Masters of Chaos

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  • Garden Gallery
  • Temporary exhibitions and twin tickets


  • Jean de Loisy, assisted by Sandra Adam-Couralet
  • Nanette Jacomijn Snoep, Head of the History collections at the musée du quai Branly


  • Bertrand Hell, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Franche-Comté

Some of the works exhibited may be unsuitable for viewing by sensitive or younger visitors.

exhibition preview

the exhibition


In most cultures, traditions depict opposing forces that compete for power over the universe, organise or disrupt social contracts, structure and deconstruct the individual, in a necessary and endless struggle. All order, including divine order, is fundamentally imperfect, limited and threatened with implosion. The awareness of chaos seems to be shared by all civilisation, as if disruptive forces were necessary to ensure the balance and continuity of the universe.

The exhibition is designed in three main sections; imperfect order, the mastery of chaos and catharsis and analyses the notion of chaos through different negotiation methods implemented to contain it.

The exhibition examines the figures representing chaos, each with a place in the pantheon of our beliefs and cultures: gods or spirits, from Dionysus to Set-Typhon, and to the technicians, shamans and other intercessors here called the "masters of chaos", who are responsible for the negotiations with the forces of chaos. In this permanent compromise between turbulence and reason, ritual is the favoured form for negotiation with the powers that govern human societies. In parallel with these sacred rituals, festivals, bacchanalia, carnivals or feasts of fools seem to be the other, more profane means of enabling an outburst of transgressive pulsions.

"Masters of Chaos" presents objects, costumes and representations from great anthropological collections but also the works of contemporary artists such as Annette Messager, Jean-Michel Alberola and Thomas Hirschhorn. 

exhibition overview

The exhibition is structured by three main sections: imperfect order, the mastery of chaos and catharsis. The installations by contemporary artists (Thomas Hirschhorn, Anne Charlotte Finel, Annette Messager, Jean-Michel Alberola etc.) which give a form of "legibility" to signs and behaviours that we thought ourselves to be free of, set the stage and lead into each themed room.

the chaos of the world



From the outset the swollen terrestrial globes of Outgrowth, a piece by Thomas Hirschhorn, give an overview of the disturbances of the world.


Death, suffering, natural disasters and wars are proof of the imperfection of the world and of the perceived impotence of the gods of established religions, their silence or their distance.

In response to this perceived powerlessness, transgressive "barrier breakers" appear at the margins of these divine pantheons. These figures include: Seth Typhon, Dionysus, the Western spirit of Thunder, Legba, etc. They are figures of destabilisation, they oppose insane immoderation to order governed by reason, they introduce confusion within the sequence of rules and the human condition. As the embodiment of movement and escape from social frameworks, they reveal a generative chaos as it struggles against the confinement of systems.

Their recurrence in most traditions highlights the indispensability of chaos in order to set the world in motion. A fundamental ambivalence: this chaos maintains the order of the world.


The exhibition features a genuine vodun altar, activated especially for the exhibition by a Togolese "Witchdoctor of laughter" priest. Made of wood, mud, rusted iron, bone, blood and other unprepossessing materials, it is ephemeral and belongs to the nomadic world. When activated, it sets forces in motion and allows communication with the spirits.

mastering chaos


Ritual is the favoured mode of communication with the figures of chaos. It is celebrated in order to deal with the powers that preside over human societies. They are an effort to master misfortune or personal, social or ecological instabilities and have the sole aim of achieving social harmony and the maintenance of natural regularity.

In most animist systems agents of misfortune are creatures from another world; an intercessor, a specialist of the supernatural, is needed to mediate between the two extremes. They negotiate with their allies, multifaceted spirits of changing nature, anthropomorphic genies or avatars of gods and prestigious ancestors.


Liminal characters, they are by definition marginal. They straddle the separations between worlds that are usually dissociated:  masculine and feminine, the world of the living and the dead, of animals and humans. They are not elected but appointed by the other world, and after a training period, they become initiates, capable of performing the gruelling negotiations needed to transact with spirits.

Their control over the forces allows the "masters of chaos" to heal and thus to exorcise, protect, enchant or disenchant, predict or describe the troubles causing misfortunes, but in any case, their role is to redress the cosmic imbalances at the root of environmental, psychological or human disturbances.


Some margin-men are set apart by their condition as clowns:  these are the ritual buffoons of North America, who have counterparts in Africa and sometimes in Oceania. Such clowns do not simply provide amusement:  they represent the trickster heroes. The role of these ceremonial buffoons is to materialise the censored, the silenced, the repressed.


These journeys enable the intercessor to negotiate with the celestial or underground spirits. Magical flights, rituals involving the ascent of ladders, cosmic trees or poles, ecstatic levitation experiences, but also journeys at the bottom of the sea on the back of a fish, under the ground with an ant or on the back of a flying animal… the masters of chaos are technicians of the difficult transition through the deep space abyss that separates us from the spirit world. Some of the vehicles used by cosmic travellers will be exhibited: seats, a Mapuche ladder, Buryat horse-head sticks, drums, etc.

Used in many different cultures, psychotropic substances open the gateway to the spirits, initiate communication and allow great soul mobility. A series of Taino objects, inhalers, pestles, spoons, cohoba plates and emetic spatulas will illustrate this practice in the Greater Antilles.

Over the last few years, considerable interest in neo-shamanism has developed, in relation with the "New Age" movement and the traditional use of psychotropic substances (Ayahuasca, Peyote or Iboga).

To evoke this movement, a large glass sculpture by the artists Berdaguer & Péjus plunge the spectator into a "Garden of addiction"; interlaced giant vials of perfumes, scents of different substances (alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, opium, etc.) all responsible for a state of dependency in humans.


The "Master of chaos" practises an oral, theatrical art. In certain regions, he must take on animal shape for hunting, healing or journeys. Through song, sound, psychotropic substances, masks or even simple concentration, his body opens to the other world. His communication with the overworld is demonstrated by this transformation. The animal costume that he wears is not a mere disguise:  it shows the shaman's ability to ascend to the various worlds inhabited by the spirits. This "ensavagement", this zoomorphism, is a fundamental basis for a number of societies whose cultures challenge the distinction between kingdoms. In these cases the role of spirit helpers is essential. They are the alter egos or the media of temporary incarnation for "margin-men" who can turn into animal spirits  such as fish, birds, reindeer or whales.

Linocuts by Picasso (self-portraits of the artist as a faun) and a video by contemporary artist Chloe Piene echo the animist metamorphosis rituals by evoking, in various stages, the mental process undergone by the artist during his transformation as he unleashes his animal nature.


In order to negotiate with the spirits, the manufacture and manipulation of various objects as receptacles for this cosmic force are necessary.

This section introduces the visitor to a great "jumble", mixing, in apparent confusion, the elements required to activate the forces in various cultures: sticks, bowls, magic books, rattles, statuettes, etc.


Cosmic chaos is mirrored in individual chaos, as evidenced, amongst other things, by sickness. This section contains African and European objects that suggest this state of the "grotesque" - that is, bodies deformed by various afflictions.


The notion of exorcism is used to counteract sickness, as shown in the exhibition through the Sri Lankan rite of exorcism. The cause of disturbance must be located in Order to be expelled, thereby restoring the well being of the patient and returning him to "normal". Dancing my Cancer by Anna Halprin, which is on display here, shows the artist making a conjuration performance of her own sickness.

in the words of initiates

At the centre of the exhibition, "contemporary masters of chaos" from different cultures that are still living today, interviewed by Bertrand Hell and other ethnologists, comment on the different themes of the exhibition. The results of careful collection, their lively and powerful spoken accounts are presented in a "Shaman Tree" whose 14 branches each bear a video screen devoted to a particular cultural area: Mexico (Huichols), Morocco (Gnawa), Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Amazon, Siberia etc.


If work and the passing days maintain the world order, the unleashing of the body in the excitement of celebration marks the time when this order is suspended. Such excesses are necessary for the renewal of nature or society; all that exists is thus rejuvenated, and the waning of the sacred in particular, expressed as it is through taboos and atonements, is made bearable again by these purges.


The trance is a sacrificial time. The animalised body of the possessed is given as an offering to supernature. It can undergo metamorphoses, come to life as fragments of a collective myth. The chaos of his body attests to the reality of the trance. Moved by the dramatisation organised by the initiate, carried by the music, he reaches another level of perception as a participant in a collective ritual, or as the subject of an individual endeavour designed to cure him.

Two examples, taken in southern Italy and Haiti, allow the viewers to identify the importance given to the unleashing of the body not merely as an hysterical impulse but, more importantly, as a controlled occurrence from beginning to end within its social function. Frenetic dancing is a cathartic performance.


Collective excesses, ritualised practices that cause a reversal of roles, evocations of a world seized by chaos; all of them belong to ancient folk tradition. From Babylonian Sacaeas, Bacchanalias, to feasts of fools in the Middle Ages, calendar holidays and various carnivals, transformed over the course of centuries and in different parts of the world, all testify to a transgression mechanism transferred gradually from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane.


In our secular world, the new "masters of chaos" are the actors and artists who disrupt the conventions that surround us. The space devoted to this topic is entrusted to artist Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux, his task being to organise and develop a form of chaos through various installations created by contemporary artists. This installation will be erected as a carnival float, bringing together the "brotherhood" of artists who deride society.

The exhibition ends with the screening of the Quarta-Feira de Cinzas/Epilogue video, created by Brazilian artists Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes: at the close of what could have been a carnival, ants carry off multi-coloured confetti one by one, in a ballet-like motion resembling a waste recycling chain. The party is over.

the scenography

The scenography, designed by the Jakob+MacFarlane agency for the occasion of the Masters of Chaos exhibition, outlines a large tubular space subdivided into cells, which present the different artistic themes. This space then becomes a system, into which the visitor will be projected and immersed before being ejected from it at the end of the exhibition. It is a genuine experiment and initiation for the public, along a path of discovery. The scenography emphasises the different sections, sets the rhythm for the visitor's discovery of the objects and creates a dynamic development that leads the visitor and moves them through an open circuit floating outside time and space. This is an initiatory journey that invites the spectator to explore the various themes and to undergo a self-transformation as they progress through the exhibition. This mutation is made possible not only by the conceptual content of the exhibition but also by the scenography.

More about the Jakob+MacFarlane agency

travelling exhibition

The exhibition will be presented at the Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Bonn, Germany) from 31st August to 2nd December 2012 and at the  Fundació "la Caixa" (Madrid, Spain) from 7th February to 19th May 2013.

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