BAM Conjures the Ghost of 'Hauntology'

Photo: Ghost world. The Berkeley Art Museum's new exhibit 'Hauntology' uses the framework of Derrida's 'Specters of Marx' to showcase art dating from the 15th century to this past year.
Paul Sietsema: Ship Drawing 2009 (detail); Diptych. Photo: Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Courtesy
Ghost world. The Berkeley Art Museum's new exhibit 'Hauntology' uses the framework of Derrida's 'Specters of Marx' to showcase art dating from the 15th century to this past year.

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A spectre is haunting Europe..."

Karl Marx's description of the looming threat of communism is an iconographic statement. What French philosopher Jacques Derrida saw when he glossed the opening line of the "Communist Manifesto" was ghastly: the ghost of a government that would end all governments, but above all else, the ghost itself.

Coining the term "hauntology" - a Francophonic pun on the similarly pronounced "ontology" - Derrida's 1993 book "Specters of Marx" broke ground on an intellectual project of sizable reach. Subsequent scholars and artists have busied themselves with locating haunting figures within the context of Derrida's work. Some such labored pursuits have culminated into the Berkeley Art Museum's latest exhibit opening this week, "Hauntology."

Made up of recent acquisitions to the museum, and co-curated by BAM director Lawrence Rinder and local artist Scott Hewicker, the 52 pieces that comprise this collection testify to a fascination with the spirits of the past that linger in present landscapes.

Rinder's familiarity with "Specters" was the impetus for the curating process, which gained some of its guiding framework from the book. "(Derrida is) trying to describe the conditions of history and society in a post-utopian era," said Rinder in an e-mail. "In the post-communist period we are haunted by the lost sense of an imagined future."

Rinder drew upon the knowledge of friend, Hewicker, whose work at San Francisco's Aquarius Records has aided his knowledge of hauntological music. "That old world sound," Hewicker said in an e-mail, "made far-away and blurry as if heard in a dream was something we tried to look for visually."

A looming sense of loss and an obscured dream-like aesthetic are two of the many connecting threads that actively, and indirectly, bridge the works currently on display together, as the theme of "Hauntology" is stretched and tested across styles and centuries.

Upon entering BAM's Gallery 3, the strains of "Stuttering Piano" can be heard. A work by British sound artist Ivan Seal, the notes of a girl's first piano lesson through a shared wall set a mood of voyeuristic nostalgia.

Among the first pieces on the wall is Bernard Maybeck's 1910 frontispiece for the Greek play "Circe: A Dramatic Fantasy" by Isaac Flagg. The watercolor is fascinating in its detailed depiction of a nearly indecipherable figure sitting within a beam of sunlight in the midst of a courtyard, the setting embodying the abandoned trappings of former greatness.

Progressing along the wall, the viscerally fascinating 1912 work by Rudolph Ingerle entitled "Moonlight in the Park" comes into view, in which two barely legible figures seem to be taking an evening jaunt through a wooded landscape. The oil painting leans heavily upon darkened greens and blues, and through the trees two beacons of light reflected upon the water eerily mirror the walking couple.

In contrast to the heavily detailed and often quite fantastical works on canvas, some of the more recent pieces take a more experimental approach to capturing the ghost. Carina Baumann's untitled 2008-2009 piece is both unsettling and fascinating in its construction. A piece of translucent white film of a young man's face gleams out faintly from a large piece of aluminum on the wall, and the effect is stunning.

Another work that speaks to hauntological aesthetics from the recent past is the exhibit's centerpiece, Paul Sietsema's "Ship Drawing" from 2009. The ink drawing diptych recreates an old ship on tattered parchment with the name "Museo Nacional" painted on its side. Sietsema's two-panelled work is effective in its self-conscious use of a purposefully aged aesthetic. His work relates to that of another artist on display, Japanese painter Takahashi Sakunosuke, whose 1968 recreation of the late 12th-century "Gaki Zoshi (Hungry Ghosts)" is a dedicated study of the artwork of another time, that seeks to work within handscroll parameters to create something uniquely modern in effect.

The hauntological music that aided in the curation process shares a lot of common ground with the art itself. Rinder describes the works on display as exhibiting "references to history and moments of historical transition, images linking the future with ruins, conventionally spooky or ghostly images...and works that have textures reminiscent of the scratches and overtones of hauntological music." Hewicker shared some of the music that influenced the curation process, including the "short wave Number Stations believed to be encrypted spy transmissions (and) the subterranean sounds of dubstep."

The exhibit hosts works by recognizable names like Diane Arbus, Fernando Botero and Francis Bacon. Yet perhaps one of the most striking works on display, Miller Updegraff's "The Enigma of Kasper Hauser" completed this year, is named after Werner Herzog's 1974 film. Acrylic paint and glitter meet on canvas almost irreverently, invoking both the ghost and the man.

BAM's "Hauntology" exhibit is one of the most engaging and well-curated showcases of romantic, modern and contemporary art in the museum's recent history. It affords not only a peek into the vast world of hauntological art and criticism that has amassed in the last decade, but also the opportunity to see revelatory artwork in person.


Brush up on your French puns with Hayley at [email protected]

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