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Search For the Spirit

Scheppers Institute, Mechelen, Belgium

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General Idea, Manipulating the Self (Phase 1 - A Borderline Case) (1970). Courtesy of AA Bronson, NY/Toronto

Recent exhibitions, such as last year’s ‘Traces du Sacré’ at the Pompidou Centre, have sought to examine a re-emergence of the spiritual as a theme in contemporary art, but few have managed to trace (with any sensitivity) a historiographic line between works that have addressed notions of ‘the spirit’ in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the activities of artists exploring similar ideas today.

‘Search For the Spirit’, one of five exhibitions organized by Muhka for Mechelen’s ‘City Visions Festival’, unites archival work and new commissions by four generations of artists whose work is – or has been – actively engaged with notions of the spirit.

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‘Search For the Spirit’ (2009), installation view

Taking its title from a 1976 General Idea exhibition that took place in Geneva, ‘Search For the Spirit’ is based around projects by two artist groups once active in Vancouver and Toronto: Image Bank (1969-78) and General Idea (1969-94). With these works, as with others in the exhibition, curator Grant Watson performs the magic of reactivating archives, showing seminal pieces by both groups alongside documentation and ephemera related to their projects. General Idea’s ‘36 Showcards’ (1975-9), a series of highly theatrical and utterly camp images and texts featuring a motley assortment of wigged and costumed artist-muse types role-playing as characters on ‘set’, merge the cool, conceptual visual language of post-war administration with photographs mimicking Hollywood cinema.

Watson traces what connections may be made by searching through archives and settles on spectral research experiments and collective image bank projects that suggest the infinitely possible made manifest, as well as several projects that play with the illusion of reflections and the physics of light.

’Manipulating the Self File’ (1970–73), 23 photographic responses to a mail-art solicitation for image contributions made by General Idea, extols the hand as a mirror for the mind. It is exhibited here along with the original request as it appeared in FILE magazine in 1971, inviting active readers into acts of temporary re-composure: ‘Wrap your arm over your head, lodging your elbow behind and grabbing your chin with your hand. The act is complete. Held you are holding. You are object and viewer, subject and voyeur.’

Likewise, the exhibition includes two new configurations of Image Bank’s ‘Colour Research Project’ accompanied by a video of archival footage (Colour Bar Research, 1973-74) that documents Image Bank’s original experiments with colour in the landscape. The video captures the spirit of the times, the activities and interactions by an ensemble cast of naked performers with thousands of hand-painted colour bars that were floated on lakes, tossed into the air, and released down streams to randomly re-form – by the elements of nature and chance – into a series of endless paintings. As two bare bodies dive into the lake at Babyland (the woodland property owned by Image Bank artists Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov) Trasov narrates: ‘The object of this new aesthetic is touch. And record of the object’s touch. The materials are people and paintbrushes […] Transported by the art, we will attain life. Life, which is the opposite of Art.’

Further along in the exhibition, a selection of anonymous, 19th-century ‘Company Paintings’ (made-to-order illustrations commissioned by the Dutch East India Company for British employees, that meld traditional Indian painting techniques with European shading and perspectives) depicts ascetics arriving at transcendent states through great bodily efforts.

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Johanna Natalie Wintsch. Courtesy: Sammlung Prinzhorn

Needlework by early-20th-century psychiatric patient Johanna Natalie Wintsch is an unexpected but very welcome inclusion. Wintsch’s handiwork mixes enigmatic statements with theosophical symbolism, giving form to the inner thoughts of private and perceived worlds. In one work, text stitched in red and blue thread around the perimeter of the fabric forms a frame around an empty centre that reads, ‘Qui se mire bien se voit’ (He who mirrors himself well, sees well) and ‘Les Yeux Dans Les Yeux’ (The Eyes In the Eyes). The motif of mirroring and reflection extends to translations of other artists’ works as well.

Image Bank’s interpretation of General Idea’s Light On (1971), one of several very noteworthy inclusions in this exhibition, is an intimately composed black and white video of two men standing naked in the landscape, with only a creek between them, as they casually flash sunlight onto each other’s bodies with mirrors, small enough to be held by hand.
The theme of translation continues with Luis Jacob’s mysterious but elegant works on letter-size paper – seven Delphic, coded attempts to translate Mark Rothko paintings into typewritten arrangements of numbers and symbols that somehow manage to convey the incommunicable in Rothko’s paintings. In his newly commissioned video The Hand is Quicker Than the Eye (2009), Yael Davids treats a group of inmates at Mechelen city prison to workshops on magic. Equating criminality with the failure to maintain the illusion of innocence, Yael wryly offers the convicts a chance to better their skills.

The works in the exhibition are displayed on and around a graceful scenography of curved walls designed by Luca Frei. Observed from above on the balcony of the children’s school theatre, the exhibition can be viewed taking place in very subdued light and in the presence of an intriguing but impenetrable statement in the original architecture above the theatre’s stage that reads: Misericordi Beatis – a partial, grammatically incomplete statement in Latin that translates to ‘Pitiful happy’.

Esperanza Rosales


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About this review

Published on 18/05/09
by Esperanza Rosales


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