The American writer Ambrose Bierce’s short stories are filled with haunted houses, inexplicable phenomena and dead people who are not really dead. In his 1889 story ‘The Suitable Surroundings’, a writer challenges one of his friends to read a mysterious manuscript under conditions replicating the fear his fiction was meant to create: alone, in an abandoned house, by candlelight. The story ends tragically: the reader dies from fear and the writer is confined to an asylum. The eerie décor of Danish artist Joachim Koester’s solo show at the Institut d’art contemporain seemed to have been conceived as ‘the suitable surroundings’ for his work. The galleries were mostly illuminated in half-light, the windows blocked by large sheets of wood, as if the institution had been deserted.
Through a selection of photographs and videos produced by Koester since 2005, the exhibition – titled ‘Of Spirits and Empty Spaces’ – related a sort of fragmentary and subjective history of magic, initiation rituals and hallucinatory experiences. The artist exhumes various events, characters and places from the past, the memories of which are linked to the occult and supernatural, from an ancient Islamic sect to the community created by Aleister Crowley in Sicily in the 1920s. These obscure narratives feed Koester’s ‘ghost hunts’, painstaking inquiries which span years of research, blending both historical realities and fantasy projections. The artist’s own documentation is the trigger that makes it possible to re-create and update these past experiences. For example, the installation Message from Andrée (2005) describes scientist Salomon August Andrée’s attempt to reach the North Pole in a hot air balloon in 1897. The endeavour failed and the crew vanished, leaving a few hundred photographic negatives behind, most of which were altered by the cold and light. Koester’s video assembles these abstract archival images to produce a psychedelic flicker that transcribes the mental and physical experience of those men lost on the pack ice.
Koester’s research often leads him to regions bristling with beliefs and myths suited to the ‘psychogeography’ defined by Guy Debord. One such location is Transylvania, where Koester visited various locations described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Far removed from the landscapes evoked in the novel and in our collective imagination, Koester’s photographs, taken a century after the novel was written, attest to a deforested region where the abandoned projects of the Communist era as well as scars of intensive logging are visible.
Koester is also interested in experiences that alter the senses or our consciousness, including drug-taking. The Hashish Club (2009), for example, consists of the stroboscopic projection of pictures of marijuana plants onto an enlarged version of an archival photograph depicting the salon where the Club des Hashischins met in the mid-19th century, and where its members – who included Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier – described their sensations after consuming cannabis resin. For the artist, that episode, and the historical accounts of it, represent a merry mix of empiricism and an attempt at proto-scientific analysis, and illustrate the effect of psychoactive agents on creative activity. Koester’s work is based on a visual allegory: from the image of the salon surge forth both ghosts of the past and a possible hallucinatory experience.
Koester, who is fascinated by the body’s loss of control, is also interested in the traditional practices linked with trances and being possessed. In his video Tarantism (2007), he revisits, with the help of a group of dancers, the developments of the tarantella, a folkloric dance from southern Italy whose disorderly movements supposedly made it possible to ‘exorcise’ tarantula bites and the delirium they caused. Koester’s soft spot for the fantastic and the uncertain brings to mind Sol LeWitt’s famous words: ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They reach conclusions which logic cannot reach.’ Fittingly, Koester presented the video Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes (2011), in which an actor’s hands try to reproduce the minimal forms devised by LeWitt. Here, the body is seen as a ‘recording device’ – the vehicle of the strangest and most irrational experiences.
Translated by Simon Pleasance