Like the space between truth and belief, our society’s long history with the paranormal world is full of complexities and contradictions. The Zuckerman Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Medium,” co-curated by Teresa Bramlette Reeves and museum director Justin Rabideau, seeks to reflect this dynamic landscape by offering up a collection of artifacts and artworks that are sometimes tongue-in-cheek and other times astoundingly poignant. “Medium” takes on the supernatural through historical photographs, parapsychologist records, and contemporary artistic interpretations of what it means to communicate with what haunts us the most—the past.
At the center of the historical side of the exhibition are the documents and photographs of Dr. William Roll. Dr. Roll and his team of trained investigators came to fame in the 1980s when they were enlisted to rid psychic Doretta Johnson’s Indiana home of a presence “you’re not supposed to see.” Interviews and records from the Johnson case are displayed in the exhibition, along with other of Roll’s troubling investigations, such as the Atlanta Child Murders Case from 1981.
The exhibition also examines the Spiritualist movement, which evolved in the mid-1800s and peaked in the 1920s. This was the time when (obviously fraudulent) photos of ghostly appearances and ectoplasm emissions began to surface. Thanks to the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), which has collected and investigated thousands of unexplained phenomena for more than 100 years, these Spiritualist photos have been preserved. Both Roll’s work and the Spiritualist paraphernalia are placed throughout the exhibition as a historical complement to the art. Also included are 1950s “bone records” from the Soviet Union, forbidden musical tracks etched onto used X-ray scans by gutsy music fans. While the connection between sound recording and paranormal activity, particularly in the 21st century, is clear, the bone records are really just mind-blowingly cool.
Minneapolis-based artist Lacey Prpić Hedtke Ectoplasm Series stands in contrast to the ASPR’s Spiritualist photographs. In the 1920s, Spiritualists used “ectoplasm” as a way to fabricate ghostly emanations, and typically achieved this effect in photographs by “using a thin cloth or fabric that could be swallowed and then regurgitated.” Hedtke, a professional medium, rebrands ectoplasm as a metaphor for self-reclamation, desire and empowerment in the LGBTIQ+ community. Her black-and-white images are ghostly and often sensual, and the obvious white cloths add a touch of comic relief.
Lang and George Long’s piece, A Graves Worth, stands apart as a triumph of the exhibition. Moving and deeply personal, it takes the pursuit of facing a difficult ancestral past to new heights. Lang, a black woman, and Long, a white man, together visited their ancestral homes in Mississippi to confront and recognize a past that continues to influence our contemporary world. On wall text, Lang writes:
On our travels, we ride on rural roads that hold blood memories of injustices of race and class, unmarked and yet known for generations. We gather and blend Mississippi dirt from our grandparents’ properties, mixing ancestral grounds to conjure family spirits to evoke a force to shift the balance towards peace and hope in our current American landscape.
The space they create, separated from the rest of the exhibition by a white curtain, consists of a large, clear rectangular prism full of dirt. Video projections of blue shadows of figures and trees dance across the white curtain and the prism. A Graves Worth stands in quiet opposition to the long American tradition of sweeping a violent past under the rug.
Carrie Mae Weems’s 2012 mixed-media video installation Lincoln, Lonnie and Me: A Story in Five Parts is another clear standout. Weems used a 19th-century optic trick known as “Pepper’s Ghost” to create the illusion of a ghostly presence on a stage. The installation is blocked off from the rest of the museum by heavy curtains, and once you enter the space, it is shockingly dark. Until your eyes adjust, it is impossible to assess how big the space is, without blindly reaching for the curtained perimeter. A screen—or, at least at first, it appears to be a high definition screen—is set in front of a small seating area. It shows a bright red curtain, and a stage on which ghostly figures appear and disappear. The curtain and stage are actually real, and are just framed in such a way that, from a distance, and in such inky darkness, that it’s hard to tell what’s a projection and what’s corporeal. At one point, a woman (the artist herself) is projected dimly onto stage. She’s breathing heavily, sometimes laughing, and she insists that she knows us. The following monologue is chilling, and she makes it clear that she wants us to suffer—“Revenge is a motherfucker.” Haunting and captivating, the installation showcases Weems’s technical talent and explores the intersection between white supremacy, race, and gender.
Atlanta-based artist Shana Robbins explores the earthy, ritualistic side of otherworldly communication in her video Culture Creatures that is projected onto two walls, and related costumes and headdresses. In the video Robbins engages in such activities as dancing, playing a flute, smoking a pipe, and rolling around on the ground, sometimes completely naked, sometimes in elaborate costume. Tree Ghost, one of the outfits she wears, is particularly creative — made of antique dollies, chandelier crystals, tree branches, and artificial birds. According to the wall text for her whole collection, Robbins is exploring “conditions of feminine power and deep ecology.” Unfortunately, the work comes off as distasteful and unfocused, and more hokey than sincere. The antlers and shamanlike costumes would not be out of place at a music festival rampant with misguided cultural appropriation. In an otherwise thoughtful exhibition, Robbins’s work is a misfire.
Irish artist Susan MacWilliam’s video Library features the Eileen J. Garrett Library of the Parapsychology Foundation in Greenport, Long Island. It acts as both a tribute to the library’s founder and an exploration of the “spirit” of a space. We see no people in the video, but rather close-up shots of a bookstore or an empty conference room. Library is slow, steady, and mesmerizing. It’s hard to look away, for fear of missing something. The slightest movement, like a light switch pull chain that stiffly swings back and forth, catches your attention in the same way a crash in the night can make you jump out of bed. The breath-holding thrill of simply waiting and watching makes the video one of the most contemplative pieces in the exhibition.
Stephanie Dowda’s haunting, desolate photographs bring Medium down to earth with their portrayal of lonely, human longing for the beyond. The Richmond-based Dowda is more interested in capturing the feeling of a place, rather than an outright representation. Her photographic process, which involves manipulating and folding negatives before taking the photo, adds to the distorted reality. A hand-blown black glass orb hangs between Dowda’s two photographs, which serves as a literal gaze into darkness.
“Medium” focuses on ghostly communication, but it’s about more than a spooky photograph or paranormal detection. It’s about reconciling our past with our present, and the ways in which the truth can slip and slide as we construct narratives based on belief rather than fact. There are lighthearted moments, but the themes are serious, and the same underlying desires are demonstrated clearly by artists and historians alike — desires for fulfillment, for explanation, and perhaps most of all, a desire for peace.
“Medium” is on view at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University through December 3.
E.C. Flamming is an Atlanta-based writer. She has been published in ART PAPERS, Paste, ArtsATL, and The Peel Literature & Arts Review.