Ghost Stories: The Disembodied Spirit

by Carolyn Porter November 2, 2004

Connecting the work of contemporary artists and practitioners with that of earlier generations, Bowdoin Museum of Art curator Allison Ferris examines how artists have used available technology to render and exploit cultural phenomena.

John Baldessari... Strobe Series/Futurist: ... Girl with Flowers Falling from Her Mouth (For Botticelli) #1... 1975

Here, artists investigate the paranormal, virtual reality, and spiritualism of the late nineteenth century. The exhibition design in the galleries allows historic and contemporary work to cohabitate in a non-linear presentation. The conversations generated from this design greatly enhance the curatorial underpinnings of the exhibition.

At the Austin Museum of Art’s space on Congress Avenue, there are many twists and turns that are taken as one snakes through the galleries. Coming around the corner to deal with each artist’s work can be harder than is first apparent — images made 100 years apart coexist within sight of each other, allowing a dialogue to emerge that is layered and engaging. That engagement propels one from gallery to gallery; eventually the “group show” aspect of the exhibition recedes entirely, leaving visual phrases composed of four to five individual artworks.

From the moment one steps into the galleries, Cornelia Parker‘s Thirty Pieces of Silver (exhaled), 2003, engages the viewer as a participant. Using thirty silver-plated dining room serving pieces crushed by a 250 ton industrial press, Parker creates an artifact of an unknown event, allowing the viewer to create the narrative action. The flattened pieces of elegant silver hang by wire a few feet above the ground, and cast shadows which move slightly as the air currents move about the room. On one of my early visits to this exhibition, a couple was involved in a vigorous argument as to which one’s imagined narrative was more plausible. Their very conversation moved the entire piece ever so slightly, making visible the breath of imagined paranormal activity.

As the exhibition unfolds, it allows viewers to question the limits of the visible, and the relationship between photographic phenomena and the technology of photography. The exhibition includes over eighty works of video, photography, and mixed-media installations by artists such as Diane Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Julia Margaret Cameron, Jim Campbell, Gregory Crewdson, Ann Hamilton, Clarence John Laughlin, Sally Mann, Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler, and James Van Der Zee.

Anonymous... Spirit photograph... ca. 1920s... Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities

Ann Hamilton‘s Emmett, 2000-2003, photogravure on paper, maps the path of a single light source onto a blurry, androgynous figure, creating an ethereal moment in an otherwise black picture plane. The light emanates from the left, and as it moves toward the right it defines the face and shoulders of a centrally placed figure. Working in photogravure, Hamilton creates a very dislocated, contemporary moment in a medium that recalls an earlier time. Her use of the black space on the right side of the image is striking, and her photogravure technique makes the blackness feel like deep velvet. Hamilton’s dark space is simultaneously calming and disquieting.

Each time I visited this exhibition, there was always a crowd of people hovering around a series of “spirit photographs“. Spirit photography in America began after the Civil War, and its popularity rose parallel to the interest in Spiritualism as a religion. The first artist to combine Spiritualism and photography, William Mumler, is featured in the exhibition, with a notable print of Man with Spirit of a Woman Who Holds an Anchor across His Heart, 1865.

Often the photographer “medium” would request an existing photo of a recently deceased loved one, and through the use of composite printing and double exposure, would render an image that contained the living sitter and the deceased relative. These relatives usually hovered over or behind the living sitter, providing spiritual guidance and a connection to other spiritual planes.

Allison Ferris notes in the exhibition’s catalog that “The messages and manifestations of the spirit world offered modern men and women scientific proof, evidence that could be tested by the senses, for beliefs that previously depended on faith alone. In the modern world, the Spiritualists claimed, the spirit world manifested itself through means that could hold up to scientific observation; in this new modern religion, the spirits offered proofs of their existence.” By the late 1800s, Mumler and others were exposed as fraudulent mediums; even so, the spirit photographs included in the exhibition still touch the human desire for complete understanding of all phenomena, death included.

In stark contrast to this notion of simple spiritual photographic intervention, the contemporary work in the exhibition often uses multiple media to invoke the extraordinary. In Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography he chimes in on this activity, stating, “Many photographers feel that both the negative and the print are but a means to an end; not considering them sacrosanct, they do not hesitate to alter them.”

Gregory Crewdson... Untitled (Butterflies and Shed)... 2001... Digital C-print

The more recent works in the exhibition seem to be chosen partially because they examine the way we experience looking at photography; Bruce Nauman‘s Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966, uses the same composite negative process that the Spiritualists” used to both record a performative action and to shed light on the process” ability to alter our photographic vision.

Bill Viola‘s Memoria, 2000, a DVD projection on silk, takes that photographic ghosts image one-step further, into a time-based realm. A number of the contemporary pieces invoke the Spiritualist past — Mike Kelly, Francesca Woodman, John Baldesari, and Ann Hamilton seem intent on re-creating moody, spectral, and otherworldly images that work to complicate the motivation of both the subjects and the artists. No longer is simple communication with the paranormal the desired result of the spectral photograph — these images serve to investigate fractured representations of human identity, to obscure time, and to make a conscious connection between photographic technology and subjectivity. Although the topic of the ghost is used to lure viewers into the galleries, especially around Halloween, at the end of the exhibition one is left with a sense that these artists have much more to say about human absence than about spectral presence.

Brandt, Frederick, Late 20th Century Art, University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Ferris, Allison, The Disembodied Spirit, Bowdoin College of Art, New Brunswick, Maine.
Grundberg, Andy, The Crisis of the Real; Writings on Photography Since 1974, Aperture Press, New York, 1999.
Newhall, Beaumont, The History of Photography, 1982, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Images courtesy the Austin Museum of Art.

Carolyn Porter is a writer and artist living in Austin.

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