by Alison Ferris
When one is, figuratively speaking, confronted with a ghost, the first question that comes to mind is: What does it mean that a ghost is here? Ghosts of all kinds ate materializing in the contemporary art world, and The Disembodied Spirit investigates why ghosts—representations of ghosts created by contemporary artists—are haunting us now. What is it about this particular time and this particular combination of social and cultural conditions that is bringing out the ghosts? Ghosts frequently indicate that some aspect of life, for better or worse, has shifted or been transformed; the ghosts in contemporary art are beckoning and cajoling us, with some urgency, to look more closely at the current stale of human affairs.
Ghosts have haunted cultures around the world and across history. Nearly every discipline in the humanities is faced with ghosts and their metaphors, and each examines them according to its own particular methods and practices. The Disembodied Spirit investigates ghosts from a Western perspective, primarily through the lens of photography Many of the works that will be discussed in this essay make use of media-based technology (photography, film, video, sound) to represent ghosts and haunting, a fact that at first might seem insignificant given that media-based work is so prevalent today in the contemporary art world. However, that artists are using film-based media to create representations of ghosts at this turn of the century is of great consequence. Even when contemporary artists m the exhibition do not rely on photographic media to evoke the ghostly, their works can be and often are inflected conceptually by the photographic. To this end, it makes sense first lo look back to the turn of the previous century— another moment when ghosts proliferated, especially in literature, but also in the now lesser known phenomenon of spirit photography. The works gathered in The Disembodied Spirit suggest links between spirit photography and contemporary works deploying the representation of ghosts, though the exhibition does not propose a linear historic progression. Rather, an understanding of spirit photography can inform and perhaps complicate our understanding of the prevalence of the latter-day ghosts with which we began.
Editor's Note: This essay is an extract from a longer essay by Ferris included m an exhibition catalogue that accompanied The Disembodied Spirit. The Disembodied Spirit was first shown at Bowdoin College Museum of An (September 25- December 7, 2003), then traveled to The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City (March 5 - May 23, 20O4), and to the Austin Museum of Art (September 11 - November 28, 2004) Austin Museum of Art, www.amoa.org. September 11 - November 28, 2004
A Boston photographer by the name of William Mumler claimed in 1861 thai when he was developing a self-portrait—a photograph he had taken of himself alone in a friend's studio—a second figure appeared on the print At first. Mumler dismissed the occurrence, explaining that perhaps the photographic plate he used to make the photograph was not clean. But by then, twenty or so years after the invention of photography, themes of Spiritualism had already been folded into popular discourse and photography Though not a Spiritualist himself, Mumler was convinced by adamant believers that this "extra" appeared from the spirit world After he was repeatedly able to produce photographs of sitters accompanied by spirits, Mumler opened his own studio in Boston. By lG69r he was so successful that he moved to New York City; and his studio there, according lo a number of accounts, came to be frequented by some of the most eminent people in the country.
Spirit photography was a material manifestation of Spiritualism, a popular and controversial mid-nine tee nth-century religious movement. Practitioners of Spiritualism believed in the immortality of the soul, and their beliefs were enacted by attempts at establishing communication with the dead through means such as séances, telepathy, and spirit photography. At the same time that Spiritualism was rising in popularity, many radical new technologies came into being; the steam engine, the telegraph, the electric light, the phonograph, and much more Spiritualists embraced technology and all it had to offer in their attempts to contact the spirit world. Nineteenth-century citizens found the telegraph, which communicated messages over long distances, comparable to human mediums, who communicated between this world and the next, a correspondence that inspired the title of at least one Spiritualist paper. The Spiritual Telegraph. Science and religion, too. did not view their tasks as opposed but coincident inasmuch as They shared investigations of the parameters of "reality." Researchers were proving that people were surrounded by invisible forces such as gravity, electricity, and bacteria—all phenomena that seemed no more or less improbable or hypothetical than the spirit world.
Spirit photography directly enters the dialogue between science and spiritualism. Photographs of spirits became a way to make contact with the spirit world and to provide what was perceived as scientific evidence of an afterlife The camera, a brand new technological invention, was generally regarded as a scientific instrument that produced objective images of reality Of course, there was more to the production of spirit photographs than met the eye of the general public the effects of spirit photographs were produced most commonly in a photographer's studio. During photographic sessions, sitters were posed as they would be in standard photographic portraiture of the time. While no spirits were visually evident to the sitters when the photographs were made, mysterious "extras" appear in the final prints: disembodied heads hover in the air above them, transparent faces glow on the sleeves of a jacket, ethereal figures gently place a hand on the shoulder of an unknowing sitter. But it was not simply the obscurity to the general public of the photographic process that led to the kinds of credulity spirit photography enjoyed. The same cultural forces that inspired The Spiritualist movement helped to animate a belief or a desire to behave in the photographic evidence of ghosts.
With an eye cast lo the current work now being done on ghosts, we might ask some leading Questions about its precursors. How does spirit photography, which has been, for the most part, viewed as an aberration—one of those eccentric and embarrassing photographic practices from the nineteenth century—now function within the history of photography? How have critics to date made sense of spirit photography? Finally, how can an understanding of spirit photography assist us in our understanding of represent ions of ghosts created by contemporary artists?
In "Phantom Images and Modem Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography's Uncanny," The first in-depth critical essay on spirit photography, film historian Tom Gunning can help us find an angle on some of these questions. According to Gunning, There was a constant debate within Spiritualist, Theosophical, and occult circles throughout the late nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries about what supernatural forces actually produced the apparitions in spirit photography. Gunning explains that while spirit photography at lust functioned as proof, as records of the appearance of invisible spirits, soon thereafter—reacting m large part to accusations of fraud—spirit photographs were explained as "…products of unknown spiritual forces who used images of the dead as a way of communicating their existence to the living." Spiritualists believed that because the deceased were so dramatically transformed after death, they needed, essentially, to consult existing photographs in order torecreate their worldly selves before they could communicate effectively with the living. As Gunning observes, "We see here that a photograph, rather than providing indexical evidence of the appearance of the spirit, becomes a model for reduplication and the basis of recognition." In this, he writes. "Photography becomes independent of its ordinary indexical references, since supernatural forces use it primarily as a process of reproduction and communication " Spirit photography, according to Gunning, therefore disrupts The notion of The photograph as strictly an index, that is, something that can be traced back to its original Instead, he writes, spirit photography ". . .reveals the uncanny aspect of this technological process, as one is confronted with doubles that can be endlessly scrutinized for their recognizable features, but whose origins remain obscure." As a result, what is haunting about these images is "...their very lack of tangible reference, serving even within Spiritualist metaphysics simply as a nostalgic reminder of how things once appeared, a symbolon passed between the living and the dead as a token of recognition."1
That the photographs were fake is beside the point—what we see rather is the vanishing of a secure and stable index of the authentic, the "real."
Whereas the nineteenth century was characterized by the crisis of faith That resulted, in pan, in the emergence of Spiritualism, the Turn of The twenty-first century may well be characterized by the crisis of The index.2 With its antecedents residing in Spiritualism, The crisis of the index consists, in part, of the inability to recognize the difference between the ' artificial" and the "real." Digitization, prosthetic and cosmetic surgery, cloning, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, virtual reality—this expanding field of activity, writes photography theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen, "calls into question the presumed distinction between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, real and representation, truth and falsehood."3 These dematerializing technological innovations produce both anxiety and optimism, while simultaneously altering, quite dramatically, received notions of representation and vision. Spiritualism suggested that the human soul or consciousness could exist independently from its material form—a fantasy which found
vivid and uncanny expression in new technologies such as photography and the telegraph. Today, in a manner that recalls Spiritualism, cybernetics and virtual reality offer The fantasy of an ecstatically fragmented subjectivity, one that promises liberation, within fantastic worlds, from the material body and its constraints. Within the cultural space that cybernetics and virtual reality have opened up, we also find the manifestation of ghosts However, as we will see, rather Than simply embracing the promise of liberation, artists use ghosts to disrupt and complicate this fantasy
Some artists in The Disembodied Spirit refer directly to Spiritualism and spirit photography m their works. In The Poltergeist, Mike Kelley depicts himself with ectoplasm materializing from his mouth and nose. This white viscous substance - often produced by mediums in the early twentieth century—dematerialized as soon as it was produced and photography was the only way to capture it. Using what Karl Schoonover describes as the "violent corporeality" of ectoplasm photography. Kelley offers an interpretation of the state of adolescence.-1 A descriptive text that is part of the work attempts to rationalize superstition; however, the rationalization ultimately falls apart, overwhelmed by the substance of adolescence That instead permeates the text.
Portraits by John Baldessan and Ann Hamilton can be seen, too, in relation to ectoplasm photography In Strobe Series/Futurist: Girt with Flowers Failing from Her Mouth (For Botticelli) #1 Baldessari depicts a young woman—reminiscent of one of Julia Margaret Cameron's subjects—who quite gracefully expels tlowers from her mouth. About the Strobe series, Baldessari writes that it is focused on time, "that is, a moment drawn out, extended, perhaps Timeless' time, an interlude in which magic might occur."5 Ann Hamilton describes her photographs as recordings of the trace of the encounter with another 6 Hamilton generates her photographs within her body in a manner similar to that of mediums who produced ectoplasm with photographic images on them She places a film canister punctured with a small hole in her closed mouth which she opens to expose the film, producing the negatives for her images. Kelley, Baldessari, and Hamilton suggest through their work The possibility of breaching fantasy and materiality, the psychic and the physical.
Photography stops and turns beck time and also allows for the return of what came before, "Whatever its nominal subject." writes Batchen, "photography was a visual inscription of The passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer's own inevitable passing "' Bill Viola's Memoria car\ be understood, in part, as the way we experience looking at photography, particularly in this context, spirit photography. Filmed in low light with an old black-and-white surveillance camera, Memoria is a video projection depicting the pained face of a man which appears and then recedes from the surface of a silk cloth. The man appears To be struggling to communicate something of dire urgency, but just as we are about to discern what that might be, his image disappears again
It is no coincidence that ideals of a disembodied self in both the late nineteenth and lale twentieth centuries evolved directly from radical media-technological innovations; these Utopian visions offered new possibilities for life and experience within a drastically changing world. However, These Utopian ideals were, and continue to be, shoT through with anxiety, disturbance, and a kind of melancholy, qualities that are apparent in both spinT photography and. sigmhcantly, in much of the contemporary art included in The Disembodied Spirit Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, for instance, depict the spectral in a manner that evokes the same pathos Barthes finds in photography—an indexical imprint of a "that-has-been" emerging from The presence of something That is no longer present. In fact, as cultural theorist Peggy Phelan points out, Barthes invokes terms such as magic and alchemy in his writing about photography, thereby coming close to "suggesting that photography is a medium, nol only in the sense of an art form but also in the sense that il consorts with the Spirits. "3 Laughlin and Meatyard both regularly and
unabashedly incorporated apparitions in their photographs of Louisiana in the 1940s and Kentucky in the 1950s, respectively. Both places were undergoing radical economic and cultural changes when each photographer was working: but rather than documenting these changes, both artists depicted their respective 'homes'' as haunted. One immediately thinks of Freud's uncanny or umheimlich. described most simpty as an environment or eircumsiance with which one is familiar that becomes radically unfamiliar through the process of repression and repetition—here m Laughlin end Meatyard s work, the repression ol a variety of social and racial pasts that would not fully disperse. By evoking the phantoms in their work, Laughlin and Meatyard express the experience of feeling simultaneously m and out ol place, within and outside history.
More recently Gregory Crewdson explores the uncanny in his theatrical photographs depicting the unilaterally familiar American suburbs. Crewdson stages moments when suburbanites appear to be in ihe midst of some sort of transformation that is imposed upon them by a foreign entity. In Unfilled, we observe a young girl's contact with the supernatural in the backyard, oul of an ethereally lit shed, the girl observes the emergence of hundreds of butterflies— the butterfly being a traditional, nearly universal, symbol for the spirit. Whereas the paranormal is imposed upon the characters in Oewdson's work, Leighton Pierce's The Back Steps depicts how the uncanny can be woven into part of everyday life. Pierce manipulates one shot ol two young girls running down the stairs of his back
porch at twilight on Halloween mghi. The scene is slowed down, blurred, and repeated over and over again so that the girls are visible only as swaths of gently moving color. The sound, consisting of the girls' faint laughter and the rustle of their movements mixed with silence, is on a different loop from that of the visuals, so that time and motion are skewed lo create a beautiful, if unsettled, unworldly backyard.
The artists in this exhibition do not inveigh against an encroaching technological alienation, rather, they embrace technology, if somewhat warily, and derive from it vocabularies of faniasy and imagination—seen especially in representations of the ghost—with which to analyze "reality" and transforming human experiences For instance, several of the artists in The Disembodied Spirit play out the potentially liberating instability of human existence and identity by depicting themselves and others as otherworldly inhabitants. Both Bruce Conner m Sound of Two Hand Angel and Francesca Woodman in Untitled, Rome from the Angel Series depict themselves as angels. Placing themselves, figuratively speaking, between two worlds they suggest their contradictory desires to inhabit and escape the limits of the visible. In Mariko Mori's Last Departure, a less contemplative and far more theatrical work described by one critic as "a futuristic, kaleidoscope-eyed vision." the artist poses in Osaka's Kansai International Airport where she effects, the critic continues, "an ethereal, tech no/Uadit tonal shaman—a human figure who serves as a medium between earth-bound humans and the spiritual unknown—who is at once both a cyborg and a bodhisattva figure from Buddhist Mandala imagery "° All three artists depict an uncanny form of disembodiment which suggests, rather optimistically, that the subject has the option to leave the body and transport his or her consciousness lo a distant destination.
Taken together, the works in The Disembodied Spirit offer a slightly different kind of argument—one that uses the inherent shppermess and mdeiermmancy ol the image of the ghost to evoke visible and invisible, multiple and opposing sensibilities about race, gender, history, politics, subjectivity, and representation itself. Sensing that we are susceptible to being seduced and placated by technology and its suggestion that we can escape social markers of gender, age, sexuality, and race, ghosts are entering the picture— particularly at the iuncture of technology and representation—to trouble such benign fantasies. Social markers cannot simply be escaped because, as the ghosts in The Disembodied Spirit vividly remind us, they are too ingrained m all aspects of The human condition: fantasies of their disappearance, as we see Throughout the exhibition, invite the specter and their return. But rather then simply state this as fact, ariists in The Disembodied Spirit use the representation of ghosts to draw viewers in, to seduce them visually with phenomena that are difficult to explain, where time is obscured, where repetition is paramount, and disorientation abounds. Once lured mio the representation of the ghostly, we find ourselves engaging with memories, stones, histories that, while they may not necessarily add up, cannot easily be forgotten.