‘May I ask’, the soft-spoken artist Christian Cummings paused, as if searching for a tactful way to broach a delicate subject, ‘how you died?’ Admittedly, in polite society the question is sort of a conversation-stopper. When posed to an unfamiliar, disembodied interlocutor via the less than subtle communication tool of the Ouija board it has the potential to lead to a little trans-dimensional pique. Promptly the tear-shaped Ouija planchette pointer jerked across the board to the failsafe word ‘Goodbye’, and the channelled ‘spirit’ in question, an entity using the streetwise netherworld tag of Bartman, had evidently logged off from the realm of the living. So it goes in the easy-come, easy-go world of conversing with the dead.
As part of Creative Time’s ‘Strange Powers’ exhibition, devoted to art that keeps an open mind when it comes to paranormal phenomena and the occult, Cummings’ four days of séance drawing sessions were a highlight, billed as a sort of open call to creative aspirants on other planes of existence to commune with the living. Setting himself up on the top floor of a creaky old (reportedly haunted) tenement building in the East Village, Cummings and his assistant sat solemnly at a table with a Ouija board between them, an overhead projector magnifying on a nearby wall the action taking place on the table’s surface. Donning black-out eye-masks, the two were attended by a young woman who took notes and read aloud the letters and words as they were spelt. Starting each session with the query, ‘Is there any spirit here who would like to talk to us?’ and a few perfunctory warm-up questions, Cummings quickly got to the matter at hand, and each wayward soul was invited to make a drawing (an invitation rarely turned down) using a magic marker affixed to the planchette on a fresh sheet of paper.
From the results two less than empirical conclusions could be drawn. First, the art world of the hereafter appears even more crowded than the one we currently enjoy – open to anyone, with the famously departed jockeying with complete unknowns for equal airtime. Second, when people shrug off their mortal coils, they appear to start drawing in a pretty consistent style. Perhaps determined by the limitations of the Ouija technique (the pen nib never alighting from the paper’s surface), that style has a doodly, Etch-a-Sketch, tattoo-parlour quality.
One of the first to sign in was, a little surprisingly, Barnett Newman, who, spurning the cabbalistic mystical abstraction of his earthbound years, here seemed content to simply scribble ‘art history is fundamental but not essential’ in a shaky hand alongside a crude sketch (self-portrait?) of a bald man in a bow-tie. During another session someone with the sideshow moniker Carny Billy sketched Keanu Reeves in full Matrix kung fu mode with a carton of orange juice. When questioned about the juice, the pointer spelled out ‘v-i-t-a-m-i-n C’, suggesting that even the deceased can still be health-conscious. While a minority of sceptics could be found in the audience (one Doubting Thomas circled the table mid-session looking for signs of peeking, wires, mirrors or other evidence of a spiritualist con), the majority of those present were clearly happy to remain in the camp of the credulous. Looks of wide-eyed astonishment and evidence of hushed goosebump-ish wonder were everywhere, and on a deliriously hot and sticky afternoon in an un-air-conditioned walk-up a little delirious suspension of disbelief can go a long way.