Auto Assimilation

“Get comfortable”; “close your eyes”, says a deep, soothing voice in the opening seconds of Drifting through Passaic (2016) – a hypnogogic headphone audio work installed with padded beds and fleeced blankets, intended to soften and stupefy the visitor. Overdubbed by the sound of plummeting water, the narrator starts to read from Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967), describing “six large pipes” on the bank, “flooding the river with liquid smoke”. In the same room, opposite the audio installation, a film is projected, titled Maybe one must begin with some particular places (2012), featuring a dancer twisting and furling, as if moved by an eddying current. The viewer leaves this room and continues the rest of the exhibition feeling buoyant, somewhere between awake and sleeping, indeed, somewhere between the limits of the body and the space around it.

Joachim Koester’s exposition at the Camden Arts Centre, London, shows how the body and mind assimilate with the space and time they inhabit, often without intention or even realisation. What connects this exhibition that references Smithson, praying mantises and the Wild West at first appears dauntingly incongruous but each work is unified by the revelation that space and time are never neutral.

Morning of the Magicians (2005) – three photographs from a ten part series – captures images of the Abbey of Thelma, a villa in Cefalu, Sicily, previously inhabited by the occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) in the early 1920s. The cult’s orgies and drug use were well reported but Crowley gained lasting infamy when a devotee died there of enteric fever. Despite the dull colours and lack of human presence, even nearly a century later, Koester’s pictures project something of the aura of the figure newspapers of the 1920s dubbed The Wickedest Man in the World. A shot taken high up on the hill shows a stark comparison between the town’s plush, new seaside apartments and the crumbling, graffitied remnants of the “Abbey.” It seems, the ghost of the devilish Crowley even manages to scare the property developers away.

If Morning of the Magicians demonstrates a body may be felt even if it’s not present, conversely, this exhibition’s exploration of animal camouflage shows an insect can be invisible in plain sight. In the Reading Room, curator and writer Yann Chateigné Tytelman compiled a variety of texts, as well as video and audio work, under the title Lepidoptera Lodge, investigating how creatures mimic their environment. The mantis, as Roger Caillois writes, simulates the rainforest with legs that look like leaves, which they gentle sway to imitate the force of the wind. In conjunction with Tytelman’s installation, Koester presents a shallow focus film, Ghost Mantis (2016), which, while it reveals the insect’s camouflage, also clouds the jungle behind; thus, the camera itself facilitates an act of dissimulation not unlike the mantis’.

Throughout history, the movie camera and other technology have determined how its users intuit space and time. As Don Ihde says, who is quoted in the copy of Donna J Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007) in the Reading Room, “Insofar as I use or employ a technology, I am used by and employed by that technology as well. We are bodies of technology.” This show presents two videos that employ dancers to interpret the effect of the advent of film in the early twentieth century. Maybe this act, this work, this thing (2016) observes vaudeville performers mimicking the mechanics of the projector, representing the moment when cinema replaced theatre as the popular site of entertainment. The second film, The Place of Dead Roads (2013), is a pastiche of a western, a film genre as old as cinema itself. Performers enact pistol duels, and similar to Maybe this act…, their bodies repeatedly convulse, as if involuntary controlled by the impulse of technology.

Both films are exhibited in rooms walled with planks of fragrant wood. At first, it’s over-powering and then after some time, the nose accustoms and the smell becomes imperceptible. Unnervingly, the viewer assimilates with the gallery as involuntarily as the vaudevilles to cinema. From hypnotic meditations to haunted houses, this exhibition, aptly titled In the Face of Overwhelming Forces, shows that while the body and mind may appear to be in blissful harmony with the space and time they inhabit, Koester’s disturbing suggestion is that the latter exerts exacting control over the former.

Henry Broome

Joachim Koester: In the Face of Overwhelming Forces, Camden Art Centre, London, until 26 March. For more information:

1. Installation view of Joachim Koester In the Face of Overwhelming Forces, Camden Arts Centre, 2017, Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.