BELLWETHER is pleased to present The Somnambulists, Zoe Beloff’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. We are also pleased to announce the publication of Beloff’s first book, The Somnambulists: A Compendium of Source Material, made in collaboration with Christine Burgin.
The Somnambulists is comprised of five hand-painted miniature wooden theaters, into which moving images are projected. The largest of these theaters will house two high-definition 3-D color video projections of vaudevillian musical dramas: A Modern Case of Possession, and History of a Fixed Idea. Shot stereoscopically, the films depict three-dimensional figures, approximately one fifth of human scale, that appear to perform on stage with an effect closer to hallucination than projection. The installation centers on the idea of literally staging the unconscious as a hysterical drama. For these films, Beloff was inspired by several remarkable developments at the end of the 19th century: the discovery of the unconscious by psychotherapists, doctors’ emerging practice of filming their hysterical patients with motion picture cameras, and the public’s fascination with madness which manifested itself in the emotive, hysterical behavior of actors in Parisian cabarets.
Both A Modern Case of Possession and History of a Fixed Idea are based upon 19th century case histories written by the famous French psycho-pathologist Pierre Janet. In each, an actor representing Dr. Janet acts as a kind of narrator, leading us through scenes in which his patients express their delusions through song. Janet realized that his patients’ hysterical attacks provided a window, visual and auditory, into the unconscious working of their minds. Aware that they could neither hear nor speak to him in the throes of their delirium, Janet discovered that he could communicate by entering their imaginary world, as a second actor. It was as if he had walked into their mental theaters and as a master of ceremonies, was able to alleviate the fears that manifested themselves as grotesque, monstrous creatures.
In addition to these films Beloff will present four miniature theaters housing depictions of actual hysterics filmed by doctors in Belgium, Romania, and the United States. Updating a Victorian stage trick called “Pepper’s Ghost”, Beloff has transformed these patients into ghostly figures performing an endless loop of madness within the space of each diorama. Beloff will also display a new print which contains her illustrations of the theaters and various players, and outlines the acts and scenes of History of a Fixed Idea.
Beloff’s book, The Somnambulists: A Compendium of Source Material, which was published by Christine Burgin and includes a DVD, points to the complex interweaving of concepts from psychology, literature, performance, visual art, and moving-image technology at the turn of the last century. The text begins with an introduction to the “players”, with brief biographies of the scholars, artists, and performers who appear within the volume. Acting as a kind of index to Beloff’s artistic pursuits, her book provides an in-depth understanding of the range of ideas that form the basis of this exhibition.
Zoe Beloff was raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and moved to New York in 1980 to pursue an MFA in Film at Columbia University. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including shows at MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, CA, and the Pompidou Center in Paris. In 2003 Beloff was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to create her installation The Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C., and she has just received a grant to create Freud in Coney Island at The Coney Island Museum in New York, which celebrates the centennial of Freud's visit to Coney Island in 1909.
Zoe and Bellwether would like to thank Christine Burgin for her support in publishing the book The Somnambulists, Shelley Hirsch, the musical director of A Modern Case of Possession and History of a Fixed Idea, and Eric Muzzy for his technical realization.