Joachim Koester: To navigate, in a genuine way, in the unknown…

By: Evan Smith

MIT List Visual Arts Center • Cambridge, MA • • Through July 8, 2012

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2008, 16,, black-and-white film loop.

Danish-born, New York-based Joachim Koester works primarily in film, photography, and installation, though these visual forms often act as a supplement to his written texts: the product of intense, subjective research into various obscure histories. Philosophy, anthropology, Utopianism, drugs, and mysticism all spark Koester’s interest and come together to create an alternative narrative to the Western notion of progress, a kind of history of unrest in the cultural consciousness.

Permeating the exhibition is the sensation of having arrived too late. In his research, Koester often investigates once-active sites of creative production or cultural experimentation. 1 + 1 + 1 is a two-channel film shot in the ruined Italian villa of magician (or thought-leader, or fraud) Aleister Crowley and his initiates. I am myself only a receiving apparatus was filmed inside a reconstruction of Merzbau, Kurt Schwitter’s bizarre domestic sculptural installation that originally stood in prewar Hanover, Germany. In each work, a solitary figure moves through these dormant spaces, attempting through ritual action to exorcize whatever epiphanies were formed and lost there.

Koester’s perspective is usually from the periphery; he’s the interlocutor, unable to reach back to what was being attempted at the site of interest. In The Kant Walks, Koester recreates Emmanuel Kant’s daily walks through the German town Königsberg, now the Russian city of Kaliningrad. Comparing his own photographs to historical documents, Koester observes the political, geographic, and psychological changes at work over time.

The technique of reenactment is also found in Tarantism, a film loop of performers in the throes of Tarantella, a frenzied Southern Italian folk dance once believed to ward off the effects of the tarantula’s bite. The camerawork is restrained, slowly panning in a tight crop across the convulsing dancers. Removed from their context, without sound, the movements feel both primordial and contemporary. Again, Koester occupies past and present simultaneously in an attempt to draw out some basic common truth.

About his film based on damaged negatives from a failed arctic expedition, Koester wrote, “most historians of the expedition have ignored this layer of ‘visual noise.’ I, on the other hand, have made it my focus.” This interest in the marginal, the coincidental, the seemingly disconnected charges much of Koester’s work and makes it fascinating. Similarly, the combined works form a heavily enmeshed constellation of ideas. Curator João Ribas’s dense installation reflects this, drawing connections across Koester’s broad index of references.

—Evan Smith

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