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Musée du Quai Branly: Objet d’art

Disorder reigns at the anthropology museum in Paris.

On the Left Bank of the Seine sits a curiously assembled museum in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. One side of the elongated building projects a row of large coloured blocks out towards the river; another façade is covered in a lush vertical garden by the botanist Patrick Blanc. Inside, parts of the Musée du Quai Branly could suit a David Lynch film – the lofty interior, in shades of red, is divided by curtains, curved walls and mezzanines. This anthropology museum was designed by the superstar architect Jean Nouvel and opened six years ago, yet many of the objects in its 300,000-piece collection are older than Gaul.

If the title “Masters of Chaos” is oxymoronic, then so is the achievement of the Quai Branly’s new exhibition: presenting profane and primordial art with much sophistication. To demonstrate mankind’s enduring struggle between order and chaos, the show integrates work from 20 international artists with 300 ethnological objects. From a marble Dionysus and 19th-century Congolese ceremony robes, to Native American tambourines and a Sri Lankan exorcism mask, the artefacts reveal the sheer wildness and weirdness of human ritual throughout the ages.

The objects are gathered in model installations around the contemporary pieces: evoking the sacred and sexual, Annette Messager draws works on the body, Anna Halprin hails the monstrous. Artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Thomas Hirschhorn explore themes of savagery and psychonautics. Many of these costumes, carvings and videos are disturbing – they’re recognisably manmade but guttural, of the elements.

Bertrand Hell, an anthropologist and the show’s scientific adviser, only agreed to take on the project (and donate the title, Les maîtres du désordre, from a book of his) if a shaman – a true "guide of chaos" – could participate. Hence the talisman at the entrance, activated by Aze Kokovivina, a voodoo priest from Togo.

With each artefact speaking of a single civilisation, the display can be disorienting. It is, however, largely cohesive thanks to the scenography of Jakob + MacFarlane, which guides the viewer through a white cave-like structure of steel bars covered in rough drywall that divides and shapes the exhibition spaces. Both organic in form yet obviously constructed, the architecture is a great success. Sometimes demonic and often unsettling, much about “Masters of Chaos” should alienate. But with a few steps back, there’s just enough order to the chaos.

  • Runs until 29 July 2012
  • musée du quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food