The term hauntology is attributed to Jacques Derrida and his text, Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. It is important to note that this text is a translation of Spectres de Marx: l'état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la Nouvelle Internationale which was an ordered collection of Derrida’s lecture notes following a conference organized in 1993 that asked, “Whither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective.” While the writing generated for this event was positioned through the lens of political events that occurred in 1989, Colin Davis has noted that Derrida had prior encounters with ghosts in his work with Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and their renewal of psychoanalysis in the early 1970s. Therefore to approach Derrida’s proposition of hauntology and notion of spectrality is to investigate ghosts and the activation of haunting through historiographies of psychoanalysis, deconstruction and Marxism.
Briefly, hauntology is the state of being with, living with, and speaking to ghosts. This role acknowledges one as conjuror, as an individual invested in bearing witness to events that can only be examined through traces of the dead, and the inexorable traces of those traces. Around the year 2000, the term hauntology began to surface in literature studies, and since 2005, it has spread across film scholarship, music criticism, visual culture and curatorial themes. In fact, this is the second show I’ve seen in two years with the title, not to mention the exhibition Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance at the Guggenheim in 2010. The same year I went to the opening of Hauntology at the Berkeley Art Museum, which included performances, film screenings, and lectures by David Brazil, Terry Castle, and Josh On. I was as perturbed then as I am now at the 2012 incarnation of hauntology at DOVA Temporary. If you read through my lengthy introduction to the term wondering when I was going to get to the exhibition, that’s part of the problem. How does a series of lectures investigating Marxism from the early 1990s become a platform for aesthetic inquiry?
There is a propensity to fetishize the language of spectrality. As Roger Luckhurst has noted, “Literary critics…tend to elaborate on the figurations of ghosts and hauntings, principally developed in the opening section of Specters.” The exhibition at DOVA evolved out of a course taught at the University of Chicago by curator Zach Cahill entitled Hauntology: ghosts, specters and other paranormal phenomena in contemporary art and beyond. At the opening I was able to speak to Cahill about the exhibition and he explained the broader questions the class addressed (the interdisciplinary seminar was made up of students from the fine arts, the sciences and social sciences). While the theme of the course and the exhibition itself was more akin to Avery Gordon’s writing in Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination than anything in Derrida’s lectures, there were a few pieces in the exhibition that resonated within a possible criterion for a “haunting aesthetic”.
Megan St. John’s installation A House Built to Last (wallpaper, photographs, artifacts from home, 2012), incorporated a handwritten text recalling memories associated with her childhood home. The house functions as a living landscape for St. John’s narrative, and she concludes her text by stating the house is inevitably haunted by its inhabitants and their memories. However, she is in turn also haunted by its presence and her connections to the materiality of these memories imbued in the wallpaper and household objects on display.
Scarlett Kim, Breakfast To Go, 2012. Found objects; Courtesy of Nabiha Khan
Scarlett Kim connects to memory with Breakfast To Go (found objects, 2012), an artwork that consists of an open suitcase with small vials to smell. While I didn’t smell all the invitations to reminisce, the work set up a connection to memory with the power of scent. A darkened back room holds artworks from Shane Ward, Karla Martinez, and Nabiha Khan that suggest an interesting conversation between media and materials and different interpretations of traces.
Seeing the show without accessing the primary text of Derrida’s term might be my best advice, as haunting is given a less rigorous investigation by the artworks on display. However, there is still plenty of room to speculate on the range of mediums and material manifestations in the show (pun intended) that may suggest how we perceive and interpret more intangible feelings of being haunted today.
(Image on top right: Megan St. John, A House Built to Last, 2012. Wallpaper, pictures, nails, glue, and artifacts from home; Courtesy of Nabiha Khan)