SARASOTA — Smoke and mirrors. Smokescreens. Smoking gun. Up in smoke. Smoke gets in your eyes. Smoke 'em if you got 'em. . . . • Just about every adage relating to smoke is applicable to "Phantasmagoria," an intensely interesting exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. • And, most relevant: Where there's smoke, there's fire. • No real fire: The museum had enough headaches figuring out the smoke part without setting off the alarms. • But metaphorically, this is one fired-up show that will especially delight young museumgoers, even those in elementary school. (Remember that the art museum is free on Mondays; that doesn't include the circus museum or Ca d'Zan, the restored Ringling mansion.)
Its premise is based on a European entertainment phenomenon from the 19th century, the Phantasmagoria. These traveling shows exploited the public's fascination with the occult and afterlife using clever lighting effects, vapors and smoke to create otherworldly experiences for large audiences. This Phantasmagoria uses lots of technological bells and whistles to render its effects, so it evokes both past and present.
Unlike the originals, this one does not ask for a "willing suspension of disbelief." We know we're experiencing illusions, and part of the fun is figuring out how they're done.
Curator Jose Roca, art director of the Museo del Arte del Banco de la Republica in Bogota, Colombia, has assembled an impressive lineup of international artists including one of my favorites, South African video artist and theatrical director William Kentridge.
His work is always politically charged. In Shadow Procession, a woeful line of shadow puppets cut from cardboard and shown in black silhouette trudges across a gray landscape, first to the sounds of a jaunty patriotic tune and then, as the silhouettes grow more grotesque, a sad vocal solo. Kentridge's signature cat makes several appearances across the screen, along with an eyeball (a surrealist nod to Bunuel and Dali's Un chien andalou?) and it ends with an actor, also in silhouette, rising from the bottom of the screen and directing the proceedings like a circus ringmaster. Except in the film's context, he's more like a slave master. When he gestures with his hands, they resemble guns and the sound of shots emanate from them. You can take from the work its message of oppression or simply enjoy the inventive visual narrative as it plays out.
Kentridge's video is one of the few noninteractive works and I don't want to spoil the fun of discovery and surprise by doing a complete walkthrough.
The biggest challenge will be, entertaining as they are, to see them as fine art, not stunts. Oscar Munoz's Aliente (Breath), for example, is a lineup of small circular mirrors. You are asked to breathe on them; when you do, an image will appear (not yours) through the condensation.
But read the wall label. Those shadowy people are taken from newspaper photographs of individuals who have died, sometimes violently.
Hmm . . .
Their disappearing act mirrors (pun intended) real-life circumstances in particular and raises questions we all have about where we go after death.
So the interaction in this work, as in many others here, is not just physical but, if you choose to take it that far, intellectual and thought-provoking.
That said, this is not a morbid exhibition. Which is proved by a final suggestion that will enhance your visit to Phantasmagoria. Bone up on your shadow hand puppetry.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.