Go Ahead, Look Behind the Curtain

(Courtesy University Of Maryland, Baltimore County - Courtesy University Of Maryland, Baltimore County)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 5, 2005

Item: "Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology and the Paranormal," an ambitious group show documenting 21st-century artists who conjure ghosts and horror flicks, opened in Baltimore two weeks ago.

Item: "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult," a survey of historical images of spirits and their ectoplasm, opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art six weeks ago.

Two shows invoke the beyond. Both run concurrently. One occurs within a few hundred miles of the other. Coincidence? Of course. But believing in the paranormal proves oh-so tempting, especially for artists.

At the Center for Art and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, "Blur of the Otherworldly" confirms that today's artists still enjoy a ghost story or two. But the zeitgeist is different now, and so is the technology. Back in the 19th century, poltergeist infatuation collided with the brand-new medium of photography. With a tweak of the camera, cheesecloth stuffed in a clairvoyant's mouth could be passed off as an occult emanation. Now, effects honed by Hollywood gurus offer tools for high-tech ghost hunts, yet many contemporary artists don't press for illusion. Instead, they turn the effects back on themselves to reveal behind-the-scenes machinations. In this exhibition, better technology doesn't make for better illusion. It makes for better deconstruction of ghosts.

Take Scottish native Zoe Beloff, who produced a triple-screen, multichannel DVD installation re-creating the seances of the early-20th-century French medium "Eva C." Beloff's sometimes goofy, often beguiling three-dimensional film (glasses are provided) dramatizes 10 seances given by the seer and chronicled by physicians Charles Richet and Baron von Schrenck-Notzing -- and gives them a feminist spin.

Beloff portrays Eva as a fetching young lady performing in a Victorian parlor, where she's attended by a female assistant and men of science. In Beloff's depiction, these seances look like scientifically sanctioned perversion. A related work by Beloff reproduces pages from von Schrenck-Notzing's book "Phenomena of Materialization" and invites us to share in the physician's intimate observations: "Since 4 pm Eva complained of pains and swelling of the breasts . . . She asked to be undressed, threw off all her clothes." You can practically see the good doctor's glasses steaming. It's not hard to see these notations as psychic projections of strait-laced men uncomfortable with manifestations of their own baser instincts.

Another strain of investigation within "Blur of the Otherworldly" involves the unmasking of ghosts. It's as if artists wanted to remind us that behind the curtain, Oz isn't a menace but a nice old grandpa in a pageboy. Whether the artists use the latest sound and video marvels technology or low-tech gadgetry, they seem bent on destroying our illusions.

Part 1 of John Roach's "Transmission From Beyond" is a video monitor displaying a mysterious book whose pages turn of their own accord. Round a corner of the gallery and the secret's out: The book is surrounded by motorized fans that turn its pages.

Partners Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick do something similar in their sound-and-video installation "Spirit Array." Screams, shrill winds and groans emanate from behind the walls of a room. Walk inside and you see mini-speakers ringing the walls. A video screen projects not scary images but a scrolling list of computer sound file commands. With names such as "Ohio trespasser's spooky wispy alley wind" and "Resampled mutant mom," the sounds become more goofy than frightening.

These artists' technical know-how also gets them into trouble. Leslie Sharpe invites participants in her 21st-century seance to add text and images to the proceedings through PDAs supplied at the show. Yet the pre-printed and lengthy directions will puzzle those unfamiliar with PDA technology; all but the savviest will abandon the piece fast. Likewise, the handful of works available only online (viewable at home or on computers stationed in the exhibition space) are riddled with technical snafus, including a computer crash generated by Diane Bertolo's "ChannelUntitled" and a bad link to Ken Goldberg's "Ouija 2000."

Despite the show's faults, its premise works. Mediums and the paranormal continue to intrigue us. The spirit world and its phantoms offer answers to the big whys of existence. Like, what happens when we die?

Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology and the Paranormal at the Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County Fine Arts Building, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 410-455-3188, http://www.bluroftheotherworldly.com/ , to Dec. 17.

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