May 20, 1989
Review/Art; Juxtaposing the New From All Over
By MICHAEL BRENSON, Special to The New York Times
''Magicians of the Earth,'' which opened Thursday at the Pompidou Center and La Villette, brings together contemporary art from all over the world, juxtaposing artists from New Guinea and Italy, Australia and England, Tibet and the United States. Every culture and countless artistic approaches have been appropriated in a spectacular post-Modern bazaar in which everything seems equally valid and available.
With 100 artists, half from Europe and the United States and half from the rest of the world, this is the largest art exhibition in Paris in recent memory. At a cost of roughly $5 million, it is also one of the most expensive.
The aim was an artistic event that would be truly international and less submissive to nationalism and newness than the most prominent international art extravaganzas, Documenta in Kassel, West Germany, and the Venice Biennale. The exhibition promised to consider some pressing questions: Is there such a thing as world art? How should art from one culture be approached by another? Are there basic similarities as well as differences in the work of an American Conceptual artist, an African coffin maker and an Eskimo carver of whale bone?
Installed in two very distinct spaces, ''Magicians of the Earth'' seems like two different shows. About one-third of the artists are on the fifth-floor galleries of the Pompidou Center. There are strong works by artists like Jeff Wall and Nam June Paik, whose high-speed video installation, most of it in the shape of a beat-up truck, produces a collision between different worlds and times. But the gallery spaces are often tight, the juxtapositions jarring and the weakness of some work immediately apparent.
At the glass and steel hall of the former slaughterhouse at La Villette, on the outskirts of Paris, the space is grand, the feeling more open and the forgettable work less conspicuous. Each work has the air it needs, from the two big chunks of granite, just inside the entrance, in which Giovanni Anselmo has almost buried a compass, to the immense mud drawing by Richard Long at the other end, looming like a rose window or a red sun.
The exhibition was conceived by Jean-Hubert Martin, the director of the Pompidou Center. During four years of planning, curators traveled the world and arranged for some Western artists, including Lawrence Weiner, the American Conceptual artist who builds murals with words, to travel as well.
The selection of Western artists is questionable. While the exhibition is presented as open and fresh, many of the Americans and Europeans - including Sigmar Polke, Enzo Cucchi, Anselm Kiefer, John Baldessari, Tony Cragg, Daniel Buren, Rebecca Horn, Christian Boltanski and Francesco Clemente - are veterans of the international art wars.
While the catchy, sweet-sounding title of the show may sell tickets, Conceptual artists like Dennis Adams, Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger -whose installation at the entrance to the show at the Pompidou Center asks, ''Who are the magicians of the earth?'' - definitely do not see their work as magic, and they are not interested in a mystique of the earth.
With few exceptions, including the French-born Louise Bourgeois, whose presence in this show is the most recognition she has ever received from her native city, the exhibition overlooks those American painters and sculptors whose study of African and Asian art and culture has helped make the present openness to non-Western cultures possible.
Perhaps most disturbing, there are no black American artists in the show, even though many have long been concerned with African art and even though in recent years world art has almost been their issue. The absence of Betye Saar, whose installations brew voodoo, offbeat materials and political commentary, is particularly distressing.
The exhibition has its moments. The photographic installation by Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean living in New York, treats the Western dumping of toxic wastes in Africa with the pointed understatement that has made him one of the best political artists around. The sculptural tombs of Yongping Huang, from Xiamen in China, were assembled with the gray muck of newspapers from throughout the world ground up in washing machines. In his free-spirited pictorial narratives, Cheri Samba from Zaire approaches himself, his culture and the West with a bemused, committed eye.
The exhibition attacks several stereotypes. One is that non-Western artists, particularly in Africa, are nameless. Another is that many cultures outside the West are static. Although only an expert could tell what distinguishes the bark paintings from New Guinea or the tantric paintings from Nepal from the works of their ancestors, every work in the show does reflect a changing relationship to the past. To look at the contorted ebony masks by John Fundi from Mozambique is to sense how many cultures are struggling with change.
The exhibition moves in so many directions, however, that it will satisfy no one. Not political artists who want Western attitudes toward the rest of the world confronted. Not theorists who believe everything from other cultures must be seen in context. Not those who believe in a need for the kind of formal resolution that is always a sign of a mature artistic sensibility and imagination.
In some ways, the exhibition is painful. You simply cannot juxtapose highly marketable Western artists who know all the curves and angles of the international art circuit with artists from Africa, Southeast Asia, Oceania and Australia, who know nothing of its strategies and traps and for whom every work is a life-and-death matter. These artists are too vulnerable.
For example, while a few Western artists wandered about the show the day of the opening, a number of artists from outside the West not only stood by their work but also seemed to guard it. Esther Mahlangu, an artist from South Africa, remained in front of her replica of a ceremonial house, wearing a dress bearing patterns and colors similar to those she painted on the walls and fence.
After Cyprien Tokoudagba from Benin built his temple and sculptural group inspired by voodoo ritual -complete with naked father, kneeling son and eager lions and snake - he sacrificed chickens to protect himself from any wrongdoing in building the work for this show. After completing their red sand installation, six aboriginal artists announced there was no magic in their work. They waited but it did not arrive.
Joe Ben Jr., a Navajo living in Arizona, is keenly aware of the cultural differences. He spoke with eloquence about his sharply delineated floor painting, made by scattering sand like seeds. He said that curators do not understand how to collect the sand so that the painting remains within it. When the exhibition ends, he said, he will get the painting himself and carry it back to the Southwest where he will put it under a plant and return it to ''the mother earth.''
What happens when many of the artists who make nonmarketable religious work go home and no Western art official calls again? Will they feel they have been exploited by a French curatorial vision?
The exhibition also reinforces as many stereotypes as it challenges. In general, the non-Western world emerges as a place where time moves slowly, criticism is directed toward others, faith is preserved and memory, ritual and the earth are trusted friends. The West, on the other hand, appears restless, self-important, weighed down by history, tending to romanticize different cultures and unable to stop doubting itself and questioning its relations with the rest of the world. With a different selection of artists, this gulf would not have existed.
It would be nice to say that ''Magicians of the Earth'' - which continues through Aug. 14 - is a noble, ground-breaking and spellbinding exhibition. It isn't.
A replica of a South African ceremonial house, by Esther Mahlangu, is in the exhibition in Paris (Agence France-Presse)