of Georges Bataille.

Bataille’s heterology, notwithstanding its “primitivist” undertone, addressed a nonrational aspect of French thought that, in the wake of the French Revolution and colonialism, contemplated the social and ethnographic implications of sacrifice in the elaboration of human subjectivity. Thus, in Bataille’s discussion of the continuity and discontinuity of being, the death of the individual (the sign of its discontinuity) nevertheless confirms the continuity of life in the community. Hence in sacrifice, “the victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals. This is what religious historians call the element of sacredness.”3 As Annette Michelson remarks, “Bataille will claim that it is in the festivity of sacrifice and in its sacred violence that man attains the community in sovereignty which is lost in the social order founded on the primacy of production and acquisition”4—the Western social order, in other words, and “its culture, the discourse of reason. . . . In such an order, the rule of ‘homogeneity’ is totalizing, exclusive of ‘heterogeneity and excess.’”5 A historical precedent for Bataille’s philosophical musings might be the self-sacrifice by which the African slaves of French San Domingo (later to be the independent state of Haiti) fought for and won their emancipation—a struggle that, as the late C. L. R. James so brilliantly described, was economically and ideologically instrumental in the formulation of human rights during the French Revolution.6

To have perceived the exhibition as a labyrinth of pure heterogeneity and contradiction might have created a potential to address art’s relation not to “magic” but to the psychosocial dimension of the sacred and the profane beyond the confines of Christian orthodoxy. The curators of “Magiciens de la terre,” however, did not address the Bataille discourse, though it has been central to a post-Modern evaluation of heterogeneity and difference. Moreover, in the first “manifesto” they prepared on the exhibition, “The Death of Art—Long Live Art,” 1986, they speak the recent history of Western art in terms of a formalist search for the “absolute,” making no mention of Surrealism (with which Bataille was associated, and which was indebted to a “Latin” American sensibility) or of any of the other antiformalist movements, from Dada through the Situationists to certain post-Minimalist and Conceptual practices, that have attempted to recover a collective responsibility for art. Had an examination of the collective rather than the individual been the reference point, a space might have opened for a deeper investigation, for a more appropriate juxtaposition of Western artists with those engaged elsewhere in communal ritual practices, and also for a reexamination of Western commodity fetishism and mass consumerism as forms of ritual.7 Sigmar Polke alone, however, seemed to have grasped that the core of the debate lies in an internal interrogation of the global implications of the French Revolution, and of France’s historical fascination with “Otherness” and “exoticism,” with the rational and the nonrational.

The discourse of this self-proclaimed “first world-wide exhibition of contemporary art” was displaced, under the ahistorical and apolitical sign of “magic,” from an internal reflection to one that “question[ed] the relationship of our culture to other cultures of the world.”8 If Bataille and Toussaint L’Ouverture, the San Domingan leader of 1793, were two specters hovering over this sacramental feast for the eye, they are now joined by Frantz Fanon; one is mesmerized, in fact, by the sleight of tongue in which the exhibition’s title invokes that of Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (The wretched of the earth, 1961) without addressing the passion that made the book such a powerful argument for a collective and political struggle toward self-determination amongst colonized peoples. If Fanon’s text remains an important document in critical cultural discourse it is not only because it witnesses a particular moment in history, a function we might also desire of art, but because the imperialist mindset interrogated by Fanon still inscribes the institutions of the West.

Into this context come two statements by the exhibition’s chief curator, Jean-Hubert Martin:

Successful and dominant countries impose their laws and styles on other countries, but they also borrow from them and so become permeated by other ways of life. The notion of cultural identity . . . is the product of a static concept of human activity, whereas culture is always the result of an ever-moving dynamic of exchanges. We might even go so far as to say that “acculturation does not exist.”9

I oppose the idea that one can only look at another culture in order to exploit it. Our first concern is with exchange and dialogue, with understanding others in order to understand what we do ourselves.10

What is important here is the maneuver around the concept of “exchange,” a maneuver parallel to that displacing the terms of the entire debate from the interior to the exterior. Martin’s statements oppose exploitation in the same breath that they articulate it, propose exchange at the moment they occlude it. “Looking,” “imposing,” “borrowing”: these are unidirectional strategies of domination by which Others have been culturally depleted without their acquiescence. Who are these Others we should understand? Post-Modern debate has made it clear that the Other is an illusion of the West’s own making: a phantasmic projection of its fears and desires, which have never produced anything but a misrecognition and, in consequence, a fatal disruption of the cultures of other peoples. Rather than continue to insist that the Other reveal itself to our gaze for our purposes regardless of its own, we might first engage in serious self-reflection.

Faced with an appropriating gaze, non-Western cultural identity is a form of resistance for Others who believe, with justification, that their worldview has as much to offer as the West’s. That this resistant component of cultural identity may encompass the social, the economic, the political as well as the esthetic is constantly elided in the institutional text of “Magiciens.” But while we stopped to admire the esthetic charm of a voodoo vévé, we might also have remembered that it was voodoo that carried the call to unite for liberation throughout the slave communities of French San Domingo. “Magiciens” displaced such political realities as the social role of voodoo, covering them over with the Western myth of individual creativity. This tactic foreclosed on meaningful dialogue, revealing the curators’ enterprise to be profoundly paternalistic—a serious matter, for it illustrates the extent to which Western institutions can appropriate the language of critical cultural discourse without fundamentally interrogating their own terms of reference.



I want to play the role of someone who uses artistic intuition alone to select these objects which come from totally different cultures . I intend to select these objects from various cultures according to my own history and my own sensibility.
—Jean-Hubert Martin11

Those objects which have a spiritual function for the human mentality, objects which exist in all societies, are the ones of interest for our exhibition. After all, the work of art cannot simply be reduced to a retinal experience. It possesses an aura.
—Jean-Hubert Martin12

The term “magician” is used quite unreflectingly in the institutional text, although, as Guy Brett points out, in current art discourse it “would be considered trite, a disempowering word that would weaken the relationship between the esthetic and the social dimensions in the artist’s practice.”13 Its introduction here is not difficult to understand, however, given the recent displacement of much industrial production to the third world margins, its severance from the site of consumption in the capitalist centers, which has emptied those centers of their “content.” Furthermore, if we can say that during the progressive modernization 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 the exhibition tended to privilege traditional material processes; the fetishizing of these processes as they are practiced both in Western culture and elsewhere reflects the yearning for some lost preindustrial integrity that permeated “Magiciens.” In any case, the “magician” was always Other—the possessor of a knowledge that was arcane, at least to those outside its cultural or caste formations. In the absence of any social or communal dimension to its debate, the exhibition returned us to the uncritical Modernist fallacy of the privileged subject. The works by Barbara Kruger and Braco Dimitrijevic seemed particularly aware of this problem: Kruger’s billboard asked, “Who are the magicians of the earth?” and listed a miscellany of professions as possible responses; Dimitrijevic presented examples of a “casual passerby” monumentalized along with well-known iconic figures of Western culture, such as Leonardo. Both works functioned as critiques of the valorization of the artist, undermining the philosophy of the exhibition. Under the weight of the spectacle, however, they were ultimately reduced to mere rhetorical gestures.

The claim that artwork possesses a “magic” or “aura” that can be universally recognized beyond considerations of cultural context, and hence that its maker is a “magician,” is conjoined in the exhibition statements with the assertion that Martin’s “sensibility” or “taste” is the arbiter in the selection of “auratic” works for the show. About this latter confession one can have nothing to say, except to wonder what, in fact, is radical about it, since “taste” has been the basis of most collections of art in Western museums and galleries since the Renaissance. Such privileged subject-positions have imposed calibrated values and meanings on the entire world, and it is precisely this history and taste that need interrogating. As to the former notion, weshould not be misled into believing that the “esthetic” and the “magical,” or the “spiritual,” are one and the same thing, and that universal principles govern both; or that Martin’s “taste” guarantees either. The best we can say, contrary to the perspective of the commissaires, is that these are terms in a relation governed by local circumstances, and that to presume otherwise is to homogenize and to represent falsely the specificity of other peoples’ worldviews: a familiar trick in the face of an incomprehendable heterogeneity.

What consistently appears as an overwhelming difference between ceremony-based work and Western art is that the former is participatory (to say so is not to render its producers anonymous but to emphasize their relationship to the whole) and hence functions as a unifying principle in culture, while the latter, with its valorization of the commodity and the individual, renders all but the artist a spectator. Western artworks are a symptom of division. Entertainment is the only role available to them, and if the art of Others is defined in the terms of the Western esthetic structure, it too is implicated as entertainment, and loses its voice. The homogenizing and universalizing Western esthetic is an alibi for refusing to hear the voice of the Other, which is stigmatized as Babelian, incoherent, incapable of giving an account of itself.

The commissaires find it “odd that our knowledge of world literature should far exceed that of the visual arts,”14 seemingly unconscious that they speak from the very curatorial position that engenders this ignorance. I do not wish to belabor the fact that, notwithstanding official apologies that the selection could not be. “inclusive,” a legislating male voice thoroughly inscribes the institutional text; or that few magiciennes and no artists of the African diaspora—the “Others” internal to the West—were unearthed, while so many bare-breasted “native” women were illustrated in the catalogue. Catalogues have a historiographic significance, and once the third world visitors to the exhibition have faded back into their homelands, what remains legible is another entry in the genealogy of those predictable (mostly white male) artists consistently supported by major institutions. From this perspective the theology of the “magician” becomes no more than a means to reclaim a value for dominant Western art, to rescue it from its tired and debased status as a reified commodity in a capitalist market.



Magiciens de la terre” has been in preparation for over four years, with a small team of curators, committed to very extensive traveling in order to discuss on site with artists, and able to make direct contacts, from the far North of Canada and Alaska, to the deserts of Western Australia and Arizona, from China and Japan to west and southern Africa, to central and south America.15

We have discovered that these artists enjoy showing their work to the outside world and not only because it brings in money for their art. A trip to Paris does not necessarily engender culture shock. Why refuse others the pleasures we also have in traveling?
—Jean-Hubert Martin16

In numerous literary and oral traditions the journey represents a kind of rite of passage, but during the Modernist and imperialist period it takes on less benign connotations. The journey or travelogue is a recurrent figure in the discourse of the exhibition. The La Villette display itself—organized like the space of a Christian cathedral—attempts to map a circuit of affects for the viewer. The catalogue is in part an “atlas”—a mapping of points in space that measure the distance between the center from which one sets out and the place from which one returns. It is in effect a means of maintaining that distance. The commissaires who go seeking the art of “Others” are “explorers.”

With Boy’s Own enthusiasm, a catalogue essay by deputy curator Mark Francis maps the American Southwest primarily through the white Modernist artists who have settled there. Francis makes barely a passing reference to the artistic productions of the diverse indigenous peoples of the whole Four Corners territory, though these are in fact the targets of his research. Having crisscrossed the “mid-West” (sic) by jeep and plane, he eventually tracks down a desired Navaho sand painter who has so far eluded his grasp (“avoir réussi à mettre la main”) in a “suburb of Phoenix”17—which, however, borders on an Indian Reservation, a fact likely to be of no small import to the artist concerned. Such inattentiveness to detail destabilizes the rhetorical domain of the curators’ textual discourse. As for the Other in the actual show, it was neither here nor there: yet another invention with no spatial or historical context beyond the one donated to it by the frame of the exhibition.

None of this is innocent; the lack of contextual provision is redolent of the old colonial discourse of mapping “uncharted” territory (uncharted by whom?) with all the accompanying resonances of exploitation and possession. The European, armed with his global backpack, assumes the freedom to go anywhere uninvited, to violate the boundaries of Others, and to claim their space for himself, for his religion, or for art. This is the basis of Rasheed Araeen’s critique of formalist Modernism as it is exemplified in the work of artists such as Richard Long, and the exhibition repeated the scenario when it sent a few Western artists into “marginal” territories: Long, for example, visited the Australian Yuendumu community, while Lawrence Weiner went to Papua New Guinea.

Long’s work was a very large mud circle applied to a black wall. References to the work’s size recur in the texts, as if this in itself were a value. The mud was from the Yuendumu’s location; but for this and its size, the piece was not substantially different from any other of Long’s mud works. The artist’s vertical ring dominated the perspective of La Villette, like an altarpiece, or the rose window of Notre-Dame, a giant “solar anus” that oversaw everything, including the horizontal Yuendumu earth painting below it. Far from reflecting a dialogue between the two, the relationship replicated the juxtaposition of power between the colonized and the colonizer, between the West’s manipulative relation to the earth and Others’ bodily association with it, and between Western neoprimitive estheticization of the signs of Others’ cosmogonies and the “meaning-effect” produced by their own work. The predominance given to Long’s work betrayed the exhibition’s rhetoric of equality, just as the Christian symbolism of the installation at La Villette betrayed the ritual and religious difference of other cultures and their historical struggle for survival.

The “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1984, gave priority to primitivist Western artists who borrowed from Others. “Magiciens de la terre” fell into a similar error in its favoring of neoprimitivist Western borrowers. At the same time, works by non-Western artists “contaminated” by, or borrowing from, Western influences were excluded in favor of those maintaining the “authenticity” of traditional material processes. (Notwithstanding, among the most poignant works were those that mapped the interfaces between disparate cultural traditions: José Bedia of Cuba, Cildo Meireles of Brazil, or Araeen, of Britain and Pakistan.) There was a fundamental misunderstanding here of the sophistication with which other cultures internalize Western Modernism and make it over in their own image. The incorporation of “motorbikes into Gelede masks,” for example, does reflect the way Others make over Western technologies for their own purposes, but its attraction to the curators of “Magiciens” is its creation of an easily commodifiable object. Similarly, though the Yuendumu earth paintings made the show, it was not mentioned that, as the late aboriginal anthropologist Eric Michaels has described, they operate a creative video-production-and-broadcast unit reinvented in relation to aboriginal law. My contention with “Magiciens” is that “traditions” are bound to a worldview, not to specific material processes, and for us to fetishize the latter not only reinforces our own nostalgic romanticism but blinds us to the subtle reinventions of language by which cultures seek to express their thoughts and feelings in imposed alien tongues. Some understanding of this appeared in the relation between the work of Nera Jambruk, from Papua New Guinea, and of Weiner. Jambruk’s structure was a tall “men’s house” in the architectural style of his region; behind it stood Weiner’s fence, inscribed with both his and (presumably) Jambruk’s “graffiti.” Both works were constructed from corrugated metal sheeting, a building material common in the shanty towns on the edges of colonial cities, and hence at least suggestive of a collaboration with some political resonance.

Despite the curators’ well-intentioned desire to create such a two-way dialogue between cultures, in the end dialogue failed to take place. They could not transcend the homogenizing cultural vision that can do no other than represent its object in vague humanist terms. An exhibition cannot claim to be “worldwide”—to speak in tongues—if the concerns it addresses are only those esthetic values argued over in Western centers among a privileged few to whom the real-life concerns of Others are no more than background color to their own dramas. We need, like Bataille, to examine other constructions of the self based on principles of community, to understand more fully art’s productive role in the psychosocial dynamics of society, rather than to remain trapped in an impoverished valorization of a privileged subjectivity. This is the lesson to be learned from “Magiciens de la terre,” in spite of its failures. What the exhibition demanded, but what was absent from the frame, was an acknowledgment of the nonrational gesture that precipitated the French and San Domingo revolutions—a gesture that momentarily made redundant all prescriptive theologies, one through whose terror and diabolical laughter the European world opened upon both the sacred and the profane, and to which Bataille, L’Ouverture, Fanon, and the third world are heirs.

Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.
—Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés De La terre18

Jean Fisher

Jean Fisher contributes frequently to Artforum.


1. Georges Bataille, “Museum,” 1930, published in October 36, 1986, p. 26.
2. Bataille, “Slaughterhouse,” 1929, published in October 36, 1986, p. 12.
3. Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986, p. 22.
4. Annette Michelson, “Heterology and the Critique of Instrumental Reason,” October 36, 1986, p. T16.
5. Ibid., p. 124.
6. See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, London: Allison & Busby, 1989.
7. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh makes this suggestion in an interview with the show’s curator, Jean-Hubert Martin. See Buchloh, “The Whole Earth Show,” Art in America 77 no. 5, May 1989.
8. Ibid., p. 155.
9. Jean-Hubert Martin, “The first world-wide exhibition of contemporary art,” exhibition statement, Paris: Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, January 1989, pp. 1–2.
10. Buchloh, p. 155.
11. Ibid., pp. 152–153.
12. Ibid., p. 155.
13. Guy Brett, “Terre et Musée—Local ou Global?,” Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne 28, Summer 1989, p. 93.
14. “The Death of Art—Long Live Art,” unsigned exhibition statement, Paris: Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986, p. 5.
15. Press release for “Magiciens de la terre,” January 1989, p. I.
16. Martin, p. 2.
17. Mark Francis, “True Stories, ou Carte du monde poétique,” in Magiciens de la terre, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1981, p. 14.
18. Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre, 1961, trans. Constance Sarrington, London: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 251.

Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the earth) was held at the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Poinpidou, and at the Grand Halle, La Villetle, Paris, front May 18 to August 14.