“A good perfume should make you feel a little apprehensive. It needs an intoxicating sillage. Something a bit gross and dark,” one sister whispers to another in The Levitation (2022), a narrative film in which the artist duo the Broadbent Sisters attempt to craft such an aromatic concoction. Both the world of the film and the darkened cathedral-like space of its accompanying installation seemed to teeter ambivalently between life and death. Backlit shovels were propped up in piles of dirt on the gallery floor, flanking a screen that showed the sisters filling wine goblets with muck; the earth was simultaneously posited as a site of burial and a source of nourishment. At another point in the film, one of the sisters floats on her back in a stream, weeping among flowers and reeds like Millais’s Ophelia. Yet she emerges willfully alive or, perhaps, eerily undead.
The Levitation was one of two large-scale mixed-media installations commissioned for Spectral, an exhibition at Museum London in Western Ontario that brought together works by contemporary artists with historical artifacts from the institution’s collection. Excepting a fairly spare booklet available to visitors, all objects and artworks were displayed in the gallery without labels or explanatory text, in what seemed an intentionally disorienting, atmosphere-generating gesture to create what cocurators Cassandra Getty and Amber Lloydlangston describe as “a celebration of the unknown and unquiet.” The Levitation’s monumental scale and prominent placement at the beginning of the exhibition introduced a pairing between the otherworldly and the feminine that ran through it, and suggested that thinking spectrally makes available a politics for feminist praxis. Indeed, recent artistic and critical engagements with magic and the occult—as in those brought together at the 2021 Witch Institute symposium at Queen’s University or under the rubric of magical-critical thinking in a 2021 anthology edited by Jamie Sutcliffe—have demonstrated that thinking with and about the strange and supernatural does afford meaningful strategies for feminist, as well queer, crip, anti-racist, and decolonial projects. However, the spectral, as much it transgresses boundaries between life and death, is not in and of itself transgressive. While Spectral approached themes that have elsewhere been mobilized to critical and activist ends, such charged, radical potential remained under-explored in the exhibition, missing an opportunity to reckon with the complex histories that haunt the present.
Mystical-feminine imagery percolated through the exhibition’s many allusions to modern Spiritualism, a religious movement founded on a belief that the dead can communicate with the living. Following a series of famed spirit communications facilitated by teenage sisters Margaret and Kate Fox in 1848 (who later retracted their claims of access to the spirit world), the Spiritualist movement proliferated across North America. Artifacts from Museum London’s collection demonstrated the diverse practices and technologies deployed in séances: a heart-shaped planchette, from an ornate mid-twentieth-century Ouija board, could be physically directed by spirits to communicate via letters and numbers, while a gleaming metal cone from the 1920s, known as a spirit trumpet, was used to amplify voices channeled by mediums in trance. Spirit photography was absent from the exhibition, however—surprising given that the new technology of the camera was also crucial for generating evidence of supernatural phenomena. A small oil and encaustic painting by Dana Holst, titled Levitating the Table (2016), went some way to fill that gap, with the blurred black-and-white rendering of a séance scene emulating the formal characteristics of spirit photography.
From its inception, Spiritualism was crucially entangled with the social construction of gender, since the ability to communicate with spirits was thought to require a distinctly feminine sensitivity and susceptibility. As the Spiritualist practitioner John Murray Spear commented in 1857, “the feminine mind possesses, in a higher degree than the masculine, two important requisites of elevated mediumship: first, it is more religious; and, secondly, it is more plastic.” Spirit mediumship became a paradoxical mode of discourse that permitted women—such as Emma Hardinge Britten, Cora Hatch, and Achsa Sprague—to deliver public lectures regarding contemporary issues, such as women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery, so long as they did so while ostensibly in trance, as a channel for the voice of another. This recourse to spectral entities and otherworldly contacts may therefore be understood as a radical tactic, testing and twisting the ideals of Victorian femininity such that passivity became a form of power.
Within a contemporary-art context, modern Spiritualism was prominently revisited in The Milk of Dreams exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. The exhibition included spectral encounters among the more-than-human contacts, agencies, and kinships that it sought to address as a challenge to a masculinist subjectivity and as a mode of reparative re-enchantment. It featured examples of séance photography and automatic drawing among the visual practices of female mediums (such as Linda Gazzera, Georgiana Houghton, Eusapia Palladino, and Hélène Smith), not only elevating such objects and ephemera to the status of artworks, but also treating them as examples of écriture feminine—a political strategy for unravelling dominant systems of language.
In some respects, Spectral was a timely companion to these already begun conversations. Indeed, The Levitation, in its close-ups of the Broadbent Sisters’ hands fondling flowers, berries, seeds, and honey, cultivates an eco-erotics reminiscent of works included in the Biennale by Eglė Budvytytė and Zheng Bo. Yet while The Milk of Dreams framed histories of spirit communication as visceral, transformative, and indeed feminist, creative practices, the artworks in Spectral instead seemed to emphasize the liminal status of girlhood. The Fox sisters were only twelve and fourteen when they first claimed to have contacted the spirit realm, and at Museum London’s presentation the accoutrements of youth connoted a propensity for magic and mischief. The Broadbent Sisters, although adult women, cavort through their rituals in braids and pinafores. Maids of the Mist (2011), another painting by Holst, depicts four girls in ruffled dresses, matching white stockings, and Mary Jane shoes. In a nightmarish apparition, the figures gaze out at what is presumably Niagara Falls; their faces are concealed by flowing acid-green hair and their skin glows a neon pink. This pop Victorian imaginary taps into a third-wave feminist preoccupation with the disruptiveness of girlish aesthetics, as the figure of the girl becomes emblematic of the kind of instability between “beauty and the grotesque, innocence and transgression” that the exhibition sought to explore. But to what end? The connection between these vibrant and unruly representations of young women and the possibilities of real social disruption they might initiate (and, in the context of Spiritualism, in fact did) remains unforged.
Beyond this imagery of a feminine uncanny, Spectral was incredibly successful in cultivating an ambience of instability within the exhibition space. Without an orienting framework, artifacts were unmoored from their origins and gained a curious charge in their displacement. Three intricate mourning bonnets, for instance, were made strange when installed without any reference to a wearing body; floating and casting shadows on the red wall behind them, they appeared like ghostly entities. For the contemporary artworks, the lack of contextualizing information about the artists’ oeuvres or intentions effectively invited viewers to experience works as phenomena, to attend to the visceral sensations they incite rather than what they might represent. For example, Christina Battle’s video Behind the Shadows (2009) stitches together a montage of horror films, in which the frightened faces of unnamed characters flicker and double with the patina of worn archival prints. The films from which Battle collected the images remained undisclosed, and the objects that inspire the expressions of terror were never revealed—a mystery that makes Battle’s work all the more unsettling. Figures walk trepidatiously in the dark; jaws drop and eyes widen. Yet what lurks behind the shadows is never brought to light; an unnamed fear seethes in anticipation of a jump scare.
While such works compellingly staged atmospheric encounters with the unknown, there was a disconnect between art and objects in the exhibition that summon the spectral as a force or feeling and those that address particular histories and traditions. Avery F. Gordon’s well-known sociological writing on the ghost insists that haunting is a simultaneously affective and political modality, a force embedded in social relations. The particular shape and intensity of spectral apparitions, the unresolved histories they recall, and the present conditions that receive them are all important. Yet works like Mere Phantom’s Grief Conservatory (2022), also commissioned for the exhibition, foreground a general atmosphere, rather than particular cultural practices or events, by creating what the artist duo describes on its website as “hybrid expressions of grief” that universalize rituals associated with death and supernatural contact. The work comprises a large-scale phantasmagoria in which light, shone through ornate paper cutouts of trees and oceans, creates an inarguably beautiful and contemplative environment. However, this vague attempt to address “all cultures,” as the artists intend, felt at odds with the prominence of Victorian tradition and imagery throughout the rest of the exhibition.
While Spectral touched upon practices and histories in which ghostly encounters spur political action, it ultimately defined the spectral as a kind of loose vibe rather than a defiant or reparative mode. The exhibition lacked a meaningful uptake of Gordon’s claim that “following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located.” To follow the ghosts in this context might mean to ask what violence produced them or what has been rendered invisible by these dominant settler spiritual traditions—questions that were uninterrogated in this exhibition. A fulsome engagement with the imaginative and reparative potentials of thinking with the spectral requires more than generating a spooky feeling or creepy aesthetic; it means approaching the spectral not as a stable, albeit liminal, property or quality, but an opening, a confrontation, and a call for reckoning.