This is a fair warning and confession: I am not the bravest person as far as the “horror” genre or at the very least the uncanny is concerned. The latest embarrassing example dates from just this Halloween when I finally decided that one of the oldest horror films of all time, Nosferatu by Fritz Lang, could hardly faze me as much as, say, the trailer for The Woman in Black. I subsequently slept fitfully without being able to get the 1920s vampiric visuals out of my mind.
All the same, despite my much-mocked inability to sit through The Exorcist, I am convinced that the exhibition Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been one of the most disturbing exhibition experiences of the year, with a creeping sense of unease which could be felt within visitors all around. The fact that the range of the unsettling varied from a computer programme to a ouija board as well as a 19th century wax anatomic model followed by a robotic gesticulating statue of a Buddha also makes it one of the best interdisciplinary exhibitions I have seen this year. Its blend of anthropological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, popular culture and historical documents make it a stunning and bizarre exploration into what makes us animate entities and most important, how this status can encompass a variety of other objects, such as machines, objects of devotion and artworks.
The exhibition requires an attentive ear and at the very least an open-minded spirit, since from the onset it pulls us into strange new territories about personhood and presence, starting with hallucinations and invisibility, macrocosms and microcosms. What does it mean to exist? Can people exist while being minuscule or invisible? The selection becomes slightly odd at times, with for instance the juxtaposition of a video of a “flea circus” next to a NASA video of infinite space. However, the exhibition never forgets its roots at the centre of the permanent display of the Quai Branly, letting the artifacts from African, Asian, Latin American and Oceanian countries and cultures speak most eloquently about the fragile line between inanimate objects and receptacles for spirits and souls. Most importantly, these objects and their relation to presence, hallucinations, spirits and the relation to the animate is never condescending or a prop for a point. Roseline de Thélin’s Man Homo Luminoso (2015) made of optic fibers, above, talks to Ernst’s the temptations of Saint-Anthony, a BBC documentary on hallucinations following sensory deprivation, and an Oceanian mask.
The exhibition manages to skillfully tie in our fascination with spiritualism and detecting the invisible presences around us with the fascination in creating or imagining this artificial presence through robots both fictional and imaginary. A display of Edison’s documents on a machine capturing the frequencies of ghosts leads to a showcase of chilling ghost-hunting equipment (including a medium hand with a broken index found next to the body of the medium show-runner ‘s husband and a revolver), and Artaud’s “Radio Momo” – a contraption by Jean-Jacques Lebel involving a real skull, a radio and antennaes to capture the dead playwright’s presence. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sings in a screening in the background while we interact with ELIZA, one of the first artificial intelligence program from the 60s. By this stage, it is sufficient to say that everyone is understandably spooked, but the exhibition decides to take it up a notch with the uncanny valley corridor, a true horror-trove exploring how and why we express disgust and fear when an inanimate object resembles an animate body too much, but without the spark and soul of life, including robots, sugar skulls and theatre puppets. Moving onto the sole question of robots veers into bizarre, amusing and often oddly sexual territory concerning attraction, companionship and increasingly hybrid organisms.
If the exhibition would have a main advantage and drawback, is that it addressed such a vast range of subjects and concepts that I immediately wanted to write down everything and read anything on the subject as soon as I left. However it also means it was quite wordy and also had the ambition of sifting through millenia of anthropology, art and history around personhood and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, this exhibition is haunting in more ways than one: much the content it addresses is intentionally conceived to disturb and subvert our traditional concepts of personhood and asks open-ended question which we may only be able to answer in a century, with nothing to calm the existential dread about a robot takeover in the meantime. However, asking these questions forces us to shine a light upon our perception of what it means to be a person, altering our vision of the world and placing us in a strange space between the supernatural and the factual, wonder and understanding. Beyond the spiritualism and science-fiction undertones, we are face to face with our own limitations and potential as living, thinking, feeling entities. And I’m left with a few Pink Floyd lyrics:
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?