BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 MAY 03
Featured in
Issue 75


Magasin 3, Stockholm, Sweden

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 MAY 03

The mystifying drawing is from the hand of a rank amateur, Mary Marshall, who readily admitted that she neither is interested in, nor has had any training in, the visual arts. It is unsigned and undated, and its medium is as modest as the artist - pencil on paper. No wonder that it is of Jesus Christ, the master architect of sacred miracles. In spite of the drawing's humble status, one critic - none other than Alison Newton, past president of the Manitoba Art Society - reported after seeing it: 'No one knows better than the artist that even after years of training it would be impossible to draw anything approaching the perfection of this drawing in complete darkness.' In a word, the portrait was spellbinding. It appeared one April evening as Mrs Marshall, a respected medium, was taken over by the spirit 'Walter', who then guided her hand in making The Trance Drawing of 1933 (1933). However naive Mrs Marshall may have been about drawing, a path like hers towards becoming an artist is not for beginners. If her picture seems shady, it none the less tallies with a thousand stories, from Sigmar Polke to Hilma af Klint, of artists being conducted though their creative work by spectres.

'Spiritus', the exhibition organized by Richard Julin and Magnus af Petersens, revisits this whole area, but this time offering a contemporary interpretation at the hands of various, and in some cases rather unexpected, artists. As historical touchstones, Julin and af Petersens have thought to include photographs of a number of renowned mediums from previous eras, including Mrs Marshall and Marthe Béraud, a.k.a. Eva C., pictured materializing departed souls through spewing ectoplasm.

The artists in this exhibition steer clear of spewing - Julin and af Petersens have in mind another approach. Theirs is a discreet meditation on artists who have chosen their own paths towards psychic immersion, whether into altered states of consciousness, rapture, ceremony or parallel worlds. It is a theme widely under discussion at the moment; Daniel Pinchbeck's edgy and staggering book Breaking Open the Head (2002) and Matt Mullican's recent performance, under hypnosis, at the Anton Kern Gallery obviously spring to mind. At the same time, it is worth noting that 'Spiritus' takes as its format an approach first masterminded by Robert Pincus-Witten, whereby a gallery, in this case the Konsthall, organizes an exhibition whose scale is more at the level one expects from a major museum.

If there were an underlying theme to this exhibition, it would be navigating the 'uncanny passage', taking the meaning of 'uncanny' directly from the early Surrealist association with the Sublime, rather than from its more recent and popular usage. Carsten Höller's beautiful video piece The Forest (2002) is a prime example. Donning Eye-trek glasses, one wanders quietly though a winter forest, at the dead of night, through gently sifting snow. After a while, apparently lost in a mystifying wood, one arrives at a single tree -where the path forks, apparently leading to two worlds running parallel - which one, if either, is reality? At first visually literal, experience abruptly doubles in two extra-sensory channels until you return to refocus on the stark single tree, only to begin your trip once more. It felt close to Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913), with its folk-like, modal, free-flowing, circular and non-threatening structure. Höller has provided a remarkably nimble focusing instrument, a visual metaphor that allows the spectator to bore into life's unfolding experience. Beside Höller was Dan Graham's cult film Rock My Religion (1984), the roughly laid-out cross between a history of interlopers and a personal pledge to a life on the margin, where fringe religion feathers into Outsider culture. Testimonies from Patti Smith to Dan Graham and from Dan Graham to Jim Morrison and from Jim Morrison to the Quakers' make it real. In every respect Graham's film remains suspended, ungrounded - underground, and yet the anchor for the entire exhibition.

The exhibition also follows the visceral path towards the extra-sensory, where Doug Aitken, Ann Veronica Janssens, Pipilotti Rist and others congregate. In a sexually inspired dance/trance with a ring of barbed wire Sigalit Landau allows - with each gyration - her flesh to be ripped and disfigured. Does self-destruction ultimately lead to self-enlightenment? The answer never comes. Landau's body, offered up as an instrument for exploratory transcendence, beyond corporeal sex and pain, brings to mind both Chris Burden's powerful trials and tribulations and the séance of February 1913, when Eva C. allowed a ghost to undress her before an adoring, if not astonished, assembly.

It is fitting that the artists in 'Spiritus' should have explored the margins of the extra-sensory through forms of immateriality such as film and video projections, sound and light. And it is telling that the least complicated of these forms - Marine Hugonnier's decision to do no more than light a white candle set on a ledge - is perhaps the most captivating. Hers was the only work that could not be turned on or off, and as a result was able to express in a unique way the difference between 'being' and 'is'. What Hugonnier offers is the possibility of actually being spellbound. It is up to you to decide whether you are in the presence of mesmerizing candlelight or just a flickering flame that has momentarily caught your eye, but there is no question that she has actually created an ethereal experience rather than settling for something that merely resembles one.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.