Two objects from Magical Consciousness, the current exhibition at the Arnolfini caught my eye a few years ago, one a modern artwork by Ula Dajerling Amnesia and Oscillation 2009, the other an Aztec mirror made from obsidian, AD 1325-1521. Each is an example of, or reference to, a simple yet powerful technology of divination. From the exhibition guide:
Every year in Poland on the last day before advent (Andrzejki or St Andrews Day) a traditional divining custom of pouring hot wax into cold water takes place. The abstract wax shapes that solidify in the water are used to tell people’s fortunes for the coming year. The formless black mass is used as a device for creating images of the future, yet can be interpreted differently in different contexts: a bird appearing the wax could be considered as a crow (portend of doom) or alternatively as a dove (messenger of peace).
Obsidian is a naturally occurring black, volcanic glass found in the highland areas of Mesoamerica, traditionally used in the manufacture of cutting tools. For the Aztecs, obsidian took on a much more auspicious function and they believed the highly reflective polished surface of obsidian enabled them to look into the future. Also referred to as the ‘smoking mirror’, Aztec priests would gaze into the obsidian and wait for a cloud of smoke to appear. Once the smoke had parted, the mirror would reveal an image detailing the future […] Also known as the god of the obsidian, [the warrior god] Tezacatlipoca is often portrayed in the guise of a sorceror with an obsidian mirror attached to both his head and foot, and an obsidian blade strapped to his body.
Just as money is the ideal means of exchange, magic is the ideal means of technical production. And just as money values pervade the world of commodities, so that it is impossible to think of an object without thinking at the same time of its market price, so magic, as the ideal technology, pervades the technical domain… (Gell 1999: 181).