New York

Zoe Beloff

Bellwether

Zoe Beloff’s video installation The Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C., 2004, in which the artist recreates a series of ten séances held in early twentieth-century Algeria and Paris, includes a four-channel projection in luminous black-and-white. This multiscreen, stereoscopic work requires the viewer to don 3-D glasses—a fitting accessory with which to search for mysterious presences that may or may not make themselves apparent. Seen this way, outlines shimmer unsteadily, and characters sometimes seem about to walk right through the furniture.

In most scenes of the video, Eva is presented to various experts, including parapsychologist Baron von Schrenck-Notzing. These witnesses see, among other marvels, the appearance of ectoplasm (supposedly the physical manifestation of a cosmic presence) and materializations (projections from the medium’s mind, which in this case take the form of drawings). There is much debate among the characters about how such feats are achieved, the possible trickery involved, and the scientific or spiritual meaning of the phenomena. Each scene ends with the characters dematerializing, as if transported away.

At the center of the spectacle is Eva: waifish, haunted, alluring, and unknowable. Sometimes she wears a shapeless smock and behaves like a polite child; other times she is bare breasted, sirenlike, and uncontrollable. Her voice swoops from girlish prattle to seductive alto; she is alternately terrified and calm. That it should take a figure of such alarmingly mercurial sexuality to summon the spirit world is an idea familiar from contemporary popular culture—characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch enact an analogue to the strange new world of adulthood in the form of supernatural behavior. Freud would not have been surprised; indeed, his contemporary von Schrenck-Notzing is moved to examine Eva with, according to her handler Madame Bisson, “unexpected gynecological thoroughness.”

Beloff, of course, is a sort of medium herself, conjuring objects and visions from ideas. But Eva C. has more to offer than gender theory or self-conscious reflection; it is a complex take on the manufacture and perception of the real. Each séance’s climax—the final scene, in which the characters freeze before making a filmy disappearance—has the air of a tableau. This is one of a number of elements that suggest the intermingling (or, at times, the bait and switch) of truth and fiction. The premise of the video is the proof of Eva C.’s powers, but the result slyly undercuts itself, never allowing us to fall completely under its sway. The look of the work is borrowed from performance: silent film’s overstated gestures (the dead faint, the hand-to-heart shock, the melancholic stare); vaudeville’s campy inflections; the stagelike curtains behind which Eva produces her manifestations. Even the atmosphere is tainted with fakery. The room setting is adorned with the props of Orientalism: voluptuous drapery, ottoman, Persian carpets, pillows, and exotic screen. The result of this doubled quest for truth in the midst of falsehood and imitation is the destabilization of belief itself.

The works that accompanied the video installation—stereoscopic slides designed to be looked at through special viewers (images of the aforementioned tableaux), a hand-cranked film of Eva producing ectoplasm from her mouth, and copies of pages from von Schrenck-Notzing’s original accounts of the séances—are offered as another, but unnecessary, species of proof. Beloff’s impulse, it seems, is toward an effect reminiscent of that of Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology: a mingling of real and created pasts that encourages us to surrender to the influence of pure wonder.

Emily Hall