It's also overwhelmingly creepy. The gallery is brightly lit but haunted by eerie sounds -- specifically, carnival music and film-reel ticking from the video piece "Winchester," Jeremy Blake's take on the unstable mind of Sarah Winchester, widow of the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune.
The exhibit begins with a sizable collection of spirit photography, pictures that supposedly capture visitors from beyond the grave lurking in Victorian-era portraits. As the living subjects stare unsmiling at the camera, their stiff expressions and the old photographs' murky tones are disturbing enough. But additional elements -- such as a transparent, floating, disembodied head -- could keep an imaginative viewer tossing and turning all night. In J.R. Klausser's "Clinton Langley," from 1916, a small boy in a suit stands on a wooden floor with his hands at his sides. The whites of his eyes seem to stare out from the photo, but it's difficult to discern them because his face and body are obscured by a swirling mist that trails the levitating faces and necks of elderly men.
Posted near the pictures are historical details about the phenomenon of spirit photography. They explain how, in 1861, Boston photographer William Mumler developed a self-portrait he had taken alone in a studio only to find traces of another figure in the photo. He acknowledged that the ghostly image had most likely been caused by a dirty photographic plate, but followers of spiritualism, a religious movement focused on establishing communication between the living and the dead, convinced him that his camera had captured the image of a visitor from the great beyond.
It was undoubtedly the spiritualists' ignorance about photographic techniques and their eagerness to find proof of things not visible to the human eye that led them to believe something supernatural was happening; imagine thinking that red eyes prove the people in a snapshot are possessed by the devil. These days, people understand that a photo can easily be manipulated to show something that isn't there. Viewers no longer expect a photograph to convey the literal truth.
Nonetheless, Ferris attempts to draw a connection between spirit photography of the mid-1800s and what she sees as a new trend of ghosts haunting contemporary artwork. After all, cameras are used in both cases. "The fact that artists are using film-based media to create representations of ghosts at this turn of the century is actually of great consequence," Ferris writes. She concludes that technological advancements, with cameras in the 1800s and computers in the late 1900s, allowed artists to create works exploring the disembodied self. The resulting utopian visions, she writes, "offered new possibilities for life and experience within a drastically changing world."
After viewing this show several times, however, a visitor might just as easily conclude that people use cameras to make pictures of ghosts because it's easy to make the photos look blurry and mysterious. The medium is perfectly suited to the concept; it's the same reason why there's always some jackass in a high school ceramics class who makes penises out of clay; he thinks it's funny, but he also does it because clay is easy to mold into a cylinder. Ferris' contemporary-art ghosts might be trying to tell us something, but it's not remarkable that they're showing up in film-based media.
In Sally Mann's "Deep South" series, for example, mysterious lights appear to hover in Spanish moss-covered forests and on plantation-style front porches near locations where kindly old women, slaves and train conductors died. The strange, blurry glares marring the Southern landscapes certainly make the photographs unnerving. They could be the result of some difficult-to-explain phenomenon -- or they could just be reflections from the humid summer sun.
Not surprisingly, blurred imagery shows up in almost all of Ferris' examples of contemporary artwork haunted by ghosts and spirits. In Mariko Mori's triptych "Last Departure," a futuristically dressed woman stands in the middle of Osaka's Kansai International Airport with a reflective, crystal ball-like orb in her hand. Flanking her are two nearly identical transparent figures. Their clothes echo the smooth, white and silver arches and swoops of architecture surrounding them. It is dazzling eye candy at the very least. Next to Mori's piece hangs Jim Campbell's untitled scene, a picture of an empty street backed by a row of tiny Lite-Brite bulbs that turn on and off in specific patterns and rhythms, creating the illusion of shadowy figures moving across the street. This effect is reminiscent of the cheesy lights one might find at a novelty shop, only much more fascinating.
Displayed near each other on one side of the gallery are several figurative, though nearly abstract, images -- glowing human forms created using basic photographic techniques such as pinhole cameras and photograms. In Bruce Conner's "Sound of Two Hand Angel," a human figure shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus stretches its bright white palms toward the viewer. Contrasting these are more narrative works by Anna Gaskell and Duane Michals. Gaskell's "Half-Life" series shows a young woman roaming alone through a Victorian-era house that's devoid of furniture. Inspired by Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Gaskell conveys the anxiety of a young woman trapped in oppressive surroundings. She uses dramatic lighting and crops her pictures to capture only the young woman's hair and the hem of her skirt. Michals' "The Bogeyman" uses a set of eight photos much like panels in a comic strip to tell the story of a little girl abducted by a coat rack that slowly morphs into a man.
Ferris has also included two sculptures, both of which deal with levitation. She argues that even the nonphotographic work in the exhibit has been influenced by photography. Meghan Scribner's "Winter Lullaby" is a wooden rocking chair draped with resin-hardened linen and suspended 10 feet above the ground; the resin gives it a slick, goopy feel, especially where the orange-tinted fabric spreads thinly and transparently over the dark wood. And Cornelia Parker's "Thirty Pieces of Silver" is exactly what it claims to be: thirty pieces of shining silver, flattened by a 250-ton industrial press and suspended from the ceiling by metal wires. Although the sculptures stay true to the show's theme, the fact that there are only two of them makes them feel like an afterthought, as if the curator tacked them on at the end to have some sculptural representation.
Like the photography, though, these sculptures capture a single moment in time. And even viewers who don't believe in ghosts will be haunted by the spirit of the work.