Against nostalgia

Pub date July 20, 2010
WriterSam Stander
SectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART/MUSIC Whether through the distorted visual crackle of old videotape or the gauzy gaze of a photograph, there is a class of artwork that challenges the spectator to engage with something not immediately present. It’s as if there is something floating behind the image at hand, which the mind is desperately hungry to grasp, but cannot perceive. This effect we call “haunting,” and often leave it at that. But 17 years ago, French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed a way of thinking about the concept of the ghost in terms of its symbolic relevance to our experience of history, and his “hauntological” approach continues to inform strains of art and music criticism as well as political philosophy.

Inspired by Derrida along with a recent spate of hauntologically inclined British electronic music, the Berkeley Art Museum’s “Hauntology” exhibit assembles an array of such unsettling works across several media. Curated by local artist/musician Scott Hewicker and BAM director Lawrence Rinder, the small but affecting gallery is composed mostly of selections from BAM’s collection that fit in one way or another into the rubric of hauntology.

Working, with a few exceptions, from within the museum’s existing collection was ultimately liberating, according to Hewicker. “I think we wanted to take it another step further in some other open direction, and kind of be very poetic about it, and not be in this defined realm that doesn’t really have a very strict … defined realm,” Hewicker laughingly explains, on the opening day of the exhibit.

Besides that circumstantial constraint, the idea of a hauntology show presents a couple other interesting conundrums. For one thing, hauntology is not a genre of art; it’s an I-know-it-when-I-see-it affair at best, more of a critical framework than a set of conventions. For another thing, there is no defined hauntological movement in visual art (though there is arguably one in music), now or at any point in the past.

What defines hauntological art is loosely derived from Derrida’s idea, as quoted in the exhibit’s manifesto, of “the persistence of a present past,” a past not immediately perceptible but always exerting itself on the present. Hewicker and Rinder interpret this in a number of ways through their selections. The 1820 painting by an unknown artist View of Providence, Rhode Island invites questions of context — who painted this? and why? — and its ominous black grids of windows necessitate a similar curiosity: what’s behind them? In Roger Ballen’s Twirling Wires (2001), on the other hand, the question has more to do with what is actually transpiring in the photograph of a blanket-swaddled man seemingly menaced by a floating mass of wires.

Besides Derrida’s foundational 1993 book Specters of Marx, the curators point to British music journalist Simon Reynolds’ writings on electronic musicians such as Burial and the various artists on the Ghost Box label. Reynolds seems to have opened up the field for discussing hauntological aesthetics in modern popular culture. Another acknowledged inspiration is Adam Harper’s blog, Rouge’s Foam (, which treats music and visual art from a hauntological perspective. Hewicker elaborates: “He was sort of the motivation for the show in the sense that he called for kind of a nonstylistic approach to art in a hauntological sense — that it wasn’t just about spooky images, necessarily, but … these things that have these layered meanings beneath them.”

Perhaps the most exciting issue raised by the show is that of medium — what it communicates (i.e. artistic medium as spirit medium), and what it means to make the medium the subject of a piece. Much of the exhibit consists of two-dimensional visual art, but the few deviations stand out. On the inclusion of video, audio, and sculpture, Rinder muses over e-mail, “People don’t think in as clearly material or disciplinary categories as they used to. So it felt natural to select from this broad range of works.”

Despite the fundamental role music plays in the exhibit’s conception, only one audio piece was incorporated into the exhibit, Ivan Seal’s Stuttering Piano (2007). Seal has produced cover art for such releases as the 2008 reissue of Persistent Repetition of Phrases by hauntological ambient project the Caretaker, but none of his visual art was in the collection. His audio works often accompany his paintings, so the curators saw this as an intriguing “solution” to that unavailability.

Lutz Bacher’s video piece Olympiad (1997) is a silent stuttering image, the deteriorated quality of which makes it disorienting to watch; many works in the exhibit similarly hound the viewer via their chosen medium. Paul Sietsema’s 2009 diptych Ship Drawing, oriented as the gallery’s centerpiece, is as concerned with medium as any piece in the show. One side depicts a drawing of a ship — note, specifically a drawing of one, since the weathered paper it appears on is also rendered in ink. The other half simply shows a blank bit of the same paper. Thus, the medium becomes the subject. In this way, even the nature of their own production is part of the past that haunts these works.

So all this art, spanning centuries, cultures, and movements, brought together at BAM — why now? Hewicker cites “ghosts that people are not addressing” as evidenced by the “Tea Party movement, the sort of revisionist nostalgia, the rewriting of textbooks in Texas.” Derrida’s ideas are still relevant to today’s political world, and that resonates in how this art affects us, whether it was created in 1658 or 2008.

As one would hope from a thoughtfully curated show, motifs emerge among the included works. There are myriad obscured faces, indecipherable objects, and artworks within artworks, as well as subtler commonalities. This conspires to reinforce the sense of hauntedness in the exhibit, as if something has come down through the ages to inspire art that not only, as Rinder puts it, “[evokes] futuristic ruins, displaced subjectivities, and uncanny silences,” but more important, leaves us ill at ease.


Through Dec. 5, $5–$8 (free for students and children)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808