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Wine Gods, Shamans, Sorcerers Get Ecstatic in Paris Show: Review

Mask of an Exorcist
Mask of an exorcist from Sri Lanka (19th century) on view in an exhibition that delves into the intriguing practices of medicine men, sorcerers and shamans. Source: Musee du Quai Branly

No, it’s not another rant about bankers and traders. “The Masters of Disorder,” an exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, delves into the just-as-intriguing practices of medicine men, sorcerers and shamans.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jean de Loisy, the curator, who now directs the Palais de Tokyo exhibition space, has included carnival costumes, fool’s scepters and works of modern and contemporary art.

Anthropologists probably will wring their hands over the picturesque jumble. It’s hard to find a convincing concept behind the masks, amulets, figurines, paintings and videos.

The policy of the museum, which opened six years ago, has been to free what used to be labeled as tribal art from the limits of ethnology and judge it from a purely aesthetic angle.

Don’t try to understand the highfalutin wall texts about chaos and catharsis and just enjoy the often remarkable objects.

They’re presented in a kind of maze formed like a heart and designed, according to the handout, “to go along with the evolution of the visitor’s psychic sensations.”

The oldest items are statuettes of ancient deities such as the Egyptian war goddess Sekhmet or the Greek wine god Dionysus. They both were worshiped in rituals of drunken ecstasy.

From there we move on to other cults and practices that supposedly soothe the invisible forces of the universe.

Escorting Souls

Shamans, mostly though not exclusively found in Arctic and Central Asian tribes, cure diseases, direct communal sacrifices and escort the souls of the dead into the hereafter.

Voodoo originally came from the African kingdom of Dahomey and was brought, through the slave trade, to the Caribbean. The fetishes in the show were used to cast spells or to protect against evil spirits.

The Kachina dolls of the Hopi in Arizona and the Zuni in New Mexico have a similar function: They represent the spirits of the ancestors who are intercessors between humans and gods.

Some religious ceremonies are performed in a state of trance. The show draws a parallel between the ecstatic cult of Shango, the fire god of the Yoruba, and rave parties. This will be grist to the mill of those who regard electronic dance music as a relapse into barbarism.

Absent Exorcists

Christian exorcism, a practice still recognized by the Vatican, remains largely unexplored.

So are other Catholic traditions: The giant army of saints, a classic example of mediators between Heaven and Earth, is reduced to a single specimen, St. Michael slaying a dragon.

Instead, we’re treated to “Dancing My Cancer,” a 1975 video in which the U.S. dancer Anna Halprin is exorcizing her tumor -- successfully, it seems: She’s still alive.

Other artworks include linocuts by Picasso portraying himself as a faun, the painting of a voodoo spirit by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jonathan Meese’s sculpture of a bisexual devil, and an assemblage by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn consisting of more than 100 globes covered with Scotch tape.

The selection of works reflects the arbitrariness and superficiality of the show. That shouldn’t deter you from seeing it. There’s enough to admire.

“Les Maitres du Desordre” runs through July 29. It then will travel to the Kunsthalle in Bonn (Aug. 31-Dec. 2) and La Caixa Foundation in Madrid (Feb. 7-May 19, 2013). Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on rock music, Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

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