Why do some people rebel? And why can outsiders and eccentrics be found in every culture? A new exhibition "Fools. Artists. Saints. Masters of Chaos" at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn has some answers.
The world is a village, whether you're in Europe or Africa, the Caribbean or South East Asia.
But why? The diversity of cultures is so infinitely rich that legions of scientists have been trying to describe, analyze and differentiate for centuries.
Nevertheless, sometimes the differences between peoples and cultures dissolve to a minimum and instead we see perplexing parallels, astounding similarities.
On the edge
At the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, these commonalities come to the fore. "Fools. Artists. Saints. Masters of Chaos" is the name of the exhibition which began life at the Museé du quai Branly in Paris.
"When you really get into the topic, then the realization is really surprising," said the exhibition director, Wolfger Stumpfe in an interview with DW.
The topic is broad but focuses on a type: the outsider, who rebels against society, the eccentric living on the edge of society, the frontier runner moving between human and supernatural spheres.
"The basic idea for the exhibition is this: To show that - whether in Alaska, central Africa, Oceana or Siberia - the phenomenon of transgressing boundaries shows strong parallels," said Stumpfe. "The transgression of norms, the disorder, the breaking of rules, the connection between the human and the superhuman, are all part of it." These transgressions are just as much about religious as societal trends.
In the show, the phenomenon of the intermediary surfaces again and again. They are people who stand between the masses and the paranormal, the invisibles. That can be shamans and voodoo priests, but also simple fools and clowns in every form.
Art encounters life
The exhibition also points to the connection these social phenomena have to art. Ethnological exhibits and artifacts can be found side by side.
"Artists from all periods and all societies were also medicine men," said the director of the Bundekunsthalle, Robert Fleck.
German artist Joseph Beuys is a particularly prominent example. Beuys was repeatedly called a shaman by his followers. In both in his art and in his private life, Beuys exemplified something which "normal" society found suspect. He was an outsider on the edge of bourgeois society - at least, that's how he staged things - and represented a radical, "free" existence.
Artists react and govern in a way similar to shamans, said the French curator of the exhibition, Jean de Loisy. Both led people to the level of the unconscious.
This is especially drastic, but impressive, in American artist Cloe Piene's video "Blackmouth" from 2004. She writhes in mud, producing primordial sounds, screams and struggles - the proximity to bestial existence is unavoidable.
It is these border areas in which one can encroach upon fantasy and the spiritual. Artists can point to it in and with their works - and live it out.
Carnival of disorder
But long before these consciously acting artists existed, there have been people who have placed themselves and worked on the edges of society.
Wolfger Stumpfe explained that in the past, the differentiation between art and the everyday was never as great as it is in contemporary times. Art for art's sake - L'art pour l'art - emerged only around 100 years ago.
Religious paintings, today thought of in the first instance as valuable artworks, were created and conceived of as objects of utility and commodities in chapels and churches.
Artworks such as the Baroque painting "Bacchanal" by Michel-Ange Houasse from 1719, displayed in the exhibition, once had a very different function. It shows a carnival of disorderliness - the celebration in honor of the God Dionysus -, a central theme of the Bonn exhibition.
These festivals - the profane counter-pieces to religious ceremonies - exist in many cultures and have the power of a purification process. The carnivals of today descend from this tradition.
Archetypal ideas and expressions
Such parallels repeatedly come up throughout the exhibition - in the artworks from around the world, just as in the magic tools and implements of shamans, priests and healers.
"It is moving because it deals with primordial ideas, fantasies and modes of expression," Wolfger Stumpfe said. It is a type of archetype. "This idea is present in all human societies of the past 3,000 years, and probably even earlier, but the evidence no longer exists."
Distorted masks from around the world representing the creatures of the night, or of nightmares all share the same attributes: wild eyes, a grotesque facial expression and a contorted tongue.
"It is something which appears all around the globe," Stumpfe said.