Notes on the Magic of the State, publication accompanying the two-part exhibition at Lisson Gallery, London and Beirut, Cairo.
Review for Flash Art, 14 February 2014

Notes on the Magic of the State follows a pair of exhibitions co-organized last spring by Lisson Gallery in London and Beirut in Cairo. [Click here to read my review of the exhibitions themselves for Frieze]. The project is loosely based around the eponymous 1997 book by Michael Taussig, which, as Notes’ introduction puts it, “illustrate[s] how the state defines itself through a theater 

of spirit possession, in which everyday rituals channel the foundational figures of the state into the living body of society.” Based around this premise, the two exhibitions featured works by Rana Hamadeh, Christodolous Panayiotou, Ryan Gander, Liz Magic Laser, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Goldin+Senneby, and Anja Kirschner and David Panos. The publication includes contributions by the artists as well as invited writers such as anarchist Peter Lamborn Wilson; curators Jonathan Allen, Will Bradley and Bassam el Baroni; movement analyst Peggy Hackney; and writer Hany Darwish.

The most notable works in the exhibitions are almost performative, appropriating the slippery semantic terrain of the state’s alleged magic. The publication takes a more analytical vein, and as such could be read not just as a documentary companion to the exhibition and its artworks, but as a substantial parallel set of artistic reflections on Taussig’s ideas in a post-financial crisis, post-Arab Spring world. The mythology of Egyptian military-based sovereignty is currently undergoing a dervish of reification precisely as described by Taussig’s contribution, which is a revisitation of The Magic of the State via a talk given at Beirut. These strains are addressed with astute historical and political insight by both Bassam El-Baroni and Hany Darwish. Meanwhile, Kirschner and Panos invited the writer Clinical Wasteman to contribute a speculative glossary around the terms “debt,” “help,” “sacrifice,” “non-citizens,” and “personal responsibility” as used regarding the Greek financial crisis and its resulting wobbly sovereignty. It’s written in the mode of Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1976), but with more quiet humanist fury.

As the book’s introduction attests, the mystical and performative actualizing of the state also provides fertile ground for discussion of the reification of the art object, something performatively explored in the exhibition at times. The diagnostic and analytical mode of numerous of the texts (implicitly on behalf of art), excellent as they are, does not explore this mutual interrogation, as though art can, paradoxically, take the “outside” position to the state’s overwhelming logics even while reperforming them among art’s plethora of strategies. Thus Rana Hamadeh’s contribution “Al Karantina” (about how the languages, rituals and disciplines of hygiene are built into the relation of the state to its necessary other) is welcome. It involves a short script, implicitly a courtroom scene, in which numerous characters debate who will play the roles of doctor and prosecutor: 

- The Doctor is playing the role of the Prosecutor.
- But who, then, shall play the role of the Doctor?

- The Prosecutor?
- But the Prosecutor is busy at court. But we are on a boat. And there is no one else, other than the patients themselves.