In 1614, mysterious pamphlets began to materialize around the German town of Kassel, announcing the advent of the Rosicrucians, a clandestine brotherhood that was looking to recruit. Naturally, half of Western Europe wanted in: peasants, noblemen, even a young René Descartes tried to join, but the Rosicrucians had vanished. While secret societies may be as old as society itself, Gary Lachman (one-time Blondie bassist, now an expert on the occult) notes that the modern European conception of a shadowy elite only crystallized some 400 years ago in Kassel.
Lachman contributed an entertainingly digressive audio-guide and a lucid catalogue essay to the exhibition ‘Secret Societies’. The show, which toured from Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, was curated by Cristina Ricupero and Alexis Vaillant (chief curator at CAPC), who argue that secret societies often flourish during periods of crisis, such as the present moment, offering alternatives to the prevailing order. (Though any claim about the history of secret sects is surely a difficult one to prove?) ‘Secret Societies’ involved some winningly hokey atmospherics, including access via unmarked black doors and walls stripped of didactic wall texts. Comprising works by almost 60 artists, it was broken into five sections – ‘Initiation’, ‘Hidden Masters’, ‘Conspiracy’, ‘Secret Knowledge’ and ‘Altered States’ – and into opposing halves: gloomy chambers on the ground floor and a series of harshly lit white cubes on the second floor. This Manichean split mobilized some of the curators’ concerns, with sub-rosa knowledge constructed not by the degree to which it is obscured so much as by the stylistics of secrecy. It turns out that secrecy has a ‘look’.
A number of footnote-like juxtapositions sometimes had the ironic effect of ‘decoding’ otherwise hermetic art works. For example, copies of Georges Bataille’s journal Acéphale (1936–9) were shown alongside Cerith Wyn Evans’ eponymous 2001 neon rendering of a decapitated man – the publication’s logo; elsewhere, a 19th-century Masonic triptych was installed close to a similarly chequered platform from 2008 by Ulla von Brandenburg. This use of historical pieces as ciphers runs counter to an idea Ina Blom touches upon in her catalogue essay, that ‘art works may actually be seen as secret collectives in their own right’. That argument wasn’t pursued by Ricupero and Vaillant, whose interests seemed to lie with the correspondences between the atavistic insignia of secret rites – hoods, mirrors, sinister contraptions – rather than with the capacity of physical objects to withhold meaning.
The exhibition included a rich selection of mostly figurative painting from Armin Boehm, Jean-Luc Blanc and Cris Brodahl, as well as strong work by younger British artists, including Edward Kay, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Tim Ellis and Duncan Marquiss. The most cogent and tightly curated section was ‘Altered States’, which considered (or illustrated?) hallucinatory rituals by way of Kenneth Anger’s demonic invocations, David Noonan’s collages and Joachim Koester’s remarkable film Tarantism (2007). (This section often strayed close to ‘The Dark Monarch’, Tate St Ives’s 2009–10 survey of magic and Modernism, and shared several of the same artists.) Other stand-out works included a suite of wooden harlequins by Enrico David, Brice Dellsperger’s unhinged film Body Double 22 (2010) – a greenscreen rendering of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in which the artist plays every character – and a masterful final gallery. Julian Goethe’s back-lit mirror, Dong (2006), was the lone work in this dimly lit space; peering into this dark glass, the viewer’s reflection seemed to melt away.
What does secrecy actually look like in the 21st century? PDFs of redacted documents and the faceless flows of global capital do not lend themselves to visualization. Where there were once small guilds of masons, in the wake of 9/11 secrecy has swelled to a vast industry: The Washington Post recently reported that in the US alone there are now almost a million people with ‘top-secret’ security clearance. While ‘Secret Societies’ leant more on representations of often archaic or subcultural groups, this issue was acknowledged by several inclusions, such as Goldin + Senneby’s project about offshore finance (Headless, 2008) and Jill Magid’s 2005–08 investigation into the Dutch secret service, which was commissioned by none other than the Dutch secret service. But, for the most part, the show stuck close to something that Magid herself has noted: ‘The secret itself is much more beautiful than its revelation.’