Contemporary artists reinterpret spiritual photography from the Twenties

Contemporary artists reinterpret spiritual photography from the Twenties
17 March 2024 J.W.H

In July 1923, British writer Arthur Conan Doyle got here to Winnipeg to deliver a public lecture titled “The Evidence of Immortality” as a part of a 40-city tour of North America that attracted a big audience.

Doyle, widely known today as the author who created Sherlock Holmes, was also a spiritualist – he belonged to a circle of people that held and studied the religious belief that the souls of the dead can interact with living people.

On Doyle's first evening in Winnipeg, he and his wife, Jean Leckie Doyle, were invited to attend an investigative séance led by physician Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and his wife and colleague Lillian Hamilton, a trained nurse.

In Dr. Hamilton's darkened séance room, as Doyle later wrote, he experienced a table of sunshine rising into the air.

Hamilton's legacy includes an incredible collection of pseudoscientific photographs related to his research into paranormal materializations. They aren’t any longer accepted as scientific, they’re higher analyzed as art.

A brand new collection of scholarly essays and art exhibition, “The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts,” on the University of Winnipeg uses an art historical lens to contextualize these incredible photographs as visual culture.

“Mental Strength”

Doyle told how the table clanged by itself without anyone sitting on it touching it. In an fast it was quiet. Then:

“A moment later I felt like a restless dog in a kennel, jumping, lunging, hitting the supports, and finally jumping out at such a speed that I quickly moved out of the way.”

The Hamiltons and Doyles agreed that the table was moved by an unseen force, a psychic force, and that it was a message from a disembodied (disembodied) personality that had survived death.

The psychic force, some scientists believed, would emanate from the middle's body and manifest as an organic plasma called ectoplasm through which spirits could communicate.

Doyle kept up to this point with the Hamiltons' research. According to the Hamiltons and Jean Leckie Doyle, he even manifested as a “transcendental personality” two years after his death, materializing in fluffy ectoplasm in a photograph Hamilton took in 1932.

An expression of mourning

After the losses of World War I and the 1919 influenza pandemic, it was not unusual for North Americans to attend séances and dabble in spiritualism as an expression of mourning, as outlined by historians Felicity Hamer and Esyllt Jones.

Interestingly, Hamilton rejected the favored religion of spiritualism, criticizing it as a cult. He presented his research as scientific and emphasized his mastery of photographic technology.

Between 1923 and 1935, using an elaborate array of cameras and lenses, Hamilton got down to capture “mental power” on glass plates in his laboratory.

He published tons of of photos of spinning tables and the ectoplasmic extrusion of cell plasma from the bodies of female mediums.

Photographing light-sensitive ectoplasm was difficult, and Hamilton's cropped photos of centers surrounded by organically shaped material enhanced his status as a researcher.

Inspired by “Ghostbusters”

Hamilton's paintings were exhibited and widely distributed. They were also praised by researchers, including two researchers who famously had a public argument with the magician Houdini after he claimed to have disproved his magic, and Samuel Aykroyd, the great-grandfather of actor Dan Aykroyd. The younger Aykroyd's 1984 hit “Ghostbusters” introduced ectoplasm into popular culture.

During the interwar period, some scientists were open to the concept of invisible forces (also often called psychic or life force) and based their research on outdated scientific theories, including the “etheric universe” and “vitalism”. .

Hamilton's paintings gained international recognition after they were digitized in 2001 within the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections and located on the Internet by artists intrigued by the grotesque aesthetic of bodily excretions.

“Archives of the Undead” exhibition.

Hamilton was aware of the shabby nature of his photos and described them as “monstrously extraordinary”.

But he also saw ectoplasm as a necessary molding material, capable of making infinite forms and shapes.

The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts exhibition on the University of Winnipeg's Gallery 1C03 and the University of Manitoba's School of Art and Archives and Special Collections similarly focuses on artistic interpretations of this mysterious substance.

The exhibition I curated presents 25 contemporary artists responding to Hamilton's ectoplasm and images. The works include time-lapse videos of ectoplasm transforming into recognizable shapes, one by Shannon Taggart and one by Grace Williams. Williams animated an old photo of ectoplasm being expelled, while Taggart stitched together still shots of a up to date medium (Kai Muegge) extruding ectoplasm in 2018.

Hamilton was never capable of film the ectoplasm attributable to the poor lighting within the séance room, so these movies give us a way of the theatricality and intrigue of an early twentieth century séance.

Invisible, repressed spiritual work

Some artists put themselves within the role of media, imitating the body language of a trance state. Erika DeFreitas uses crocheted doilies as an alternative of ectoplasm, drawing attention to the invisible working media used to support psychic researchers.

KC Adams, an Anishinaabe, Ininew and British artist based in Manitoba, conducted research and created virtual reality artwork for an exhibition examining Ininew burial rituals, suppressed under the Indian Act.

Pandemics and oblivion

In The Art of Ectoplasm, Jones writes that it was only in March 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic, that our society thought in regards to the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic.

In Contagion, Teresa Burrows creates a temple-like installation of Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, using a rapid antigen test to border it.

In Burrows' photo, Tam looks up as if in a trance and is surrounded by green beads imitating the COVID-19 virus. At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Tam always appeared on national television and social media like a soothsayer allotting warnings.

Winnipeg as a 'mental center'

A century ago, as Winnipeggers were recovering from the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, Doyle presented what gave the impression to be proof that life continues after death.

After visiting the Hamiltons of their séance laboratory, in a July 5, 1923 letter to Lillian Hamilton, Doyle described Winnipeg as a “psychic center”, in some ways predicting the lack of Winnipeg's status because the “Chicago of the North”, offering an alternate nickname.

The idea of ​​Winnipeg as a supernatural place has been taken up by artists and authors, exemplified by director Guy Maddin's “My Winnipeg,” in addition to exhibition art, much of it created during COVID-19 lockdowns.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s price remembering the experimental screenings of Hamilton after the pandemic and wondering: what form might our mourning take?

Serena Keshavjee, Professor of History, University of Winnipeg

This article has been republished from Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read original article.

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  • J.W.H

    About John:

    John Williams is a Reincarnationist paranormal Intuitive freelance writer...he is living proof of reincarnation existence, through his personal exploration, he has confirmed its authenticity through visits to the very lands where these events transpired.

    Through guided meditation/s using hemi-sync technology he has managed to recollect 3 previous lives to his own, that go back to the Mid to Late 19th century.

    JWH - "You are the GODS! - Inclusion of the Eternal Light of Love and you shall never die”.

    “Death is Just the Beginning of Life”