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Exhibition examines the fundamental kinship between the role of the artist and that of the anthropologist
Installation view of Masters of Chaos at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Photo: Courtesy Musee du Quai Branly.

PARIS.- A number of different traditions represent the necessary and endless struggle between order and chaos. They demonstrate that the tension between these opposing forces is vital to the equilibrium of the universe and to its continuity.

This exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly features masterpieces that bear witness to the key role of chaos in several cultures. Its three main sections – chaos in the world, control of chaos and catharsis – refer to the myths that explain chaos and the rituals that are performed in order to contain it. These three sections, which lead us from the sacred to the profane, unfold like a voyage of discovery. At the heart of this voyage, to guard against the misfortune and unhappiness that reveal the imperfection of the world, intercessors appear as negotiators who interact with ambivalent and dangerous forces. We call them the masters of chaos.

The themes of the exhibition are interspersed with and often introduced by works created by modern and contemporary artists. Their presence is a testament to the fact that the ancestral questions explored in this exhibition continue to challenge our generation's great artists who inevitably encounter within their work the themes that make up human consciousness.

Chaos in the world
The imperfect order

It is a simple observation: order does not exist without ambivalence. All order, including the divine order, is fundamentally flawed.

In spite of our gods and our rituals, despite the prohibitions and the most refined pantheons, the presence of evil and the degradation of all things reveal the imperfection of the world. The ravages of death, suffering, natural disasters and war are proofs of the impotence of the gods of established religions, of their silence or of their distance.

The constant fight waged by gods against demons in the cosmologies of many different cultures illustrates this fragile equilibrium of the world. Order and chaos, destruction and creation follow each other cyclically and are at the root of the founding myths of our societies. In Hinduism for example, when the stability of the world is in danger, Vishnu, preserver of the cosmic order, is the one who intervenes in the guise of his avatar Narasimha.

Faced with the turmoil of the world, Man calls upon tutelary deities and surrounds himself with protective effigies like the aripa sculptures of Papua-New-Guinea; these sculptures represent the ancestors of the primordial clan who ensure a successful hunt.

The forces of chaos
In all cultures, collective imagination has given form and life to ambivalent deities on the fringes of the great pantheons. Often disturbing and unpredictable, they sometimes turn into gods or heroes. These entities are generally separated from other deities by a fundamental impurity; they disturb, transgress and subvert. Their deeds and misdeeds form the basis of traditional tales that are told over and over again across the centuries, such as Susanoo in Japan, Pale Fox for the Dogons, etc.

Their changing nature is feared: the spirits who provide wealth are also those who take away riches, those that protect children also make women infertile, those who make crops grow also dry out the fields.

From Egypt to Japan, from Greece to Alaska, from Brazil to Benin, the disruptive deity frequently manifests itself. A dangerously destabilising figure, it confronts order governed by reason with insane immoderation, savagesacredness; it introduces confusion into the sequence of rules and the human condition. As the embodiment of motion and escape from social frameworks, it reveals a generative chaos which fights against the closing of systems

A genuine, activated vodun altar has been erected especially for the exhibition by Togolese "Wizard of laughter" priest Azé Kokovivina. Made of wood, mud, rusted iron, bone, blood and other unprepossessing materials, it is ephemeral and belongs to the nomadic world. When activated, it sets forces in motion and allows communication with the spirits. The altar will remain on site throughout the exhibition and Azé shall come and disable it when the exhibition ends. This is the first time a vodun priest has come to the musée du quai Branly to build and activate an altar.

Mastering chaos

Rituals are the favoured mode of communication in the necessary negotiations with the figures of chaos. They are an effort to control personal, social or ecological imbalances, and have a specific purpose: social or individual harmony and the regulation of natural cycles.

Yet in most animist systems, the agents of misfortune are creatures from another world and an intercessor is therefore needed to mediate between the two extremes. This master is a specialist of the supernatural. With the help of his allies, he negotiates with the forces of disturbance, many-formed spirits, anthropomorphic genies or avatars of gods and prestigious ancestors.

Following in the footsteps of Orpheus, the archetypal border crosser who connects the world of the living and to of the dead, the intercessor is situated on the fringes of two universes. As a "margin-man", he is marginal in essence; he straddles the masculine and the feminine, the world of the living and the world of the dead, the world of animals and the world of men. He is not elected but appointed by the other world, and, after perilous training, he becomes an initiate, capable of performing the gruelling negotiations needed to transact with spirits. Depending on the cultural context, he may go on cosmic travels and he may or may not make use of psychotropic substances. His control over the forces allows him to heal and thus to exorcise, protect, enchant or disenchant, predict or describe the troubles causing the misfortunes that affect the individual or the community.

Sacred clowns
Among the margin-men, some stand out as clowns: they are the ritual clowns of North America, which have their counterparts in Africa and sometimes in Asia. Their role is to make manifest that which is censored, silenced, repressed. They spare nothing and no one and they strike during the most solemn ceremonies.

Their work is done on four main levels. The sacred: they make communication with the gods a commonplace occurrence; they turn it upside down and laugh at ritualistic expressions. Wilful savagery: in costume, the character is dressed in rags, caked in dirt and mud. Repulsion: caused by the ingestion of faeces or parasites, he who consumes the unspeakable can utter the unsayable. Sexuality, where scandal reaches its climax: nudity, mock phallus or gaping vulvae, simulated copulation, etc.

These ceremonial buffoons resemble mythical ascetics, on the fringes of many traditions, such as Qalandars in Iran or the Orthodox Madmen of God. This transgressive apprehension of the sacred has always existed, as attested, for example, by the wizard-god Bes, Egyptian "jester for the gods."

These sacred clowns, far from being mere mountebanks, are feared by men. They are often the most powerful amongst exorcists and diviners.

Election / Initiation
The wilder the spirits are, the more violent, disruptive and unpredictable they will be. This is the reason that all intercessors, elected by the spirits and working with the savage-sacredness, must go through a particularly long and painful initiation, facing extreme dangers, on a par with their future powers. This is a process aimed at obtaining a gradual mastery over the self and the emergence of an "other" personality.

An essential phase of the ritual is the incorporation of the spirits who take possession of the body of the chosen one. Imposed upon him when he is chosen, either in dreams or during an illness, and sometimes perceived as a terrible devouring, they will become the spirit helpers of the future intercessor and his guides on the perilous cosmic journeys undertaken to ensure the welfare of the community.

The election, followed by the initiation that requires a long training period, are the crucial moments that define the capacity of the future shaman, sorcerer, medicine man or diviner to travel between worlds, to make contact with the spirits. In other words: control over their own chaos is the prime condition and requirement for control over cosmic chaos.

Cosmic travels
Magical flights, rituals of climbing a ladder, cosmic tree or pole, ecstatic levitation experiences, but also journeys to the bottom of the sea on a fish, under the ground with an ant or on the back of a flying animal... The masters of chaos are technicians of the difficult transition through the spatial abyss that separates us from the spirit world.

A "psychonaut" is a man who navigates the psyche using psychoactive plants. Psychotropic substances are used in many different cultures to open the gateway to another world, to initiate communication and to enable the soul to move freely.

By disrupting ordinary perception, they provide access to another realm, fully mapped out by mythologies. The journey and altered state of consciousness will allow the intercessor to meet the spirits, to be taught about plants, to learn from nature and to render metamorphoses easier. A typical sign of our times, interest in neo-shamanism associated with the New Age movement and the traditional use of psychotropic substances (ayahuasca, peyote or iboga) has grown considerably.

A large glass sculpture by artists Berdaguer & Péjus entitled Jardin d’addiction evokes this trend: an interlacing of giant bottles of perfumes and smells of various substances (alcohol, cocaine, grass, opium…). Its shape evokes the acceleration of cerebral connections, but also brings to mind Jeremy Narby’s Cosmic Serpent hypothesis, which propounds that psychotropic substances could give the shaman a vision of the microcosm, going so far as to visualise the body in its essence: the constitution of DNA.

Spirit helpers
Spirit helpers act as guides for the margin-man. They assist the intercessors by teaching them the routes through extra-terrestrial regions, warning them of dangers and aiding them in their struggle against hostile forces.

The intercessor finds out who his protecting spirits are during his election and bonds with them in a sexually charged union. In some cases he may become their "spouse".

Each spirit is specialised in a particular service. An intercessor can have several spirit helpers. In fact he is considered weak or strong according to how many of them he has. A helper is either a benefactor or a servant to its owner. The transfer of spirit helpers is seen and performed through the costume’s accessories.

They often take the shape of an animal: deer, hare, bear, eagle, fish... They can also be spirits of nature: spirits of the woods, of the earth, of a plant... In shaman societies, the intercessor takes possession of the spirit helper during the shamanic seance. More than merely performing a simulation of the behaviour of the animal helper, the intercessor becomes identified with the spirit, takes its powers and is transformed into it: it is the metamorphosis of the shaman into a savage being. The helper then takes the role of a psychopomp, meaning that he accompanies the shaman into the beyond: it is the cosmic journey.

The flight
The shaman has given up his human condition and travels into the spirit world: it is the mystical flight. Like Li Tie Guai in Chinese mythology, who used his calabash to conceal himself and reach the doors of the superworld, the Siberian shaman "straddles" his drum, which will guide him on his cosmic journey. The Javanese sorcerer propels himself eighteen meters high with a rope, the Chilean Machi climbs the ceremonial pole in the village centre and the Tsimshian shaman waves his rattle, the hollow body of which symbolises the pathway to the spiritual world.

His ascent or descent to the realm of shadows is always motivated by a desire to come to the aid of his community. Travelling allows the intercessor to reach the heavenly or underground spirits in order to negotiate with them. He must dive to the bottom of the sea to meet the spirits of underwater animals in order to ensure good fishing conditions for the Inuit, go down to retrieve the soul of a sick person or cast out evil spirits to restore fertility to a woman in Africa, reconnect with the mother of the animals who disrupts hunting in Siberia, communicate with plant spirits in order to find a cure for illness in Chile, etc.

Some of the vehicles used by cosmic travellers are shown in the exhibition: seats, a Mapuche ladder, Buryat staffs with horsehead decorations (Siberia), drums, etc.

The master of chaos practises an art that is both oral and theatrical. In some regions, to hunt, find a cure or travel, he must be able to morph into an animal. Through song, sound, psychotropic substances, a mask or mere concentration, the body opens up to another world. Its communication with another entity is demonstrated in this transformation. The animal costume that he wears is not a mere disguise: it shows the shaman's ability to ascend to the various spirit worlds.

This savage metamorphosis, this zoomorphism, is a fundamental basis for a number of societies whose cultures challenge the distinction between realms.

There are a number of different metamorphoses: the intercessor can turn into a bird, an otter, a bat, a jaguar, an owl ,a mosquito. The jaguar, for instance, is often represented: on the stone sculptures of pre-Columbian America it is the most powerful referee, the one that can move in water, on land and climb up gigantic trees. The ritual, and sometimes the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants, allow the initiate to receive the powers of this jaguar: night vision, speed, aggressiveness.

A power store
Death, disease, the vagaries of nature and human violence are the source of ritual practices, which have produced objects, containers for forces, linking this world to the beyond and which only great initiates know how to master and tame.

The arrangement of materials that are often precarious, fragile, common or residual and the accumulation of heterogeneous elements are characteristic of these objects of suffering, of these condensed forces often hidden away from prying eyes: secrecy adds power to the object, it connects those who share it and wards off others.

They are made up of tangled webs of rope, small revolting mounds, sets of indefinable elements and are the result of a series of manipulations performed during rituals, the traces of which they bear: their shape and appearance intrinsically undergo continuous change as they are transformed every time the priest activates them.

Although the logic seems impenetrable, each element in itself is related to the others and conveys a message that only the initiate, the master of chaos, knows how to decipher. Each object has its own recipe, made up of materials, gestures and words; each object is a compendium of forces that chronicles the chaos of existence.

Cosmic chaos is mirrored in individual chaos, illustrated most notably as evidenced, amongst other things, by illness. This section contains African and European objects that perfectly evoke this "grotesque" state of being, throughout the ages: bodies that have been deformed by various afflictions.

Depictions show the metamorphoses of the body brought on malevolent by attacks; pathological sculptures figure the detailed physical marks caused by different diseases. Representations of the suffering body are particularly developed in votive offerings used to obtain grace or give thanks for the granting of a prayer. They are often designed to fight the disease they represent. They are the material embodiment of a plea for protection, an offering made in negotiation with the higher entities that govern the destiny of man. The talismanic image, through the rituals that complement it, is an object of hope and of transformation. In Europe or Africa, it places individual illness in the care of the community, which makes a cure all the more possible.

A monumental ex-voto, Annette Messager's installation figures the bloodstream of a phantasmagorical body, in fragments, as a way to appropriate what terrifies us, such as the inside of the body...

Illness reminds man of his precarious condition and of the ambivalence of other world. The god who heals is often also the one who brings disease; the implacable law of exchanges that governs the flow of vital energy makes death and disease as necessary as life itself. By making invisible forces responsible for the randomness that affects men, healing rituals also transform individual pathologies and collective disasters into events that are included in the natural order of things. Chaos is due neither to chance nor to abomination, it is tragically normal.

As a response to illness, which, according to animist regimes, is related to a negative intrusion of the spirits, the notion of exorcism comes into play, as evidenced by the ritual of exorcism in Sri Lanka or, in the Christian world, by the slaying of the devil by St. Michael. The officiant's task is to locate the source of chaos in the possessed and to drive out, thus restoring the patient's well-being and to leading to a return to “normality”.

If working and the passing of days maintain the world order, the unleashing of the body in the excitement of celebration marks the time when this order is suspended. Such excesses are necessary for the renewal of nature or society; all that exists is thus rejuvenated, and the waning of the sacred in particular, expressed as it is through taboos and atonements, is made bearable again by these purges.

Trance. The time of the trance is a sacrificial time. The animalised body of the possessed is given as an offering to supernature. It can undergo metamorphoses, come to life as fragments of a collective myth. The chaos of his body attests to the reality of contact. Moved by the dramatisation organised by the initiate, carried over on the music, he reaches another perception as a participant in a collective ritual, or as the subject of an individual endeavour designed to cure him.

Two examples, taken in southern Italy and Haiti, allow the viewers to identify the importance given to the unleashing of the body not merely as an hysterical impulse but, more importantly, as a controlled occurrence from beginning to end within its social function. Fitful dancing is a cathartic performance.

Celebrating chaos. Collective excesses, ritualised practices that cause a reversal of roles, evocations of a world seized by chaos; all of them belong to ancient folk tradition. From Babylonian Sacaeas, Bacchanalias, to feasts of fools in the Middle Ages, calendar holidays and various carnivals, transformed over the course of centuries and in different parts of the world, all testify to a transgression mechanism transferred gradually from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane.

Profane conjurations. In our secular world, the new "masters of chaos" are the actors and artists who disrupt the conventions that surround us. The space devoted to this topic is entrusted to artist Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux, his task being to organize and develop a form of chaos through various installations created by contemporary artists. This installation will be erected as a carnival float, bringing together the "brotherhood" of artists who deride society.

The exhibition ends with the screening of the Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/ Epilogue video, created by Brazilian artists Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes: at the close of what could have been a carnival, ants carry off multi-coloured confetti one by one, in a ballet-like motion resembling a waste recycling chain. The party is over.

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