In this exhibition cosmic powers are harnessed in small objects: talismans that operate on the universe. It feels volatile and dangerous yet somehow also festive. These artworks destroy entities we have no more use for, things that have tried to control us, and in some cases fashion new, more appealing tools from what remains. I say “we”, but I tremble.
What makes “AGENCY” so provocative is that the artworks do not operate on the level of representation. Many artworks do the righteous work of making invisible powers perceptible, but the works in this show endeavor to really do things, to work at the level of those invisible powers. The most representational of these works, Suzanne Treister’s large drawing The US National Security Agency on Fire (2010), embodies a performative will. Treister’s marks seem to be coaxing the flames to lick, the melting heat to surge through the building, an impassive black box of glass and steel, from which the agency developed tools to spy on US citizens. These works make contact with the entity they wish to affect. Indexical in C.S. Peirce’s sense of being existentially related their object, these artworks seek to make that relationship two-way, by in turn causing things to happen to their object.
To fight at this level you need a physical opponent. Some of the entities to be destroyed in “AGENCY” belong to corporations that seek to control the masses, like the Islamic State and Apple—remarkably paired in the exhibition. These powers pretend to ubiquity by hiding behind inscrutable surfaces. The artists draw on ancient methods to seize the sources of these corporations’ power, materialize it, and divert it to different ends. I’m talking about talismans, of course, as well as other means to grasp and realign cosmic energies, like ritual: world-changing actions contained in space and time, small enough to hold in your hand.
Talismans carry out operations by drawing together the universe’s inner resonances into a precisely functioning instrument. They function only in a universe understood to be interconnected and alive with hidden sympathies. Many such cosmologies exist historically, some related, some not. The one that interests me here is Islamic Neoplatonism, in which all entities emanate from God in a hierarchy from angels to celestial bodies to earthly creatures, plants, and stones. In this cascading hierarchy, one could read the macrocosm from the microcosm, as the Ikhwān al-Safā’ or Brotherhood of Purity, a secret society in tenth-century Basra, wrote:
The course of the body of the universe and the running of the affairs of all the bodies present within it, with all the differences of their forms and fascination of their shapes and the variance of their accidents, is analogous to an individual human body or individual animal body including all of its different shaped members and the fascinating forms of its articulations and the differing accidents of its appearance.
As above, so below, the Ikhwan argued: we can understand the operations of the cosmos by referring to our own bodies.
Talismans, emblems, and magic squares contain the cosmos from their particular point of view, like Leibniz’s monad. However, they are a special kind of monad that intercedes in cosmic relationships. For example, the Ghayat al-Hakīm or Aim of the Sage ascribed to the Andalusian al-Majriti (d. c. 1005–1008) describes how a magician may draw celestial powers down to earth by employing the incenses, inks, and other earthly substances associated with them, do so at the astrologically favorable time for that planet, and inscribe their powers on stones associated with the planet to produce a talisman.
A jinn is a figure that, by being hidden, is able to take control from within. The word comes from the Arabic root j-n-n, to conceal, also to possess: a majnūn is a crazy person, a janīn is a fetus. Morehshin Allahyari appropriates the jinn Huma, a human-bodied, three-headed demon with tusks or fangs. The central demon is also behorned and its tail terminates in another horned beast head. Huma, bringer of fever, is depicted on talismans to ward off fever. Feminizing Huma, Allahyari invokes her as the cause and potential cure of contemporary heat in the form of global warming, much of which results from the climate imperialism of global capitalism. As she produces the figure in three dimensions, the digital process of patiently printing layer by layer resembles the rituals for calling up deities and powers. Allahyari invites us to think in the longer term by drawing out the demon’s enfolded temporality.
Islamic Neoplatonism and the popular magic associated with it profoundly influenced European thought. In thirteenth-century Europe, the single most popular recipe book for magic and talismans was the Picatrix, a Latin mash-up of writings from the aforementioned Ghayat al-Hakīm and the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, and by the eighth-century alchemist Jabīr ibn Hayyān. The Picatrix’s recipes rely on the bonds of sympathy among all things in the universe: planets and stars, stones and metals, plants and animals, and human tendencies, all of which align at astrologically auspicious times. The book explains that “images that operate by efficacy and similitude are nothing other than the force of celestial bodies that influence the body. If the body is disposed to receive the celestial influence—and the latter is disposed to influence it—the image will be more powerful.” The images do not simply represent their target but operate on it. This understanding of a constellated universe allowed adepts to intervene in the cosmos: to refold it. For example, Nostradamus fashioned for Catherine de Medici a complex talisman of metals and goat and human blood that drew the powers of Venus and Jupiter to the queen’s body in order to inspire an honneste est divin love in her spouse, Henry II.
A talisman that manages the cosmos in microcosm features in Sophia Al Maria’s The Limerent Object (2016): a simple drawing of a round female figure with a fat vulva and one enormous eye. This vibrating figure presides over the coming-into-being of the cosmos and its demise. At the end, we are given a glimpse through the vulva to the stars.
Talismanic knowledge was long considered to be so potent that it must be confined to a select few. Secrecy and dissimulation, taqiyya in Arabic, were key to protecting this knowledge from the masses. The literature of magic devotes as much space to embellishing the value of its secrets and threatening those who would divulge them as it does explaining them in highly encrypted terms. Anna Ridler comes up with an ingenious decryption device to interpret the mass of Wikileaks documents: tablets programmed with augmented reality that is sensitive to signs of love. The project treats human affection as a clandestine currency that survives intact by staying under the radar of newsworthiness.
For a few centuries, modernity dispelled the beliefs in an interrelated cosmos and set all things on the same, disenchanted plane. In our time, however, those beliefs are stirring again in many corners, from ecology to new materialism to the ideology of digital interconnectedness. The works in “AGENCY” stir these new notions together with ancient talismanic practices.
The universe to which digital media give us access is a “lame infinity,” because it manages singular differences by reducing them to iterations of the same. Like the magicians of old network-media corporations replicate the cosmos in infinite detail, the better to control it. Many people deploy their mobile devices as contemporary talismans, managing their careers, health, friendships, and love affairs through the proffered interfaces. I don’t blame them: in the old days people managed their future and manipulated distant powers with magic squares, astrological globes, and apotropaic inscriptions. Digital apps, our contemporary talismans, appear to grasp and manipulate the world more directly and easily. That’s why Ingrid Burrington calls smartphones “scrying mirrors.” However, to use them you must surrender to their control and submit to their lame idea of the cosmos. The artists in “AGENCY” smack it down with alacrity and invite more compelling ideas about the cosmos to flood in.
Burrington grinds iPhones to dust and reassembles the dust into an alternative device that can see into the future in a more interesting way. Constant Dullaart uses scores of phones to rally a bot army, employing real people in poor countries to disseminate fake news that would distort the art market. Dullaart’s composition of the SIM cards he used in the project looks to me like a gilded page of an early Qur’an, in which each letter was separate. Mischievous microcosms of the lame universe, the SIM cards, now at rest, suggest the capacity to act differently, in the way the Qur’an hints that individual letters embody divine meanings.
Navine G. Khan-Dossos’s Black Standard series decrypts the Islamic State’s black flag with the word Allah on it in white—itself appropriated from the eighth-century flag of the Abbasids. Khan-Dossos neutralizes the components of the faux caliphate’s visual rhetoric, re-encrypting them into works that draw on its composition, use of black and white, and historical associations. Wittily, Khan-Dossos redeploys the flag as a calibration target for each painting, reducing its iconography of brutality and fear to a tool for establishing the standard of black-and-white values.
“AGENCY” exposes us to artworks that unfold powers that have operated, most often destructively, by being hidden or enfolded. They recompose those powers into new cosmic vibrations—a thought that is not exactly comforting but is certainly energizing.
Laura U. Marks