Iris and the Gnome
Notorious B.I.G. ...
Photo by Fleur Levitz
This fine exhibition has three, no, four levels. First, it focuses on the now-famous faked photographs of fairies taken by a pair of schoolgirls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, England, in 1917, during World War I. Second, the exhibition includes some vintage examples of "spirit photography," a genre of double-exposure that apparently shows shadowy presences of the dear departed. Most of these fascinating period pieces were thought by their owners to be real sightings.
Three, the exhibition presents some contemporary photographers who have dabbled, in their photographic effects, in the suggestion of the otherworldly. Some of the selections here are canny (a Duane Michaels from the 1970s) and some are jejune, recycling '80s styles. The first two parts of the exhibition are fascinating -- the real stuff -- but the attempt to discover a contemporary legacy of this material is only a stylish conceit.
But then there is a fourth area that is more hidden, which is the here and now, 1998. Visual culture in the 1990s has shifted from the intellectual and skeptical to something much more intuitive and gullible. What hits the spot now is tabloidism mixed with a new religiosity, with the bass notes of millennarianism sounding ever louder as the clock ticks down. Whether paging through a Star or a book on miracles or angels, I want to believe in the reality of all manner of sightings, UFOs, the Virgin Mary appearing in condensation on a window in Texas (the Catholic church calls such sightings "simulacra"), a ghost on the wreck of the Titanic. Something is fake, but my imagination needs it to be real. It's the time we live in: politics be damned, fairies are in again.
The star of the show remains the spectacle of the Cottingley photographs. The special thing about these photos is not in the photo per se, but in the fact that they were believed to be real capturings of fairies on film. Both zeitgeist, England's shock at the casualties of the War, and the fact that Arthur Conan Doyle, by then author emeritus of Sherlock Holmes, took them up and proclaimed them real, made them a sensation. Doyle was engaged in griefwork over the death of his son in the War, and therefore was in a susceptible state.
In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle's grief is the abiding spirit of this part of the exhibition and attempting to reconstruct a scenario by which such photos could be thought of as real is the most challenging aspect of the exhibition. Grief can do strange things to your mind and eyes. But the main thing it does is to detach you from the world you live in, arresting you in a state where you long for someone that is permanently gone. To the new real world, the world without your departed, you can only give half-hearted, piecemeal attention to life, managing but motifs and details (nothing big, no worldviews), while your impulse towards the real world leapfrogs the real and pushes through the shattered remains of this world toward some other reality, the reality of the departed one.
In such a state, the mind decomposes the world, while the eye in turn reconstructs fantasies from the ruins. Together, the imagination bombards the real with sightings, intimations, voices and other infiltrations which makes the real porous and shaky, and at last digestible enough to embrace the presence of the departed. One begins to see things, or hear things, or sense things, and worse than that, one wants to believe that these phenomena are real, and come from the departed. Fairies, leprechauns, angels, ghosts, bogeymen, elves, gnomes, whatever, all arise as sightings in the fissures of a broken reality, offering solace to keep the bereft world together.
Crawling back into his mind, one can almost see -- almost -- why Conan Doyle was duped (for duped he was -- the girls confessed years later). In Iris and the Gnome (1917) by Frances Griffith, a seated, bonnetted Edwardian girl greets a walking butterflylike creature: the legs look -- more real than the wings, the wings look fake. But it is the girl's hand that acts as the transformative presence: the girl has a distorted, monstrous looking hand. It represents a reaching through to the other side: it signals a rent in the fabric of the real and it startles one into a susceptible state.
Yes, indeed, given a mood, I can see what Conan Doyle saw. The several examples of vintage spirit photography also intrigue because, again, embraced by the idea that someone, no doubt, thought they were real. These however are more obviously the result of simple double exposures, sold to the gullible as sightings: they do not have a sustaining uncanny quality and seem but a nice parlor genre.
The contemporary part of the show also includes some famous works that resemble spirit photography, the photographer's effects themselves creating startling images that can be read as spirit-influenced (whether they actually were or not). Ralph Meatyard's Child with Hand, Doll and Masks, for example, is eerie in the extreme.
Jennifer Bolande's Forest Spirits (1997) looks to be a direct descendant of the Cottingley photos, as it clearly believes in a type of visuality based on "seeing things" (secondary images, simulacra) in patterns or natural forms. Barbara Ess, Tim Maul, Burson and Barbara Bloom, with others, fill out the modern: but, in truth, all involve a different type of visuality.
The final irony of the exhibition is Vik Muniz's Medusa Marinara (1997), in which Medusa is pictured in a plate of spaghetti, set in a bookcase next to copies of Conan Doyle's books on spirit photography, which harks back to his 1980s ironic, skeptical, trickster work (unlike his more recent "Sugar Babies" or "Cloud" series -- which would definitely be in the "seeing things" discourse), and gives a final forgetaboutit to the whole proceedings. Odd.
"The Cottingley Fairies and Other Apparitions," Jan. 17-Feb. 21, 1998, at Leslie Tonkonow, 601 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
ROBERT MAHONEY is an art critic.