Review: Notes on the Magic of the State. Lisson Gallery, eds. Beirut and Silvia Sgualdini

For Flash Art 294, January-February 2014

Notes on the Magic of the State rather belatedly follows the pairing of exhibitions The Magic of the State co-organised between the Lisson Gallery in London and Beirut in Cairo, during Spring 2013. The project is loosely based around the eponymous 1997 book by Michael Taussig, which, as the Notes’ introduction puts it, “… illustrate[s] how the state defines itself through a theatre of spirit possession, in which everyday rituals channel the foundational figures of the state into the living body of society.” Around these ideas they convened two exhibitions with works from artists Rana Hamadeh, Christodoulos Panaiyotou, Ryan Gander, Liz Magic Laser, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Goldin+Senneby, and Anja Kirschner and David Panos. The publication involves artist contributions 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 acted almost performatively, appropriating the slippery semantic terrain of the State’s alleged magic. The publication takes a more analytical vein, and 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 resultingly wobbly sovereignty. It’s written in the mode of Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976), but with more quiet humanist fury.

As the book’s introduction attests, the mystical and performative actualising 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 amongst art’s plethora of strategies.

Thus Rana Hamadeh’s contribution Al Karantina (2012, 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, where numerous characters debate who is to do which job 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.

Header image: Liz Magic Laser: Stand Behind Me, 2013 Performance and video with teleprompter. Featuring Ariel Freedman, 10 mins

Bottom: English cover of the book