On ViewMusée d’arts de Nantes
October 16, 2020 – June 20, 2021
Somewhere between dazzling and dangerous, a hypnotized human transcends the normal experience of volitional control, behaving without the experience of intentional will and without subsequent memory. This non-self-consciousness is induced in the subject by a lucid hypnotist through the power of suggestion. Correspondingly, the exhibition Hypnose (Hypnosis), curated by Pascal Rousseau for the Musée d’arts in Nantes, is a chronicle both compelling and comical. Although submerged in a stream of spiritual consciousness tied to artistic principles of universal connection, the exhibition also flirts with certain kitsch clichés, most notably the iconic hypnotic-disc that by spiraling supposedly sucks suggestible cerveaux down a somnambulist whirlpool.
In dealing with these contradictory altered states, Hypnose positions itself at the busy crossroads of a conceptual constellation that includes drugs, dance, trance, art history, kitsch, the history of psychology, fakery, film studies, and occultism. Aiming to fill a lacuna in the hegemonic record of modernism, Hypnose re-reads through the rippling prism of hypnosis the effects of such visual phenomena as focused attention, reduction in peripheral perception, and, most importantly, responsiveness to recommendation.
Bias disclosure: I evaluated hypnosis in a university context during my hippie phase, but even then it didn’t work on me. So I am a suspicious skeptic, and view hypnosis as an experience that operates mostly through the placebo effect: the Baphomet of psychoanalysis. While in Paris, Sigmund Freud observed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot work on hypnosis and hysteria at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in 1885 and briefly placed hypnosis in the psychoanalytic cache before quickly abandoning it as a diagnostic-therapeutic tool. However, its legacy does live on in the mysterious dynamics of transference and countertransference.
Regardless, for those, including me, interested in the aesthetic benefits of repetitious sensual overload in art and music, Hypnose is a plethora of information—too long neglected—on the power of repetition. Hunting for the hypnotic transcendence of volition, the show is organized into six thematic groups: “Le baquet de Mesmer” (Mesmer’s tub), “La vague des somnambules” (the wave of somnambulists), “La leçon de la Salpêtrière” (the lesson of Salpêtrière), “Les sommeils hypnotiques” (hypnotic sleep), “Psychedelia, and L’hypnose contemporaine” (contemporary hypnosis). While moving forward through history, Hypnose establishes this seductive cultural narrative of altered consciousness by interweaving works by well-known and unknown oddballs. Among them we find the Romantic spiritualist sculptor Théophile Bra in conversation with GRAV member Joël Stein, while Gustave Courbet, Matt Mullican, and trance-dancer Lina de Ferkel all put in appearances, as do others as various as Alain Séchas, Georges Moreau de Tours, Auguste Rodin, Marina Apollonio (creator of Spazio Ad Attivazione Cinetica 6B, 1966–2015), Fluxus artist Larry Miller, Erwin Wurm, choreographer Catherine Contour, Fritz Lang, and Rrose Sélavy (a.k.a. Marcel Duchamp).
But this extended meditation on the power of placebo begins with the disturbingly madcap myth of “animal magnetism,” invented by Swabian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer in the 18th century. Although Dr. Mesmer’s methods created a furor in the aristocratic circles of Paris, American ambassador Benjamin Franklin chaired a 1784 French Royal Commission which concluded that hypnosis’s power derives from the imagination, not animal magnetism. Indeed, Mesmer’s is a mesmerizing tale of the distortion of a divine visionary idea, corrupted by the superficiality of show business. This is made obvious in the anonymous aquatint Mesmer magnétisant une patiente (Mesmer magnetizing a patient, 1784), but Mesmer’s general theory—he described invisible energies modulating a universal fluid—nonetheless had an influence on Charcot’s experiments at Pitié-Salpêtrière. The mysticism of the mesmerizing trance was transformed into the quasi-science of hypnotism.
And these ideas continued to spread. Fin-de-siècle photographs of Lina de Ferkel’s dancing hypnotized body, apparently reacting to music automatically, free from social conventions, either exemplify a woman in ecstasy or acts of cliché dissimulation. With the hypnotic sleep of Surrealism, we find the richest vein of investigation, while the psychedelia section of the show is the lamest. I was particularly fascinated by the semi-automatic drawings of French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, like Discussion entre l’astronome et le toucan (Discussion between the astronomer and the toucan, 1922), and found myself captured by Salvador Dalí’s fascinating photomontage Le Phénomène de l’extase (The Phenomenon of Ecstasy, 1933). Psychedelia-wise, only nods to Brion Gysin’s and Ian Sommerville’s Dreamachine (1961), an early attempt, popularized by William S. Burroughs, to toss oneself into trance state for the purpose of creating art, were truly trippy. Most of Psychedelia was ordinary Op Art, and I am only bringing it up to point out it is not worth mentioning.
But all told, Hypnose is an appealing trip back through the rich heritage of one of psychology’s most fascinating research and therapeutic tools (especially for pain management). But Hypnose is more than an interesting study of the images of rituals, rites, and incantations handed down through the ages. It is also a survey of what psychologist Ernest Hilgard defined as “believed-in imagination”—to my mind still the best description of hypnosis’s enduring fascination.