Visual Arts

Old Haunts and New Stories

Courtesy of ACRE

When I entered the ever-changing ACRE gallery for the opening of “Endless Rest,” the usually sparse room was filled with a circle of lumpy vases, a wall covered in fake ivy, and photographs of an abandoned house. On the largest wall was a live projection of Blair Bogin’s ghost storytelling, but we’ll get to that later. For such a small room, it was crowded, and I felt everyone looking at the works on display knew something about them I didn’t.

Jessica Harvey’s lumpy white vases were gathered around a photograph taken by the artist of a full moon on a cloudy night. The photograph seemed to be the center of a portal created by the arrangement of the vases. The ivy was obviously artificial but placed on the walls as if it had always been there.

Harvey’s work centered on a failed utopian community of artists called Birdcliff, near the site of the legendary Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York. A graduate of Columbia College, Harvey has spent several residencies in locales ranging from St. Louis to Iceland and has since taken on the Chicago art scene.

“It was supposed to be a self-sustaining community, but there was a lot of conflict within the group and it split up,” said Harvey. “I’m interested in the mythology of the place, and the matriarch of it, Jane Whitehead.”

Harvey’s photographs show the empty rooms of the now-abandoned Birdcliff house where these artists once lived—a letter Harvey found in the house hangs on one gallery wall, a document of unrequited love sent from a woman Maria to her lover Raul, who felt that their tie had been broken.  Another black and white photograph shows pottery made by the artists of the community. The lighting in the latter photograph brought to mind a flashlight shining into the darkness, which made the pottery appear less like vases and more like living beings, crowding toward the light.  The vases in the center of the room called back to those vases found in the artist commune, made lumpy and sad to better reflect the commune’s demise.

This theme of deterioration and loss tied this piece in with Blair Bogin’s work, which is primarily concerned with ghost stories. There was not enough space in the gallery proper to accommodate her work, but she avoided the issue by turning her own van into a performance space in an alley next to the gallery.

People came into the van to tell ghost stories they knew, and Bogin acted out her interpretation of the story as she heard it using copied photographs and paper cutouts of people, most notably Whitehead, from the Birdcliff commune. She called it, “live animation of ghost stories.” The idea was to create an interactive, down-to-earth experience of modern ghost stories using photographs of figures from Harvey’s part of the exhibit, which also served as Bogin’s inspiration.

“I…am interested in ghosts,” Bogin said. “I think it’s an interesting conversation to ask someone about a ghost—it’s asking them about much deeper beliefs and much broader views of how they see the world.”

“I think it’s stupid to say that I know anything about anything,” Bogin continued. “I’m interested in the idea that time doesn’t exist, which means that everything that ever happened is happening right now, simultaneously. Therefore, whoever has been in this van ever is in this van right now, we’re just not on that dimension with them.”

When I entered the van I stumbled upon a story (or many stories, if you agree with Bogin’s idea of time) already in progress. Jesse, a visitor, was telling Bogin about a song he heard in a recurring dream of his. As he hummed the tune of it, she made the figures dance around in the room in time with an eerie ballet.

Returning to the main exhibit room, I finally put together all of the working parts of the exhibition. The artists clearly felt moved by the losses they had seen while researching their work and, in turn, translated it into something relatable to anyone. At the ACRE exhibition all these ghosts and failed bonds of human interaction were finally laid to their “endless rest,” but that didn’t mean we couldn’t continue to experience them.

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