The supernatural is not really a subject one can pin down. It’s more about checking its periphery, testing its boundaries, trying to understand what it is that fascinates some artists. David Lillington investigated the phenomenon and spoke to a number of artists about their interest in ghosts, magic and spells.
The effect of energy on matter, even the absorbtion by walls of emotion, are not such strange ideas: we can all recognize them. Geraldine Pilgrim: ‘I’m dealing with absence and presence. And it’s linked with buildings. The idea that if the wallpaper was stripped away, what would be there? The idea that you might find a negative burned into the walls’ - as if they were made from photographic material which absorbed the energy of events. ‘I listen to the building, its ghosts – I don’t mean that there physically are ghosts, but the energy one feels.’ Gothic was much about buildings, and with a subject like ghosts, it’s hard to avoid the gothic. It is said that it was Edgar Allen Poe who brought gothic out of the buildings and installed it in human souls.
But there are many other things to consider. The theatricality of Pilgrim’s performance Stardust at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on Sea, was quite hard-edged. Stardust involved performers dressed as people really associated with the Pavilion in the past: a cleaning lady, an old couple, a performer who endlessly adjusted her make-up, and chorus girls, who wandered around staring through people. Another team of chorus girls sat silently, in the attic. In her video Spa, ‘an elderly woman is looking at an image of herself on a bed. The “live” her pulls sheets over the image, which disappears. She walks down a corridor and turns round just before she goes into the light at the end. Then she goes through and the door swings shut. It deals with death of course. But it’s archetypal, which is why I’m happy for the audience to interpret it themselves.’
As for the glamour in her work: glamour originally meant ‘magic’ or ‘enchantment’. To ‘cast the glamour over’ was to enchant or bewitch. And it was a transitive verb, to glamour someone.1 And glamour, like Pilgrim’s buildings, can harbour secrets. Artist Nike Savvas points out a connection between ‘problems being solved in the dream state’ and ‘the glamour of magic shows’. Jonathan Allen (1966, UK) has a stage persona - Tommy Angel - which mixes preacher and magician. His performances are excellent: funny and pointed. Tricks include calling a lame man out of the audience whom he turns into a skeleton. He is currently very successful. Allen’s press speaks of him dealing with ‘illusion and reality.’ This may be a way to claim it for high art, but it’s not entirely convincing.
The performer Marisa Carnesky is also interested in stage magic. But while Carnesky is a burlesque performer, the ghosts of Carnesky’s Ghost Train are metaphorical: they are women who migrated across Europe, ‘lost souls’ who found themselves in unbearable situations. When Carnesky made her Ghost Train more obviously political, it was better. Both sides of the metaphor, (the ghosts and the real people and their predicament) were brought into sharper focus.
Anna Best’s (1965, London), pieces have featured magicians, ghosts and a ‘ghostbuster’. She once had herself ‘sawn in half’ in Amsterdam. Best: ‘Ghosts appear and disappear. And our experience of art is as visions that appear and disappear. Exhibitions appear and then you might not see that artist’s work again for ten years. Or never. It is as if the world is full of ghosts.’ She continues: ‘It’s possible that ghosts represent the unborn. Maybe they’re hormonal.’ According to her, ghosts are really ‘like art; they are archetypal stories about which it will not be possible to decide the truth. Art similarly can’t be explained away.’ (For Shakespeare the poet ‘ gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’.)
About an Andrew Mania (1947, Bristol) video curator Simon Wallis says: ‘it’s about how stories are told in families.’ Mania says himself: ‘there is indeed a “supernatural” element in my work, but I use it instinctively and it tends towards catholic iconography rather than the occult.’ His mother, incidentally, is said to have seen a Yeti.
The equation of ghosts with both photography and film is a major one.
Commenting on a passage from Barthes, the German art historian Gerhard Glüher writes: ‘with these sentences, an unsolvable paradox concerning photography is uttered: either the act of photography creates a code, whereupon photography becomes a medium and belongs to the cultural domain, or the photograph is not a sign, but a “thing”, like all other things in this world, whereupon it belongs to the natural domain.’2 This peculiar status of photography, this ‘unsolvable paradox’ has made it the ally of ghosts everywhere.
At present it seems that photography is more likely to be seen as something akin to magic than as an ‘indexical’ medium. Rosalind Nashashibi’s idea of finding something out through the magic of her machine, a video camera, has the idea of art as a form of research into the invisible.3
Goths there are a-plenty, for sure. Charlotte Prodger’s video The Ghosts of Doctor Gretel Harp, seems to deal with place, family, incest, death and language. It is intensely gloomy. Its strength is in the way it makes you curious: what, you wonder, lies behind all this complex, and very human, spookiness? But the more direct ‘research’ approach is also an important one. Karen Russo’s (1974, Israel) Spontaneous Human Combustion was ‘made after an extensive research, which included the study of literature and scientific experiments. It uses this material to show, metaphorically, the internal flame - an emotional excess of any kind that brings the victim to an acute emotional state.
A state in which the emotional burning (of the lover, or the artist) drives the victim not only to delirium, but also to extreme physical states - all the way to self-destruction. The film is made in a documentary format, and explores the phenomenon through interviews (with firemen, scientists and victims’ relatives), police evidence and scientific evidence. But it is indeed poetic. It uses the documentary medium in order to undermine the boundaries of reality.
I’m not sure about this last sentence. Surely what she means to say is that these states of breakdown, of ‘burnout’, are indeed real. But her statement is extremely interesting. The metaphor – a natural but mysterious phenomenon, for a trauma – suggests she thinks only such a metaphor can adequately describe human experience. This may be the rationale behind much of the work by artists using ‘supernatural’ imagery. It’s a certain approach to ‘reality’. This fits even with artists whose work is quite different, such as Gavin Turk. The problem of course is that one might say the same of an artist who paints still lifes, or any artist. Nevertheless, there is a point to be made. The concern with ‘unreality’ is mostly about something else: as if the artists’ aim is always to return from their supernatural journey, wiser and more rooted. This is what makes me uneasy about Jonathan Allen– whose work, whatever the claims for it dealing with ‘the real’, seems to be more about its own internal, magical logic.
The ghost in Paulette Phillips’ Homewrecker is ‘a small piece of chiffon which hovers in thin air. It is held in place by electromagnetism and reacts to air currents and people’.4 Opposite, a projected film loop shows a woman, staring. ‘It appears as if the ghost is held in place by the woman's gaze. The 16mm film sequence is reminiscent of early cinema. At Danielle Arnaud Gallery in London the piece was contained within a small stage and the ghost has footlights. The piece is an exploration of invisible or imagined phenomena such as telepathy, hypnosis, attraction and electromagnetism and makes reference to the early history of alternating current, spiritualism and attraction.’ She also mentions Mesmer.
And this crackling of energy, animal yet mineral, puts me in mind of critic Guy Brett’s ideas about 20th century art. He has said that Modernism was largely about energy - and that this is a somewhat neglected fact. All art according to David Freedberg ‘wants to speak and move’ to be alive.5 All statues are ghosts, perhaps. An interest in nature may well be important for many artists dealing in ghostly or magical or otherworldly matters. Arturo Schwartz, editor of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, quotes Novalis: ‘nature is purely poetic, just as is the workroom of a magician, of a physicist, a children’s room, a closet, and a pantry.’ It’s ‘an holistic concept of nature and the world’, Schwartz says.6
To align yourself as an artist with magicians or ghosts shows a certain self-awareness. Those who equate psychic research and artistic method, both of which claim to deal in intangibles, may of course be called more ‘conceptual,’ than ‘gothic’. Some of it has to do with the current interest in pre-modernist thought: a re-examination of how we got to where we are. Pilgrim agrees with me that magic is about nostalgia (it’s not my idea, it’s that of an entire strand of Renaissance scholarship). ‘It’s also about intrusion’, she says. Marc Hulson has painted a whole series of ghosts: ‘I am interested in the notion of being haunted. It’s not to do with supernatural beings, it’s about something you can’t forget. It’s a psychological state.’
Simon Wallis says of Mania’s work: ‘it’s about people stuck in a moment of their lives.’ Marc Hulson: ‘Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the essence of the fantastic– there’s a doubling in the fiction: are the ghosts real or are they a figment of the imagination? There’s nothing in the story to tell you how to interpret it. Just now my work is more about ‘conjuring up’ or ‘calling forth’ something than in ‘catching’ something, which would I guess be photography’s relationship to ghosts. I’m interested in representing something that exists only in the imagination.’7
And he says, ‘early cinema is incredibly ghostly in quite a literal way and has a lot in common with stage magic.’ Lynda Nead in a recent article for Tate Etc. writes of early film-maker Georges Méliès: ‘In so many of his works there is a shifting between the states of lifeless image and living form.’8 She describes a film in which he greets his own film image. Strangely, this seems to have something in common with later conceptual art.
Marc Hulson’s painting was at one time abstract. When he started painting alien landscapes, aliens and ghosts, one his friends remarked: ‘I think he’s gone mad.’ He says: ‘actually I always connected ghosts and abstraction: the idea of representing the unrepresentable, which is what abstraction claimed to do.’ Of all the artists discussed here, Pilgrim most seems to believe in something ‘real’. But what is real? Hulson believes in something ‘real’, but it isn’t ghosts – as with Pilgrim, it’s subliminal energy. John Thomson of Thomson and Craighead says: ‘people are often hungry for artists who believe. People who really believe in ghosts are a real rarity. We work with network processes, so it illuminates the work we make, although our own interest is fairly whimsical. We make connections between ephemeral spectacles and emergent communication technologies.’9
The philosopher Mircea Eliade said, memorably, that prayer is significant because it is a place where one is free from any kind of law. Also the philosopher Jacques Maritain said that evil dissolves in art. Magic, it is said, is a version of prayer. Art, prayer and magic have something in common. Let us not forget Yves Klein and the secret powers of the artist, or his votive offerings. Magic was of course opposed by the church, catholic and protestant. Many have pointed out that the church has its own magic, which turns wine into blood. Real magic - and Ficino and Hermes Trismegistus and astrology and the chain of being and sympathy and fear - is of course quite scary. Ficino was terrified of the star demons. The alchemists could spend years on a work of magic and spoil it by thinking the wrong thoughts. And timing was crucial: the alignment of stars had to be right.
One of the formulae for turning base metals into gold involved walking around a church three times without thinking of the word ‘abracadabra’. Such paradoxical thinking – and one can see the humour latent in this – has an appeal for more conceptual artists.
With Trisha Donnelly (San Francisco, 1974), we read that ‘promotion, by establishing the artist’s quasi-magical prowess, becomes integral to the overall aesthetic’ (John Miller). Did I mention Klein? Her work, I also read, is often well-nigh invisible.
When Elizabeth Price curated a show, Giorgio Sadotti (Stockport, 1955) contributed a magician’s assistant outfit. He wanted her to wear it for the opening. Instead she showed it on a table. But who was the magician to whom she was to be the assistant? Art? Marcel Duchamp? Sadotti? Gavin Turk’s video A Mysterious Force of Nature, in which he appears, at the command of a magician, to levitate, seems to be about art and artists.
‘Now we need to take only one more step to bring all our conclusions together.’ - Arturo Schwartz
Of course it’s not so easy. But I got quite a shock when I looked again at William Butler Yeats’ poem Byzantium, which is positively floodlit with magic and ghosts. About two thirds of the items in my notes were, somehow, in it. Art, magic, politics and the theatre were the lifelong concerns of Yeats. All that traffic between spirit and matter.
As another, and different, thought, from a sceptic, to qualify a little the extreme poetic mysticism of Yeats, here is Marcel Duchamp: ‘If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is adopting it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.’ If. And do we? The question is still open.
It’s strange really, that the introduction to The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp is almost all magic - because it’s by Schwartz, who is completely in thrall to the beauties of the arcane. Max Ernst famously said he believed in a place where all things were unified. But perhaps it is the surface complication – the ‘glamour’ – which attracts. As for unity, one sometimes wonders, what would they do if they found it?
Andrew Mania, Gallery Diana Stigter, Amsterdam
27 May- 1 July
I thought you should have this:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
- The Oxford Dictionary gives nice examples: ‘That maiden in the tale/Whom Gwydion made by glamour out of flowers.’ (Tennyson). ‘Woman and tree prove of a stuff /Wholly to glamour his wild heart?’ (Robert Graves).
- Jörg Boström and Gottfried Jäger (ed.), ‘The Unreality of the Code’, in Can Photography Capture our Time in Images?, Kerber Verlag, Bielefeld, 2004.
- Many other artists can be connected in one way or another with this idea: Cornelia Parker, Mat Collishaw, Susan Hiller and Brian Catling, none of whom are discussed here, are just a few.
- Homewrecker will be shown in Rotterdam in May.
- David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago, 1989.
- Arturo Schwartz (ed.), The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Delano Greenidge, New York, 2000.
- Hulson will be showing in Ghosts – the Race Against Oblivion at the Klub der Polnischen Versager, the Club for Polish Losers, Berlin.
- Nead’s The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography and Film, c.1900, will be published in September.
- Almost every artist I approach turns out soon to be in a show with ghosts or magic in its title. In this case it’s The Blur of the Otherworldly, in the US.