Joachim Koester, a Danish artist featured in the latest show at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, is interested in the unknown. Not just “known unknowns,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s unfairly maligned formulation, but those blastedly elusive “unknown unknowns,” too. (The problem for Rumsfeld was not that his idea didn’t make sense. It was that it was articulated by a man refusing to accept that he was being overwhelmed by unknown unknowns.)
But to get back to known knowns: Koester was born in Copenhagen in 1976. His show at the List, “To Navigate, in
a Genuine Way, in the Unknown . . . ,” is not, unfortunately, an easy exhibition to get one’s head around. It amounts to a partial and private meditation on the history of human attempts to plumb life’s mysteries, the more oblique, cultish, and esoteric the better.
To get anything out of it, you must spend by far the majority of your time in the exhibition reading texts. As a result, Koester comes across more as an enthusiastic researcher — a bookish mole digging deeper and deeper into the dark, moist soil of his obsession — than an artist, per se.
His interests range from Immanuel Kant to Carlos Castaneda, and he has a distinct preference for counter-cultural manifestations of “knowledge.” The subjects of his researches also include Copenhagen’s famous commune Kristiania; Barker Ranch, the home of Charles Manson and his family; the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; and John Dee, the 16th-century astrologer, scientist, and bibliophile, as well as his “medium,” John Kelly.
The problem with the show is that, for the most part, we, the audience — no matter how intrigued we may be by the material — remain mired in the stacks, so to speak. Koester’s efforts almost never achieve the buoyancy required to become their own thing, rather than a series of intriguingly illustrated Wikipedia entries.
One navigates the exhibition not, as Koester would have it, “in a genuine way,” but with the distraction of endless and intrusive parsing in the form of Koester’s texts, most of which run to 400-600 words, all of them densely packed with names and dates.
In many cases, these texts are supposed to shed light on a single, unprepossessing photograph. They do and they don’t.
But there is one work in the show that struck me as an unqualified success: a 6½-minute, black-and-white film called “Tarantism.” It’s played on a continuous loop, and it’s riveting.
Koester’s accompanying text gives us the background: “Tarantism is a condition in Southern Italy resulting from the bite of the wolf spider, known as the tarantula.” Symptoms include nausea, delirium, and bodily convulsions “that previously could be cured by a sort of frenzied dancing.”
“This dancing-cure, called the Tarantella,” the artist continues, “emerged during the Middle Ages as a local phenomenon.” It later developed into a highly stylized dance for couples.
Koester’s interest remains with the original idea of a frenzied, spasmodic, uncoordinated, but potentially curative dance. And so he filmed a group of dancers performing the dance — which is not a dance so much as an exploration, by turns fascinating and disturbing, of the body’s limits. We see men and women going into high-speed convulsive shakes, sometimes alone, and sometimes in groups, occasionally writhing on the floor, before abruptly stopping and resuming their normal postures.
Koester claims to have structured the film “around six individually choreographed parts, each defined by a different set of rules.” No further explanation is given, but the result is a strangely ordered effect of physical and psychic alternation — from delirium to normality and back again.
The footage, shot on 16mm film, is beautiful with its textured grays and artfully cropped close-ups showing bodies blurred by their own tremors. It’s impossible not to feel hypnotized even as one wants to look away, hoping not to be sucked into the “madness,” the loss of control, the alluring unknown.
For that is Koester’s interest. He sees his orchestration of this frenzied dance as a “platform for a journey toward the ‘terra incognita’ of the body.”
I thought, as I read this arresting phrase, of Saul Bellow’s description in “The Adventures of Augie March” of the “immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze.” Koester’s theme, in other words, is a great one. It runs throughout art and literature and especially, of course, religion: the great unknowability of other people, of ourselves, of what lies beyond us.
He is interested particularly in those aspects of the theme that seem to take extreme, high temperature forms, and hints at the idea that this kind of extremity might be the only valid way to respond to the profound and disorienting lure of the unknown.
In “Tarantism,” Koester touches powerfully — and wordlessly — on all this as it relates to the body: the idea of physically letting go, succumbing, yielding to the unknown. Inevitably, there is a sexual component to it all.
Unfortunately, in most of the rest of the show, he keeps us bogged down in words.