On Re-reading Alfred Gell’s Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps

As a result of selecting this as the main first week reading for our MA paper on the Arts of Africa, I have read this paper three times in the last two years. Every time I return to it, I find more there. Over the past twenty years, Gell has largely been associated, at least in student essays, with the reductive notion that ‘objects have agency’, largely due to the title of his posthumously published book Art and Agency (1998). But his writing is lively, complex and multi-layered – it always feels like he is trying to say about five things in any one paper – but the fresh and engaging style with which he writes always carries me along as a willing and enthusiastic reader. 

A Cambridge trained anthropologist who worked largely at LSE, Gell did his initial fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, subsequently also working in India. During his career he wrote about ritual, time and exchange, publishing books in the early 1990s on The Anthropology of Time (Gell, 1992a) and Tattooing in Polynesia (Gell, 1993). However, Alfred Gell really established himself as a key theorist on the anthropology of art during the 1990s with essays such as The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology(Gell, 1992b). Not content to limit himself to generating localised ethnographies, Gell remained wedded to an anthropological enterprise that involved developing categories and forms of analysis that were applicable across cultural contexts.

This essay, published in the very first issue of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996, may be one of the last things Gell published before his premature death in January 1997. According to its abstract, it ‘explores the basis of the distinction commonly made between works of art or art objects and ‘mere’ artefacts, which are useful but not aesthetically interesting or beautiful’ (Gell, 1996, 15). This is Gellian modesty. By substituting one letter, that description becomes much more accurate – it explodes the basis of this distinction.

Replica of a Zande hunting net, rolled and bound for transport as displayed in the exhibition Art/artifact at theCenter of African Art, New York 1988 by Mariana Castillo Deball, 2013: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/mariana-castillo-deball-vogels-net

The main target of the paper is an essay by Arthur Danto (1988) in the catalogue for Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition at the Centre of African Art in New York, ART/ARTIFACT. It is worth noting Gell’s generosity in calling it a masterly essay. Nevertheless, one senses that he has real problems, both with Danto’s argument and his way of making it. Danto wants to argue that the Zande hunting next exhibited by Vogel is not a work of art, suggesting that it falls outside a tradition of conceptual art embedded in a system of ideas and interpretation that has developed in the (western) art-historical tradition. Gell points out that this conception is essentially Hegelian (relying on a notion of art motivated by transhistorical Geist), but also that Danto is not consistent in wanting to retain the great works of African sculpture ‘discovered’ by the modernists in the early twentieth century, while rejecting Vogel’s net. In order to make this argument, Danto relies on a rather absurd philosophical thought experiment contrasting ‘pot people’ and ‘basket people’, who produce identical objects but invest cosmological significance in one rather than the other of these two artefacts. Had he engaged with the ethnographic literature, Gell suggests, Danto would have encountered conceptual worlds far more sophisticated and interesting than he was able imagine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst: http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of

Mid-way through the essay, Gell shifts tack, developing a demonstration of how he would approach this problem in the form of a virtual exhibition, consisting of a series of of traps, alongside examples of contemporary art such as Damien Hirst’s shark (introduced through one of Gell’s sketches) and Duchamp’s Trebuchet, to draw out the significance and meaning from each other, demonstrating that traps can’t be straightforwardly dismissed as functional artefacts. This concentration on traps is very deliberate – they are he suggests ‘a master metaphor of deep significance’, ‘a representation of human being-in-the world’ and ‘a working model of a person’ that also embody the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

The trap for Gell represents a materialised nexus of intentionalities, and as such is an exemplary kind of art object. He suggests that every work of art works like ‘a trap or snare that impedes passage’, and that art galleries are ‘a place of capture’ set with ‘“thought-traps” which hold their victims for a time, in suspension’ (Gell, 1996, 37). Most exemplary of all is Pierre Lemonnier’s Anga eel trap -which through the eels they actually catch form images of living ancestral power ‘that actually accomplish work, actually nourish those who make them, and so achieve a goal that has always eluded our artists, waylaid as they have been by the need for realistic representation of (surface) forms’ (Gell, 1996, 34).

When you reach the conclusion, it becomes clear that Gell’s paper is not simply an exposition of Vogel’s net, a refutation of Danto’s arguments about it, or even an imaginative thought exhibition, but is fundamentally an argument against ‘the continuing hold of the “aesthetic” notion of artworks over the anthropological mind’ (Gell, 1996, 35). Gell suggests that this ‘reactionary… middle brow’ definition of art has ‘little or noting to do with the kinds of objects (installation, performances) that are characteristically circulated as ‘art’ in the late 20th century’ (Gell, 1996, 35). For Gell , ‘the “anthropology of art” ought to be about… the provision of a critical context that would enfranchise “artefacts” and allow for their circulation as artworks, displaying them as embodiments or residues of complex intentionalities’ (1996, 37). 

It would be wonderful to be able to report that in the decade and a half since I used Gell’s argument about artworks as traps as the basis of a pitch for my first curatorial job at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, that this project of artifactual enfranchisement had been successfully accomplished. There have definitely been plenty of examples of art museums incorporating and displaying collections of artefacts previously known as ‘ethnography’. But the thought that keeps arising when I reflect on this, is that museums and art galleries are themselves massive traps, capable of capturing and redirecting curatorial intentionalities along their own complex webs of ancestral intentionality. If the Anga eel trap is an image of ancestral eel power that actually accomplishes work, is the museum or gallery not an even more powerful living image of institutionalised ancestral power?


DANTO, A. 1988. Artifact and Art. ART/ARTIFACT: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York: Center for African Art and Prestel Verlag.

GELL, A. 1992a. The anthropology of time : cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford, Berg.

GELL, A. 1992b. The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology. In: COOTE, J. & SHELTON, A. (eds.) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 15-38.

GELL, A. 1998. Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press.Art