Stephen G. Rhodes loves ghost stories. He lures his audience as deep as possible into the undergrowth with skilfully deployed references to pop and social history – into the darkest corners of the forest. Rhodes’s shows are crash courses in postcolonial image analysis. He breaks his material down into ever-smaller units and spreads it around the exhibition space until its repressed content comes to light.
In The Law of the Unknown Neighbor: Inferno Romanticized, Rhodes’s first institutional show in Switzerland, you could almost hear the space of the Migros Museum creaking under the referential load. Here, it was the life and writings of the art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) that provided the material to be put through the shredder of subtextual analysis. In the dimly lit space, visitors were confronted with various everyday objects in an untitled large-scale installation: metal hospital bed frames (some leaning vertically against the wall), banana crates full of used books (a reference to Warburg’s famous library that emigrated from Hamburg to London in 1933), small stepladders, empty shelves, stacked cardboard boxes with unknown contents draped with opaque PVC sheeting. These items were joined by a number of rubber snakes in various colours laid out on the floor in concentric circles, echoing the movement of three ceiling fans mounted at head height, each with a video projector attached to it. The images from the projectors flitted across mint green hospital curtains that hung from the ceiling, while neon lights flickered in the corners.
Rather than the often cited Mnemosyne Atlas, created by Warburg in the 1920s in an attempt to trace the cultural memory of images, the main point of reference for Rhodes was a text from 1923 that is closely interwoven with Warburg’s lengthy treatment for mental illness at the Bellevue sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (the hospital beds, curtains and a wooden lectern included in the installation pointed in this direction). At the sanatorium, Warburg gave a lecture to patients and doctors to demonstrate the extent of his recovery. It was later published, against the explicit wishes of its author, in various versions under titles including Images from the region of the Pueblo Indians of North America and A Lecture on Serpent Ritual. It deals with a journey to New Mexico undertaken by Warburg in 1896 during a stay in America – 27 years before the lecture. In it, Warburg describes the snake ritual of the Hopi and develops an ethnographic analysis of their culture and religion. At a moment of crisis in his own biography, the Kreuzlingen lecture is viewed as a turning point in Warburg’s case history, as a tool for self-healing, which at least partly explains its reverential status within cultural studies.
The complex history of this text’s writing and publication (described in Suhrkamp’s 2010 Warburg edition as a ‘complex archive, not easily untangled’) is so scintillating that Rhodes hardly needs to further illuminate the source material. Voices, image fragments and shadows were sent scurrying through this archive, while the snakes lay on the floor like semantic thresholds, as if waiting to be stumbled over. ‘The Indians’ as Warburg’s publisher Ulrich Raulff once said of the snake ritual, ‘could be said to have provided Warburg with a mask behind which he was able to do something very serious – to demonstrate what it means to banish fear into symbols’. In the Zurich show, as if in a test set-up, Rhodes tried to look behind this mask, into the dimly lit Warburgian labyrinth where moments of mental lucidity and intellectual acumen mix with delusions, phobias, compulsions and obsessions. The butterfly stickers spread around the exhibition were a reference to this: in his room at Kreuzlingen, Warburg talked to himself and spoke with the moths and butterflies that he called his ‘soul creatures’.
This exhibition appeared as a complex chain of signals in which politics, colonial, cultural and medical history amplified, distorted and reflected each another: a ghost train ride in which the scurrying shadow of the artist was always just out of reach.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell