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Review: “Séance Fiction” at the Walter Phillips Gallery Unfurls Time

Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, May 2 to July 26, 2015

Mountain dwelling conjures up dark feelings, subterranean desires and isolation-induced melancholy (or mania) in the public imagination. Think about David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Sheltered among snowy peaks, it feels natural to become uncoupled with time. I have been in Banff for two weeks now and the days have slithered mysteriously out from under me. “Séance Fiction,” currently on view at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre, harnesses this sense of temporal discord.

Hannah Doerksen’s near-replica of the mirrored bar from The Shining, commissioned for this occasion, is positioned on an angle at the mouth of the show, luring energy to it like a magnet. There’s no Jack and no Lloyd, just the distorted manifestation of an already partially hallucinated environment. Three bar stools welcome visitors to sit and have a drink, but the isolated set piece sits stoic and unchanging. The title of Doerksen’s piece, I Come to Believe We All Gunna Drown, borrows a line from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a 1940 novel by Carson McCullers partly about a tumultuous and tender friendship between two men who are both deaf and mute. The line in its original context refers to never-ending rainfall in the small Georgia town in which the story is set. McCullers’s novel evokes the sharp pangs of separation, as the friends are estranged when one is sent to an asylum hundreds of miles away, which parallels the eventual mental breakdown of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining.

The two vitrines across from Doerksen’s bar contain the tools and relics of imagined futures. Welsh duo Heather and Ivan Morison’s Science Fiction / Wildflower Series is a collection of rumpled science-fiction paperbacks stuffed with dried flowers. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Larry Niven’s Ringworld sit next to one another, their cover skins cracked and dry. They appear as vestiges of a lost world and read as an attempt to preserve. This impulse often appears in science fiction—think of a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft, sheltering flowers saved from a vanished Earth. Pressing leaves in books is a memorial procedure, and leaves share an affinity with crumbling paper; they age together.

Beside the Morisons’ vegetal library, Maggie Groat has arranged a modest arsenal of supplies for a speculated future. The objects come from a series called A study for collected tools for directions, healings, focusings, reconnections, wayfindings, wanderings, unseeables, wonderings, outsidings, action reportings, future seeings and interconnectivities and are accompanied by a guide book of sorts, Studies for Possible Futures, featuring Groat’s cosmic collages. An incomplete inventory of these objects includes: one black geodesic form nestled inside a walnut shell, a coiled bundle of yellow rope and a black mirror. Groat’s black mirror is like Doerksen’s brightly mirrored bar: there is no reflection in its pooled opacity. The black mirror has often been connected to the paranormal, most recently exemplified by the British sci-fi television series Black Mirror. The empty face of the black mirror also relates to contemporary experience: the abyss of our television, computer, tablet and cell-phone screens.

The belly of the exhibition houses video works separated into three rooms. The first, Guy Maddin’s Hauntings 1, is an 11-channel installation featuring silent films, originally commissioned by TIFF in 2010. Maddin chose to reinterpret films with cursed histories—films that were unfinished, interrupted or abandoned. A wall of screens playing the reworked vignettes blinks silently, offering staggered glimpses of fangs, bare feet, crusted nails, waxy skin, billowing linens, bloody fur, hay and grit. These remakes are put forward as ghosts that attempt to finish what was left undone.

The Time That Remains similarly evokes a sense of ghostly time travel. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are the subjects of Australian duo Soda_Jerk’s twin video installation. One figure sleeps while the other is awake, always. The wind perpetually disturbs something: paper, gowns, curtains, waves. The two women unsettle past and future versions of themselves in a hall of mirrors, scattered with digital fuzz and glitches inserted by the artists. Like a meta-nightmare, Davis and Crawford continuously awake to find themselves in a parallel universe, still tinted with Hollywood ageism.

Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj’s film A Família do Capitão Gervasio [Captain Gervasio’s Family] focuses on the rituals and visions of mediums in the Spiritist community of Palmelo, Brazil. The film follows the activities of local mediums, many of whom also work as civil servants, specialized in the spiritual healing technique of “magnetic passes.” Members of the community sit in a circle, eyes closed, holding hands as their shoulders twitch upwards like marionettes. These scenes are intercut with shots of Modernist architecture and geometric tiles. The film is projected on 16-mm film in a room furnished with concrete and reclaimed wood constructions that provide seating, executed to the artists’ specifications. Woven in is the story of one medium who supposedly has access to “astral cities” populated by souls of the deceased. She describes these colonies as “cities on earth, but more perfect.” Guimarães and Akhøj’s work couples the economic and spiritual lives of Palmelo residents with the rational dictums of Modernist thought. It is a study of spiritual medicine, utopia and bureaucracy.

Puncturing the spectral atmosphere of the exhibition, Shana Moulton’s The Undiscovered Drawer reminds me of my desperate desire to discover and inhabit the attic in my best friend’s house when I was a child. Moulton’s film set is part pastel confusion, part Surrealist YouTube makeup tutorial and part early nineties fusion of Eastern religious symbolism and cheap plastic baubles. She performs as her alter ego Cynthia, who has a predilection for turtlenecks and purple. Cynthia explores the spaces of her washed-out, candy-coloured bedroom, opening drawers, discovering hidden keys and traveling through secret portals. Moulton’s intentionally low-quality, green-screen aesthetic feels like an amateur magic show. Wearing a visor and a floral-print shirt, Cynthia’s disembodied torso performs an enigmatic dance in a dry marsh—her body casts a shadow, even though half of it has been lost to digital manipulation. Similar to Doerksen’s bar and Groat’s vitrine, Moulton’s bedroom set accommodates several talismanic objects, which she puts to use in uncommon ways—for example, playing an adaptation of Coldplay’s Clocks using two face massagers as mallets on an ergonomic computer keyboard. It is easy to lose track of oneself in Moulton’s playhouse.

In “Séance Fiction,” artists act as mediums, incising the past and inserting speculated futures, reflecting what the show’s curator Peta Rake describes as “the anachronistic tendencies of current popular culture.” This act of montage—combining science fiction, Spiritualism, fantasy, humour and horror—unfurls time and rearranges it. By bringing varied shapes of consciousness into being, including fictionalized pasts, layered realities, black holes, deceitful mirrors and premonitory nostalgia, “Séance Fiction” pulls back the curtain on the process of the temporal edit.

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