In Praise of the Spooky: Why I Like Quai Branly – Graham Harman

The Musée du Quai Branly opened in 2006 in Paris: a red Lego warehouse suspended in midair, with the nearby Eiffel Tower rising above the neighboring apartment houses. The Museum was built to house non-Western artworks previously scattered throughout the city, not without protest from the curators of their former homes. The masses have quickly embraced Quai Branly; the ticket queues are daunting enough that I abandoned my first effort to visit and returned the following day. Predictably, the mass appeal of the Museum is explained by many critics as the result of vulgar theatrics and intellectual emptiness. True enough, there are numerous cases of popular success where such charges are richly deserved. But in the present case, I find myself on the side of the masses, and opposed to the joyless subtlety of those who believe that the sole function of the intellect is to make the world more complicated and boring.

One such person is Michael Kimmelman, who gave Quai Branly a sour review in the July 2, 2006 issue of the New York Times. Alongside the innuendo that the Museum was built mostly to serve the personal vanity of Jacques Chirac, and the moralizing pose that the reviewer is offended by the Museum’s supposed racist condescension, Kimmelman does make several objections of a greater interest. He calls Branly “a spooky jungle, red and black and murky.” It is “an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness.” Worse yet, “the atmosphere is like a discotheque at 10 A.M.” But the ultimate sin is that Quai Branly places side-by-side such diverse entities as “Vietnamese textiles… contemporary Aboriginal paintings… pre-Columbian pottery… Sioux warrior tunics… and Huron wampum.” I have chosen these criticisms in particular because all are entirely true, yet all should be viewed as selling points rather than as the grievous faults that the reviewer imagines. The general idea of the reviewer is apparently that the atmosphere should be less mysterious, and that the objects in the Museum need a heavier apparatus of historical and economic context. But not only would this ruin the effect of Branly— it already ruins many existing museums whose objects would be better served if they were changed without delay into the equivalent of “scary masks and totem poles looming out of the darkness.” Indeed, I believe that only the Scary Mask Effect is likely to keep museums relevant in the future. Like discotheques, amusement parks, and videogames, but also like the best works of literature, science, and philosophy, Quai Branly succeeds precisely by liberating objects from their context. I will now give a brief description of the Museum, concluding with a plea that “the priests of contextualization” (as Museum President Stéphane Martin delightfully describes them) be exiled from the arts as quickly as I hope to see them banished from philosophy.

After a long wait for tickets and a fairly rigorous security check, the visitor to Branly immediately encounters a preview of the larger collection. A glass display case in the lobby holds various non-Western musical instruments, arranged less like museum pieces than like freight in a Dutch merchant ship— yet somehow, this evokes material abundance rather than colonial abuses. One also immediately senses the musical style of the Museum. Instead of discrete recordings activated by push-button and introduced by learned commentary, the builders of Branly have converted ethnic music into ambient music. Every point in the Museum is dominated by some muffled strain of tribal horns, drums, or xylophones. At times, this music is bizarre enough to compel actual physical movement toward its source.

Entry to the main collection occurs via a lengthy, rising, serpentine pathway that seems to eat up a bit too much space, though the eventual “red and black and spooky” main collection area is large enough to fill a lengthy visit. A multitude of display cases, labeled with tasteful minimalism, contain all manner of textiles, clothing, amulets, and figurines. But the highlight of the collection, for me at least, were the scary masks and scary musical instruments. There are dance-masks fringed with string and topped with stunted rabbit ears. There are forest spirits, their faces decorated with feathers and hay. There are jagged-tooth seal faces worn by Inuit shamans, along with the better-known Kwakiutl masks of the Alaskan Peninsula: octopus, sea-raven, and other creatures of the North Pacific. One also finds the remarkable mask of a snake, whose usual winding land-bound form is converted into a vertical straight line extending from the top of the head. The easy criticism of this scattered collection (and the Times takes the easy road here) is to claim that the masks of so many diverse cultures from vastly disparate landscapes belong together only if unified by condescending imperialists under the arrogant label of “The Other.” If this is true, it is due only to a technicality: after all, Quai Branly’s mission is to serve as a museum of non-Western art, and by definition this means lumping all non-Western cultures together. The only conceivable remedies would be to open countless sub-museums across Paris for all individual cultures, or to add spooky Western or Japanese artifacts to the Branly collection as well. Yet both options are ruled out for practical and thematic reasons, rather than arrogant colonialist ones.

But aside from the scope of the mask collection, let’s consider its effect on the visitor. Nothing is more frightening or empowering than a mask. Children gain new self-confidence, or a new violence and depth of evil, when changed by masks into Spiderman, a mummy, or a rabid dog. Even animals can be strangely aroused by masks, a fact I learned through disturbing personal experience. One Halloween during my adult life, I attended a costume party wearing a horrifying zebra mask, molded in the plastic factories of a failed African state now descended into bloody unrest. The jawbone gave vague suggestions of paralysis, while the eye-holes were surrounded with smoky black highlights that made the zebra seem newly risen from the grave. Combined with black turtleneck and black pants covered with white adhesive tape stripes, and an irrelevant but frightening pair of cowbells thrown around my neck, this costume earned first prize at the party, and the admiration of many. More importantly, it later almost caused me to be injured by my parents’ pet dogs. Though I have enjoyed years of warm friendship with their brilliant fox terrier and retriever, this did not protect me from the blind rage unleashed in both dogs by the sight of the zebra mask. Finding it one day in my parents’ spare room, I decided to relive old times by wearing the mask once more. Even though just minutes earlier I had been petting and praising the two dogs, placing the mask on my head was enough to transform me, in their eyes, into some demonic creature of the underworld. The terrier barked rapidly and desperately as if faced with a mortal threat, while the retriever eventually leapt into the air with bared teeth and knocked the mask from my face.

For almost all living creatures, the face is a small percentage of total bodily volume. Yet the face contains a disproportionate sum of the effect each human and non-human creature has on us. When approaching friends or strangers, only a lewd pick-up artist is likely to stare at the hips, the thighs, or the chest. The face is where we look for meaning, and where we first try to decipher the codes that place each person in a context for us: I never see an abstract physical face, but the face of my boss, disciple, lover, rival, fellow citizen, pompous official, or threatening criminal. Each of these human roles participates in a context of meaning. What we normally observe is not the sheer physical features of any given face, but a total human network of friendship, deceit, or domination. Even when confronting wild animals or coral marine life, we look to the face for signs of harmlessness or lethal danger. This too involves a context, a system of safety and danger for our own precious lives. By contrast, a mask strips a face from all context. By distorting the usual proportions of eyes and lips, or by adding frivolous bells, strings, and ribbons to the usual straightforward meaning of a face, it becomes an art object irreducible to the power plays and consignment of roles in which human and animal life unfolds. To wear a mask is to become a supernatural creature able to charm humans and terrify domestic dogs. If natural faces sometimes have this effect too, whether in unusually beautiful or pitifully deformed human faces, or in the motley visage of certain fish and birds, this simply tells us that some faces are naturally mask-like. Indeed, the face of an animal is always somewhat like a mask, since by definition animals belong to a forbidden zone beyond the contexts that turn human faces and bodies into carriers of so much cultural meaning. To document an exhibit of masks with volumes of cultural data, as the New York Times recommends, is to deaden their horror and fascination in favor of various wordy theories as to the reasons for their origin. Which is more colonialist: to assemble all scary masks from all parts of the world? Or to kidnap the aesthetic allure of masks and bring them back into the fold of bureaucratic commentary, each imprisoned in its own specific cultural context? In the context of Quai Branly, to weigh down an octopus mask with ethnographic data is no more interesting than to reduce Shakespeare’s witches to Elizabethan cultural quirks. If this is what scholars must do, it is not clear that museums should do it as well.

The music of Branly is an even clearer case of objects stripped from context. It is hard to imagine the life of a deaf person. I would dearly miss the allure of bird calls, calls to prayer, whispered voices over the telephone, and even the jarring blows of Cairo taxi horns. But above all, like most humans, I would miss music. Only in rare avant garde cases does music contain actual real-life sounds. For the most part, music is sound stripped of its relation to practical artifacts and everyday dangers. The largest percentage of sounds that we hear, as city-dwellers, is of human origin: our ears are dominated by human voices flattering or commanding us, and by the sounds of human-built machines. For this reason, animal sounds already have a kind of aesthetic effect, since most of us no longer inhabit a world where animals present significant dangers or direct practical benefits. There is something musical in the voices of sheep, even more so in the case of whales, and also something musical or animalesque in the voices of opera divas or melodious telephone friends. The magic of musical instruments lies in their capacity to generate sound divorced from context, whereas the sounds of cars and other machines remains too attached in our minds to the use we make of these machines. But even the sounds of machines can become musical under the right conditions, such as the rumble of washing machines and the hum of factory turbines—a fact nicely exploited by so-called techno and industrial dance music.

The musical atmosphere of Quai Branly could hardly be less “interactive.” We are not asked when and where we wish to hear recordings of traditional African or Oceanic ceremonial tunes. The music is already there, muffled in the darkness, and there are no buttons to give us any control. In many cases, the actual instruments responsible for the music lie before us in a glass case, motionless. Unlike the gimmicky House on the Rock Museum in Wisconsin, the strings of guitars and bellows of accordions are not set into motion before our eyes to produce the sound. Instead, the sound and the instrument lie before us simultaneously, but without any causal relationship. Just as normal music removes sound from all context by stripping it of any human meaning, the added gesture of placing the motionless instrument before us strips the instrument away from its normal use as a sound generator, and turns it into a mysterious physical bulk. In other words, the musical instrument becomes a mask. The same is true for the textiles, voodoo dolls, and other objects scattered throughout the Museum. Scholarly documentation is never absent, but is always tucked away in some corner where it does not interfere with the objecthood of masks or totem poles.

According to Kimmelman’s review in the Times, the point of objects is that each person can assign his or her own unique interpretation to each of them. Since this is what constantly happens in everyday life, it is hard to see why art, or a museum, needs to be established for this purpose. The central intellectual dogma of our time is the notion that solid, discrete objects do not really exist, and that everything should be seen instead as part of a seamless web of interactive meanings. But in fact, this sort of boring holism is nothing but the starting point of everyday practical life, in which it is often difficult to detach things from each other or draw exact boundaries between them. Holism is a basic condition of life, just like mosquitoes or headaches, and one must cope with its complexities. Nonetheless, all of our creative labors tend in the opposite direction: all human effort is object-oriented, and aims to create objects that stand apart from us with a kind of unique integrity. To establish the Constitution of a government requires negotiation and compromise, but once completed it is a freestanding force able to exert its weight no less than individual humans—a force that must be dealt with and respected even when we try to modify the document. Science proceeds by way of numerous complicated tests and false starts, but its end result is an object (quarks, electromagnetic waves) regarded as durable beneath all the shimmering surface-effects that it generates. Artworks break free from the history of their production, and create fascination even when shipped through distant continents or centuries, or moved into contexts where their theological assumptions are no longer valid: Dante is not a meaningless poet to a resident of Tokyo in 2006, or of a colony on Mars in 2405. By the same token, I do not need reams of ethnographic data to appreciate a squid-mask from Polynesia. Anthropologists may be able to specify the mask as a ceremonial or nuptial object and thereby create a breakthrough in Polynesian Studies, but this need not affect its status as an aesthetic object for the casual museum visitor. Amusement park rides (and the newest rides are of an almost inhumane terror) strip human movement from its usual practical context and change it into pure upside-down rotation or rapid backwards spiraling, just as Euclidean geometry turns the complex and culturally coded Egyptian Delta into an equilateral triangle. Videogames, which find increasingly serious uses every year, reduce the complexities of human life to a half dozen basic motor functions: walk, run, jump, shoot, kick, die. To simplify human action in this way is to turn it into an object, a set of basic skills cut off from the confusing environment in which they are utilized.

To create a model of anything is to simplify all the confusions of its context, defining it as an object with certain known and mysterious properties, independent of all relations with other things. This is something that the Quai Branly collection does wonderfully. To accuse the Museum of converting objects into scary masks is as useless as accusing Einstein of converting our subtle, highly contextual physical world into the vulgar theater of scary light and scary gravity. This is what the mind is for. Human activity discovers or creates objects, and objects, in part, always resist their context— even when they are created by it.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: two on-line articles moved « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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