Bordeaux

Matthew Ronay, Double Cloak of Stars, 2009, cotton, nylon-waxed cord, fiber rush, plastic, walnut, papier-mâché, paint, plaster, cotton, gold leaf, 8' 5“ x 12' x 10”. From “Secret Societies.”

Matthew Ronay, Double Cloak of Stars, 2009, cotton, nylon-waxed cord, fiber rush, plastic, walnut, papier-mâché, paint, plaster, cotton, gold leaf, 8' 5“ x 12' x 10”. From “Secret Societies.”

“Secret Societies”

Matthew Ronay, Double Cloak of Stars, 2009, cotton, nylon-waxed cord, fiber rush, plastic, walnut, papier-mâché, paint, plaster, cotton, gold leaf, 8' 5“ x 12' x 10”. From “Secret Societies.”

The social turn, the pedagogical turn, the speculative turn. How many more “turns” can the art world put up with before getting too dizzy to stand up? One turn that I hope is here to stay, though, is the esoteric turn, with its passionate quest for the murky realms of the unknown. But how does one expose secretive practices without killing the mystery? Shouldn’t the occult remain occult? Still, the timing of “Secret Societies: To Know, to Dare, to Will, to Keep Silence,” curated by Alexis Vaillant and Cristina Ricupero and previously on view at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, would seem to be perfect, given such disparate phenomena as WikiLeaks’ “war on secrecy” and the US government’s widely proclaimed yet more or less hidden “war on terror.” The world is rife with conspiracy theories. And the art world itself can be seen as a huge secret society for the already initiated. If anything, curating a show on the subject might seem slightly redundant.

Entering the exhibition was like being admitted to a clandestine club in which a party might have been about to start at any minute. At the entrance, a bizarrely ornamented golden foot was leaning against the wall, looking like something from a parallel civilization. The artist behind this work, Obst (Fruit), 2008, is Steven Claydon, the British syncretist who loves to create installations representing all kinds of philosophical principles and deities. Further along, The Somnambulist, 2006, a wax doll representing an underfed, punky vampire by Goshka Macuga, lay peacefully on a gray carpet. To its left hung a nineteenth-century painting borrowed from a Masonic temple in Stuttgart, Germany, and a wall sculpture with totemic figures, Double Cloak of Stars, 2009, by Matthew Ronay. In the next room, Karo Sieben (Seven of Diamonds), 2007, a reconstructed chessboard by Ulla von Brandenburg, seemed to echo the typical decor of Masonic temples, perfectly accompanied by an astonishingly odd sculpture—Font, 2010, by Tim Ellis.

The exhibition’s labyrinthine structure drew one onward. A couple of wooden figures, Enrico David’s Spring Session Men, 2003, seemed to be caught up in a mysterious dance in front of a huge table piled with documents about an imaginary male secret society. In the following rooms, one could find Brice Dellsperger’s video Body Double 22, 2010, a burlesque remake of Eyes Wide Shut; Donghee Koo’s 16-mm film transferred to DVD, Overloaded Echo, 2006, shows a bunch of world-weary people gathered around a naked man who seems about to be sacrificed or punished. Who knows? The film ends just before the denouement.

“Secret Societies” was an extremely staged show. But its visual grammar was well balanced, enabling a harmonious oscillation between the spectacular and the subtle. And there were some revealing juxtapositions— for instance, between Art & Language’s No Secret Painting X, 2007, and two of Jenny Holzer’s hermetic text eradications, Water Board Zubaydah and Certified Interrogators, both 2009. A neon installation by Cerith Wyn Evans figuring André Masson’s headless figure for the cover of Georges Bataille’s magazine Acéphale echoed Goldin+Senneby’s mind-bending, Bataille-inspired installation The Decapitation of Money, 2010. Other outstanding individual works included Benedikt Hipp’s painting Baum am Rand einer Scheibe (Appendix) (Tree on the Verge of a Disc [Appendix]), 2009–10, and Kenneth Anger’s magnificent 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother. And there were many more, by fifty-two artists all told, not to mention the items that came directly from “real” secret societies. At the end, one wished only that the show itself had a secret room or the like, a mise en abyme offering a true initiation rite. But I guess some things are better left to the imagination.

Sinziana Ravini