Hauntology, curated by Lawrence Rinder and Scott Hewicker. On view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through December 5, 2010. Photo: Silbia Savage.

Hauntology, on view at the Berkeley Art Museum until early December, takes its cue from a concept coined by Derrida in his 1993 work Spectres of Marx.  In a philosophical context hauntology, itself a pun on ontology, suggests that capitalist concepts of space, time, and identity are continuously haunted by the Marxist revenant of Communism.  The term, coined in the early ’90s only a few scant years after the Autumn of Nations, suggests that the apparent triumph of the free market can never capably exorcise the utopian specter of Communism.  Revenant takes its root from the French verb revenir (to return) suggesting that, semantically, this ghost will inevitably come back to spook the “euphoria of liberal democracy.” 

Hauntology has also been extrapolated by English music critic Simon Reynolds and cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe an eccentric atmospheric element in experimental electronic music, one that samples dated material to create a vague sense of melancholy, dread, and nostalgic bliss.  It refers to a world that’s been lost, particularly that of ’80s rave culture, dead but not forgotten.

Both uses of the term lay the groundwork for a show with equal parts popular and academic appeal.  Curated by BAM director Lawrence Rinder and artist and musician Scott Hewicker, the show aims to invoke the “spirit” of hauntology as a guiding principle in its selection and presentation of work, much of which is taken from the museum’s recent contemporary acquisitions.  It consists almost exclusively of two-dimensional pieces, ranging in date from the mid-17th century to 2010, and as such does not focus on any one formal style.  Although some artists (Goya, Georges Rouault, Ad Reinhardt, Peter Doig, Luc Tuymans) are common names in art history, one of the artists included is unknown, and a few are better known for their careers in other artistic fields than for the paintings on view here.  The show also seamlessly incorporates several Centuries-old scroll paintings from China and Japan. 

Paul Sietsema: Ship drawing 2009 (detail); ink on paper; diptych, ea: 50 3/4 × 70 in.: museum purchase: bequest of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, exchange; photo © Paul Sietsema/Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

At first glance, Hauntology looks like it could belong to a 19th century collector, evoking the bric-a-brac sensibility of a Victorian parlor.  The mauve-colored walls lend a slightly morbid ambiance to the setting.  (Cabinet magazine published an essay on the color mauve two years ago that acts as a nice companion piece, describing the first artificial color as both monstrous and rococo.)  The show includes a painting of Sarah Winchester, the rifle heiress who famously constructed her home for 38 continuous years based on instructions given to her during nightly seances.  There’s a glitter-dusted painting of famed feral child Kaspar Hauser.  There are goofy-looking potbellied demons snacking on human leavings in a 20th century copy of a 12th century Japanese painting.  There is a ghostly piano recital emanating from a small black boom box.  There is a Francis Bacon painting.  It’s possible to engage with the show as though you’ve stumbled into the house of Edgar Allen Poe, simply as weird, spooky fun.
Additional technical marvels inspire perceptual awe and scrutiny, including Paul Sietsema’s “Ship Drawing,” a trompe l’oeil ink diptych that appears to be a photograph.  This is paired with a black-and-white C-print by Paul Schiek, which looks like it could be a charcoal drawing.  Around the corner, Marie Krane Bergman & Cream Co’s “Untitled (840 constituent colors, like August into September),” a dizzying grid of thousands of lozenge-shaped blobs of off-white paint, hangs two steps away from a painting by Ad Reinhardt, in which a black-on-black cross shifts in and out of the viewer’s perception.

The exhibition maintains a subtle critical edge that subverts its apparently casual appearance. Its composition is tight as a drum, and pairings and groupings of objects reverberate with shared lines of thought.  One such thread starts with Carrie Mae Weems’s constructed image “The Capture of Angela,” and continues through Debra Bloomfield’s imagined photograph about an attempt on Leon Trotsky’s life; moves to Lutz Bacher’s warped, ominous “Olympiad,” a video which both parodies and acts as monument to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and ends with the face of a snarling dog, one of Fernando Botero’s paintings from his series about Abu Ghraib.  These are all imaginings of historical events, some radical and utopian, but none with a happy ending—in this environment, they are political memento moris.

Hauntology bears a family resemblance to Curious Crystals of Unusual Purity, a show co-curated by Bob Nickas and Steve Lefreniere at P.S.1 in 2004. That show, named for a Bridget St. John song penned in 1969, suggested a variety of influences that include, wunderkammer, Altair pattern design, off-the-grid living, and the acid-fried music of Alexander “Skip” Spence.  Curious Crystals included over 100 works by artists such as Carol Bove, Adrian Piper, Fred Tomaselli and, like Hauntology, Bruce Connor.  Both shows also treat objects either as worlds unto themselves or gateways into another dimension.

Both exhibitions employ vaguely spiritual, utopian organizational principles—in the former, the new age; the latter, the afterlife.  Hauntology certainly indulges in contemporary art’s (still) current fashion for the spiritual in art, but its inclusion of historical work enriches the exhibition and underscores its theoretical point.  It’s magnetic and engages in several mediums of communication, encouraging the viewer to return for more.


Liz Wing

Liz Wing is a writer living in San Francisco.