"It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it..."
So wrote philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1993 as he tackled the relevancy of Marxism at the end of the 20th century, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Derrida believed that we have a responsibility to engage with those things that haunt and affect our present, past and future -- a practice he referred to as hauntology. Fast forward seventeen years, and hauntology has proven to be an intriguing enough idea to influence a variety of cultural movers and shakers, proof of which can be found in the Berkeley Art Museum's choice to use it as a framework to showcase items new to the BAM collection.
Hauntology is not as inspired as its parent concept, but it does its due diligence; more importantly, it contains quite a few individual works that are worth a visit, as well as a couple that could be jumping-off points for further hauntological investigations. The show is large: two rooms and over fifty pieces. Unlike what you find at most contemporary museums, the works aren't segregated into separate rooms according to chronology, artist, or movement. Instead, contemporary pieces hang, sometimes salon-style, next to older works by artists like Goya and Whistler, asking visitors to make thematic and visual connections. This strategy allows for the idea that the present haunts the past as much as the past haunts the present, but the installation is marred by the gallery's purple walls. I've seen colored walls function well at BAM before, but this particular purple doesn't do the show any favors.
A cluster of small, geometric forms made of plywood and metal occupies a large rectangle in the center of the front gallery (Mitzi Pederson's "Untitled," 2009); in the back gallery is a vitrine with a 19th-century Chinese handscroll depicting the gaki -- hungry, big-bellied ghosts of those who died unsatisfied. Just about every piece in the show asks questions about absence and presence, or death and life. Some are obvious: Carina Bauman's large, shadowy portrait of a woman's face either appearing or disappearing against a dark background looks literally haunted, while a hand-embroidered mourning picture from the 18th century shows two women and a man grieving at another man's tomb. Other works require more interpretation and context, such as Ad Reinhardt's "Abstract Painting, No. 3" (1960) or Mary Krane Bergman and Cream Co.'s "Untitled (840 constituent colors, like August into September)," (2008) a grid of 840 tiny, pastel color patches.
Under most circumstances, this type of thematic cohesion is beneficial, but in the case of Hauntology, the conservatism of the interpretation hinders rather than helps. For all of the strengths of its individual works, Hauntology is both too wide and too narrow. Too wide because it attempts to do two things at once: showcase new works by emerging artists in BAM's collection and investigate the aesthetics of hauntology. And too narrow because most of the time it sticks too closely to the ghost -- to ambiguous images, to the void, to death and demons. That being said, there's plenty of fodder here to inspire a new generation to look to its past.
Curated by Lawrence Rinder and Scott Hewicker, Hauntology is on display at the Berkeley Art Museum through December 5, 2010. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.