Long before large art exhibitions and blockbuster shows, crowds were awed by traveling shows called “phantasmagoria” in which familiar scenes and stories were performed with the use of magic lanterns and rear projections to create dancing shadows and frightening theatrical effects. These lively, interactive events incorporated storytelling, mythology, and theater in a single art form that entertained while providing a space for thinking about the otherworldly-playing with the viewers’ anxieties regarding death and the afterlife. A comparable trend can be seen in works by contemporary artists who create ghostly images to reflect on notions of absence and loss, using spectral effects and immaterial mediums such as shadows, fog, mist, and breath. These artists’ approaches range from the festive to the ironic, counterbalancing the emotionally charged, often somber implications of their subject matter.
The shadow-literally, the absence of light-represents something that is beyond the object yet inseparable from it. In many of the works in Phantasmagoria, shadows are used to allude to death, the obscure, and the unnamable, and to construct allegories of loss and disappearance.
In several of these pieces, the artists evoke the history of the shadow theater, as in a video animation by South African artist William Kentridge, and in the shape-shifting shadow cast by French artist Christian Boltanski’s revolving doll, recalling imagery from the carnival as well as figurines used to celebrate the Mexican day of the dead.
Mist, breath, and fog are often associated with mystery; in their double status as perceptible yet almost nonexistent phenomena, they suggest evanescence or absence. For instance, one senses the fleeting yet precise way that memories arise in the spectacular work by Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno, which shows video images of anonymous family-album photos projected onto intermittent effusions of vapor. In Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s work, viewers sitting on a bench are unexpectedly enveloped in a sudden cloud of mist. Throughout the installations presented here, artists’ use of shadows or actual fog evokes the alluring enigma and magic of Phantasmagoria.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with a text by curator Jose Roca, director of the Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica, Bogota, Colombia and a short story by Bruce Sterling.
Phantasmagoria: Specters of Absence is a traveling exhibition co-organized by ICI (Independent Curators International), New York, and the Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica, Bogota, Colombia, and circulated by ICI. The guest curator for the exhibition is Jose Roca. The exhibition, tour, and catalogue are made possible, in part, by the ICI Exhibition Partners and the ICI independents.