Beyond the Darkness

Occult rituals meet techno raves as curator and Gothic high priestess Agnes Gryczkowska conjures up healing communities in Paris.

Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvoijic, Songs for living, 2021. Video still. © Korakrit Arunanondchai 2022

The diagnosis is both grim and familiar. Today’s world is more profane as well as more crisis-ridden, fragmented, and egotistical than it was just a few generations ago. We lead lives that tear us away from our shared history, from each other, and from the earth, and as our loneliness grows and ecosystems collapse, we lose the ability to feel ourselves. In other words, we need healing.

At Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, guest curator Agnes Gryczkowska prescribes a regimen of soft black magic and religious rituals from ancient and contemporary times to conjure up a new unifying force. The title of the exhibition, Au-delà, means “beyond” as well as “the hereafter,” pointing to that which comes after death, but also to that which sits outside the various categories we use to compartmentalise the world. Beyond cultural divides between religion and magic, between contemporary art and ancient artefacts, and between inner and outer worlds.

Au-delà is a ritual in itself, a kind of choreographed theatre performance in three acts in which viewers rise from the darkness at the bottom of Lafayette’s steel cube in the Marais, up towards the light and a rooftop view of Paris. The journey – or the transformation – is set in motion and accompanied all the way by American composer Kali Malone’s trance-inducing sound work, a synthesis of digital minimalism and organ music. At first, its impact is invasive, almost annoying. But as we move along the way, the music recedes into the background and becomes a kind of softly pumping heartbeat that drives us and the exhibition forward.

Bianca Bondi, Beltane Oracle, 2022-2023. Mixed media. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

In almost total darkness, the first two floors are illuminated here and there by powerful spotlights that make the works on display tremble with barely contained energy. In the middle, where the two floors are connected by a central atrium, South African artist Bianca Bondi’s pentagram of burnt wooden poles rises like a totem around which the rest of the show’s works form a ritual circle. The poles are tipped with crystal quartz purified with fire and the tears of a first-born daughter, while a landscape of salt, holy water, and mother’s milk spreads out around them. Referencing a Celtic tradition that marks the end of winter and of darkness, the work makes a strange occult impression.

Close to Bondi’s work we find two of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta works from 1978, which explore how Santeria can help restore broken connections between the female body and the earth. We also find the mystic Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Scivias (1151–52) – an illustrated manuscript describing her spiritual visions – side by side with a group of Cycladic idols: small marble statuettes of pregnant women presumably used in fertility rituals from around 2800–2300 BCE. More contemporary works revive the French queens buried in the crypt beneath the cathedral of Saint-Denis or examine the colonial scars reopened by Western museums’ collections of African artefacts. It’s a pretty mixed bag.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1970. Fibreglass, polyester resin, polyethylene, aluminium wire. Photo: Martin Argyroglo

Au-delà makes no petty distinctions between occultism, alchemy, natural healing, or more religious uses of rituals. It lets everything merge in a shared circular outlook on life in which metamorphosis is the path to society’s rebirth. Indeed, metamorphosis is the thematic focal point of the second chapter of the exhibition, where Ivana Bašić’s alien-like birth session meets Eva Hesse’s last work in which something resembling vulnerable amputated legs hangs from the ceiling like a cross between sausages and Stonehenge. The work was completed in 1970 by the artist’s assistants while Hesse was in hospital with a brain tumour that was to prove fatal.

After this rite of passage between birth and death, when we ascend to the venue’s top floor where panoramic windows open onto a view of grey Parisian rooftops, the light is overwhelming. Two large oil-and-sand paintings by Alicia Adamerovich stand in the room like living psychedelic landscapes in which delicate weightless structures are poised in a sci-fi-like space. Here we also find Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s ethereally beautiful video Songs for living (2021), deftly and confidently cutting between the trance-like dance of a techno party and ritual incantations around a fire, while Norwegian stave churches burn and inverted angels fall from skyscrapers.

As in classical theatre, the performance ends on a cathartic note, a liberation from modern society’s scientifically based tendency to fragment and separate things from each other in order to analyse the individual parts. Au-delà does the opposite, juxtaposing ancient occult rituals and contemporary subcultures, forging ties between art which represents and ritual objects which act in this or parallel worlds. The show points to ritual itself, to the sense of community that is central to all rituals and which makes us dance, cry, and feel our bodies and the earth, aware of our constant mutual exchange with the planet. From here, like Arunanondchai’s fallen angels, we can descend through the building again and out into the rain-soaked streets, cleansed and a little changed. Pay attention, Paris: there’s a new curator in town.

Alicia Adamerovich, Rising from earth, 2022. Oil and sand on canvas. Photo: Martin Argyroglo