Believe Not Every Spirit, But Try The Spirits

Georgiana Houghton, 'The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ', 1862

Georgiana Houghton, ‘The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ’, 1862

This exhibition review was commissioned by RAVEN Contemporary, and originally published on May 19th 2015. An archive of the post can be accessed here.

Believe Not Every Spirit, But Try the Spirits is an ambitious exhibition that charts the influence and use of spiritualist methodologies and practices in art. Guest curated by Lars Bang Larsen and academic Marco Pasi, the exhibition is the inaugural edition of Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA)’s new biennial program with international curators.

The starting point for the exhibition is the forgotten Victorian-era artist Georgiana Houghton, who became a spirit medium in the 1860s and claimed that spirits guided her hand while drawing. An entire room is devoted to Houghton’s works, displayed in elegant upright stands that allow viewers to read the written interpretation on the back of each piece. Beyond their spiritualist origin, Houghton’s drawings are undeniably dynamic and striking in their vivid use of colours and lines. At a time when her peers were still firmly rooted in figurative representation, Houghton was decades ahead in her turn towards abstraction.

Believe Not Every Spirit… not only champions Houghton’s art historical significance, but also considers the marginalised relationship between art, the occult, and spiritualistic beliefs in the afterlife and spirit communication. The exhibition is far-reaching in its breadth, spanning an extensive line-up of international and Australian artists while presenting contemporary works alongside historical pieces in an open dialogue.

The mediumistic premise of Houghton is perhaps best reflected in the works of contemporary artist Matt Mullican, who works under self-induced hypnosis to channel what he calls ‘that person’. The resulting drawings are obsessive, bordering on paranoid, recalling the mad scribbles of a heretic. Mullican relates his works not to a higher entity, but to a yet-unknown aspect of the human brain and consciousness.

While Mullican and Houghton’s drawings are bold and overt, other artists in the exhibition tap into more subtle expressions of spiritualism. Dane Mitchell’s Cleansed Corner (An Energetic Field) is one such work, which consists of an area of the gallery over which the artist has cast a ‘spell’. A rope restricts access, while directional gallery lighting draws attention to the corner. Elsewhere in the exhibition, David Lamelas’ minimalist Limit of Projection uses a single spotlight to shine a circle in the gallery floor, drawing a distinction between what can be seen and what is unseen.

One of the key features of spiritualism is that it is not always visible to the eye, but rather felt and sensed. These limitations of the visible are explored in the exhibition through works that engage with sensory experience. Olivia Plender’s vinyl recording of a séance and Laurent Schmid’s Heliopause, featuring photographs displayed alongside vibrating speakers, both use sound and reverberation to suggest forces under the surface.

Considered as a whole, Believe Not Every Spirit… does well in bringing attention to a previously marginalised area of art history, but the ambiguity of the theme and lack of focus also means that the exhibition raises more questions than answers. The show features many engaging works, however the expression of spiritualism is so broadly considered that the interaction between Houghton and the rest of the artists can at times feel tenuous.

Believe Not Every Spirit… speaks not in definitions, but in suggestions, ultimately leaving a viewer to form their own judgement as a cynic or a believer. Everyone’s viewing experience will be different, just as our own fears, dreams and belief systems ultimately are.

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