Though its name might suggest it, don't look for an examination of the paranormal in "Phantom Bodies: The Human Aura in Art" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Yes, it has ghostly images, but they are created by fully disclosed technical processes.
Instead, look for an examination of the physicality of the human experience and the immutable common denominator we share: Death claims everyone. What do we claim before that?
The 24 artists in the exhibition have some ideas. All their work deserves a conversation, and there are big names in contemporary art here — Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Gerhard Richter, for example — but here are some of my favorites.
The most enchanting work in "Phantom Bodies" greets us at the entrance. Elizabeth King's Pupil is an articulated torso of a doll whose face is a self-portrait of the artist. In an accompanying video, she works with director Richard Izu-Blair to bring the sculpture to life. It studies its hands with a sense of curiosity, even wonder, as a baby might. We know as we watch that the only life it possesses is that given by its creator, who manipulates its motions. Yet its title is telling: That temporary life-force isn't a learning experience for the sculpture but it is, perhaps, for its maker.
Nearby is Exquisite Corpse, enfant by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. I know it's serious art but I found it weirdly wonderful and amusing. Its name comes from the famous surrealist game in which a collaborative drawing or story is made without the participants knowing what each other is doing. This assemblage looks equally random. Speakers emitting a low howl are draped with safety pins, screwdriver, can opener, a small plastic baby rocking in a basket. ... You can spend five minutes picking out all the quotidian objects. Specifically, there are several ocular accessories such as eyeglasses and a magnifier. An eye stares at us from one of them. We gaze and are gazed upon. What I see are the daily objects we use and what I hear is the background noise we tune out. Maybe we should pay more attention.
Ken Gonzales-Day bears witness to the history of lynching in 19th and 20th century America. Part of a gallery wall is covered with vintage photographs and postcards(!) in which the victims' bodies are eliminated and we see only the onlookers. In one manipulated photograph, a circle of onlookers looks at a blank space where the hanged and burned body would be. Some of them are children. In another, well-dressed men gaze at the embers of a fire, another lynch-and-burn scenario without a body, only wisps of smoke.
The most striking image is Medusa, the large photogram by Adam Fuss that is the marquee image for the show's publicity. For good reason. Fuss uses an old, cameraless technique in which an object (or baby in another example in the show) is laid directly onto light-sensitive paper and then exposed to light so that the image is directly transferred. The result resembles a negative. For Medusa, he used a delicate, almost transparent Victorian wedding dress. It looks to be electrified with bright coils of light that, on closer examination, turn out to be writhing snakes, also photogrammed.
The mythical Medusa had similar writhing snakes instead of hair, and her face was so terrifying that one look turned men to stone. According to legend, she lived on an isolated island where Perseus beheaded her and used her head, complete with moving snakes, as a weapon. She was pregnant when she died, and from her dead body sprang two divinities: the winged stallion Pegasus and Crysaor, a warrior who carried a golden sword. Fuss sees her as becoming "life affirming" in death, according to the wall label, through bearing children and the snakes teeming through her body like energy. Ringling curator Matthew McClendon also referenced their spermlike appearance. The visual effect is otherworldly.
There are several excellent videos, but the most stunning is Isolde's Ascension by Bill Viola, inspired by Richard Wagner's operatic version of the legend of two lovers. A beam of light pierces a barely lit pool of water. We watch for a few minutes, then we see a woman crash through the surface and be drawn up into the beam. She rises higher until she disappears from the camera frame. Watch it again and you notice something: The film has been flipped. We're really seeing the young woman dive into the water and float downward. It's mesmerizing.
Actually, I found that quality true of the entire exhibition.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.