Curated by José Roca
Long before large art exhibitions and blockbuster shows, crowds were awed by traveling shows called “phantasmagoria” in which familiar scenes and stories were performed with the use of magic lanterns and rear projections to create dancing shadows and frightening theatrical effects. These lively, interactive events incorporated storytelling, mythology, and theater in a single art form that entertained while providing a space for thinking about the otherworldly—playing with the viewers’ anxieties regarding death and the afterlife. A comparable trend can be seen in works by contemporary artists who create ghostly images to reflect on notions of absence and loss, using spectral effects and immaterial mediums such as shadows, fog, mist, and breath. These artists’ approaches range from the festive to the ironic, counterbalancing the emotionally charged, often somber implications of their subject matter.
The shadow—literally, the absence of light— represents something that is beyond the object yet inseparable from it. In many of the works included in Phantasmagoria, shadows are used to allude to death, the obscure, and the unnamable, and to construct allegories of loss and disappearance. In other pieces, artists evoke the history of the shadow theater, as in a video animation by South African artist William Kentridge, and in the shape-shifting shadow cast by French artist Christian Boltanski’s revolving doll, recalling imagery from the carnival as well as figurines used to celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Mist, breath, and fog are often associated with mystery; in their double status as perceptible yet almost nonexistent phenomena, they suggest evanescence or absence. Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz has made a series of mirrored surfaces that seem blank until the viewer breathes on them to expose photographic likenesses of people who have died, often under violent circumstances, their images taken from newspaper articles. Mexican artist Teresa Margolles alludes to the dead in much of her art, in this case using vapor to stand in as a metaphor for the absent body, literally incorporating minuscule traces of material washed from corpses in a morgue. Throughout the installations presented here, artists’ use of shadows or actual fog evokes the alluring enigma and magic of phantasmagoria.