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Secret Societies

Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt

To know, to dare, to will, to keep silence. The exhibition is aimed at answering the question in how far secret societies also reflect certain mechanisms of contemporary art. Drawing on a combination of works of art and historical documents such as books, weapons, and Scotland Yard files, the exhibition pursues the nature of the secret along a labyrinthine course and discloses a range of bizarre and wondrous discoveries. The show's circle of members includes such presumed artists as Enrico David, Gretchen Faust, Jenny Holzer, Joachim Koester, Terence Koh, Elad Lassry, Fabian Marti, Cerith Wyn Evans...

comunicato stampa

Curated by Cristina Ricupero and Alexis Vaillant, Paris
Project Management: Matthias Ulrich, SCHIRN

Man has always been fascinated with secret societies and their clandestine rites, their covert knowledge, and exclusive circle of members. The character of secret societies ranges from harmless brotherhoods to powerful associations with anything but altruistic financial and political objectives. Particularly in times of crises, secret societies provide surrogate values for the prevailing political, social and technological systems of order. The exhibition “Secret Societies. To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silence” which will be on display at the Schirn from June 23 until September 25, 2011 is dealing with the question how to present the invisible, in how far secret societies mirror certain facets of contemporary art, and how artists reflect the overall theme in different ways.

Within its own world of mysterious signs, the exhibition pursues the nature of secrecy along a labyrinthine course and discloses a range of bizarre and wondrous discoveries. It comprises more than one hundred works, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, films, and installations. The show’s presumed circle of members encompasses fifty-two artists, among them Dan Attoe, Armin Boehm, Steven Claydon, Enrico David, Brice Dellsperger, Gretchen Faust, Julian Göthe, Uwe Henneken, Benedikt Hipp, Jenny Holzer, Rashid Johnson, Terence Koh, Donghee Koo, Elad Lassry, Gabriel Lester, Goshka Macuga, Duncan Marquiss, David Noonan, Markus Schinwald, and Carl Michael von Hausswolff & Michael Esposito...

The exhibition is sponsored by Verein der Freunde der Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt e. V. The term “secret societies” describes groups pursuing various political, social, economic, religious, esoteric and occult interests and objectives all of which have a conspiratorial background. Whether harmless alliances such as hermetic youth scenes, academic brotherhoods, or influential business combines, such associations always operate in the dark to preserve their secret knowledge and protect their exclusive circle of members. This is usually achieved through strict observance of secrecy and the use of special signs, symbols, and codes that can only be understood by those in the know and disguise the existence of the group for those outside. Most secret societies have a distinctively hierarchic structure built around an unknown leader, a hidden master, an inner circle, or a higher being that controls world affairs and guards the group’s clandestine knowledge. Secret alliances have always been the subject of their non-members’ suspicions and fascination. Because of their questionable motives and their anarchistic potential of subverting social rules and standards or even ignore the law in force, secret societies have been forbidden in some countries. The most prominent ones, just to cite a few, range from the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Mafia, to the Ku Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda.

Acceptance into a secret society generally requires a strict examination process of initiation, an ordeal frequently staged in a secret place and consisting of both bizarre and drastic rituals. The disciple thus leaves his former existence behind and enters the secret society’s sphere where he is made familiar with its language, structure, and covert knowledge. After the disciple has become a member of the group and passed from one state of consciousness to another, new connections, patterns, and relationships between things that have once appeared to be as remote from each other as can be imagined are now revealed to him behind the thin veneer of everyday life.

It is such associations’ mixture of obsession, delusion, impenetrable structure, and subversive energy which has, from time immemorial, enthralled and frightened people, fuelled conspiratorial theories, but also gone down very well as a dark alternative to conventional, enlightened value systems particularly in time of economic, political or technological crises. The group show at the Schirn explores how secret societies with their initiation rituals, their specific language of forms, and their sworn circles of members also reflect certain mechanisms of contemporary art and how, contrariwise, artists relate to these rites and symbols in a fashion that is as surprising as manifold.

With her stage installation “Karo Sieben (Seven of Diamonds)” (2007) German artist Ulla von Brandenburg freely alludes to the checked patterns of freemasonry symbolism and tarot as it is anchored in alchemy, the cabbala, and numerology, while US director Kenneth Anger explicitly relates to the British black magician Aleister Crowley in his film “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969). With his work “Acéphale” (2001) British artist Cerith Wyn Evans presents a decapitated man – symbol of the cult of the same name founded by the French writer Georges Bataille in the 1930s – as a huge neon figure. The Swedish duo Goldin & Senneby have found manifold ways to link Bataille’s thought with the US financial market’s infiltration by the Russian Chinese BCEN Eurobank in the 1950s in their installation “The Decapitation of Money” (2010). And in his film “The Hashish Club” (2009) Danish artist Joachim Koester evokes the dim salon atmosphere of the Hôtel Lauzun in Paris where Charles Baudelaire, Eugène Delacroix, and Honoré de Balzac met for their cannabis séances in the 1840s.

Likewise, political conspiracies are critically echoed in numerous exhibits. In his “Souvenir d’Italie (Fondamenti della Seconda Repubblica)” (2010) Italian artist Luca Vitone exposes all 959 members of the secret organization Propaganda Due, which planned a coup in Italy in the 1970s; the later Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was one of the lodge’s members. Eva Grubinger’s monumental black courtroom installation “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (2009) investigates the power-political entanglements of the former Secretary of State and Nobel Prize winner, while the American artist Sean Snyder’s “The Site” (2004/05), an analysis of photos and texts on Saddam Hussein’s arrest in 2003, unmasks the charging of per se meaningless visual evidence with meaning and thus reveals the mechanisms and tendencies of media reports in a manner of astounding relevance to the current situation.

What about secrets in the age of Wikileaks? Don’t absolute transparency and information explosion offer the best possibility for camouflage? Secrets are so obvious today that we are no longer aware of them. These and many other issues are raised in the exhibition which is not geared to capturing invisible things or uncovering conspiracies but explicitly highlights the paradox that secrets are only secrets if they are communicated, yet disappear as soon as they are out. A joyful play with forms of disguise and a dense atmosphere of mystification subvert possible expectations on the part of the show’s visitors concerning explanations and definitions of the phenomenon of secret societies. Visitors will come upon ramifying paths, triangular wall arrangements, deceptive images, reflections, and optical delusions in a architecture of light and shadow which the Swiss artist Fabian Marti has specifically designed in the style of ruins of a city that never existed. Entering the spiritual world of secret societies, they will have to master strange rituals and initiations, decipher foreign codes and mysterious signs, and rely on themselves for establishing connections between their discoveries in order to reach the next stage of experiencing.

“Secret Societies. To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silence” is a co-production between the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt and the CAPC de Bordeaux. The show will be presented in the CAPC – musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux from November 10, 2011 until February 26, 2012. At the opening of the exhibition in the Schirn at 7 p.m. on June 22, 2011, the South African artist Mark Schreiber will present a sound performance for a floor work in the Rotunda conceived for the occasion.

CATALOGUE: Secret Societies. To Know, To Dare, To Will, To Keep Silence. Edited by Cristina Ricupero, Alexis Vaillant, and Max Hollein. With a preface by Max Hollein and Charlotte Laubard, and texts by Michael Bracewell, Ina Blom, Gary Lachman, and Jan Verwoert and a dialogue between Cristina Ricupero and Alexis Vaillant. German, French and English edition, ca. 256 pages, ca. 150 illustrations, Snoeck, Cologne 2011, ISBN 978-3-940953-82-7, c. 29,80 euros (Schirn) / c. 34,00 euros (trade edition),

PRESS OFFICE: Dorothea Apovnik (head Press/Public Relations), Markus Farr (press officer), Giannina Lisitano (press officer)

Image: Fabian Marti, Uhu, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Gallery Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

Press preview: Wednesday, June 22, 2011, 11 a.m.

Römerberg, D-60311 Frankfurt
OPENING HOURS: Tue, Fri–Sun 10 a.m.–7 p.m., Wed and Thur 10 a.m. –10 p.m
ADMISSION: 7 euros, reduced 5 euros, family ticket 14 euros, combination ticket also admitting to the exhibition “Francesco Clemente.
Palimpsest” 12 euros; free admission for children under eight.

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