Usherwood, Paul, Art Monthly
Stills Edinburgh 6 August to 25 October
The black and white photographic sequences and film installations of 'Poison Protocols and Other Histories', the Belgian artist Joachim Koester's first solo exhibition in Britain, have a deadpan, no-nonsense feel. However, the subject-matter is far from straightforward, including as it does the legend of the Hashshashins, Carlos Castaneda's 'magical passes', the mind games of John Dee and Aleister Crowley, the 1980s home-grown marijuana cult, the mescaline drawings of Henri Michaux, the 19th-century opium trade, the origins of the Sicilian tarantella and the gruesome story of the Manson 'family'.
Explanatory texts are duly provided. Yet, as with the play of words and photography in a WG Sebald novel, these don't so much answer questions raised by the images as open up further lines of thought. Take, for example, the piece about the Manson family: photographs of a group of broken-down wooden buildings in a dusty, arid landscape. This, you discover, is the Barker Ranch where Charles Manson and his followers were living when they murdered Roman Polanski's wife and eight others 40 years ago. Inasmuch as it looks just like the classic outlaw's hide-out in a western it somehow seems fitting. And this is intriguing; it seems to raise questions about the connections that might exist between this setting for a lurid news story (one that is sometimes said to mark the 'End of the 1960s') and the whole inspiring/appalling legend of the American West.
The transgressive nature of the subject-matter of Barker Ranch, 2006, is typical of most of the works in the exhibition. Several, for instance, explore the ideas and fictions that have formed in connection with mind-altering drugs. Time of the Assassins, 2009, is one of these: two 19th-century daguerreotype-like photographs of a ruined castle (it looks almost like a heap of rubble) caged in scaffolding. This turns out to be the place in northern Iran where an 11th-century missionary called Hassan-i-Sabbah lived, who, so legend has it, made use of hashish and opium to compel his followers to commit murderous deeds and thus gave us our word 'assassin'. This story appealed both to members of the Hashish Club in 19th-century Paris (including Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier) and to Henry Anslinger, the racist boss of the Bureau of Narcotics in the US in the 1930s. …