New York

“Strange Powers”

In spite of its current predisposition to secularism, art has always been something of a faith-based enterprise. Its cultural and commercial value relies on the willingness of viewers to believe in things that can’t always be immediately perceived or fully understood—to allow for the possibility that the objects and images they encounter in the gallery might have access to meaning and even power. This outlook—as embodied in a variety of artistic practices, especially ones whose content itself involves the uncanny or the supernatural—formed the basis of Creative Time’s memorable summer group show, “Strange Powers,” a survey of adjacencies between the operations of art and the activities of the occult.

Cocurated by Laura Hoptman and Peter Eleey and installed in a decrepit East Village tenement, “Strange Powers” enjoyed a nicely unheimlich bit of site-specific serendipity in its efforts to conjure the paranormal—the building is reputedly “haunted.” Works by the show’s twenty-one artists and collaborative teams, spread across the walkup’s second floor, predictably included a number of talismanic objects designed to convey and receive supernatural energy—Psychedelic Soul Stick, 2001, a shamanistic staff wrapped in beads, bangles, and buttons, by Jim Lambie, and Pink and Gold Masks, 2006, Jennifer Cohen’s array of gilded and painted talismans, both proposed an unspecified supernatural immanence for themselves, while the twinned crystal balls (one portentously dark, the other healingly clear) of Eva Rothschild’s Actualisation, 1998, concretized the modern dialectic between old-school mysticism and New Age spirituality.

Yet such decontextualized approaches seem to suffer from a certain lack of charisma, suggesting perhaps that inanimate objets d’art are insufficient to evoke the mysteries of the Other Side. More successful were time-based projects—notably Euan Macdonald’s mesmerizing video Healer, 2002, in which an elderly faith healer emerges from behind a curtain and gazes impassively at the viewer, and Où et Quand, 2005, a fascinating video about faith, skepticism, and kismet by Sophie Calle and Fabio Balducci, in which the former undertakes an oddball journey of enlightenment based on an itinerary divined by a Parisian psychic.

The ne plus ultra of paranormality involves contact across the membrane between the dead and the living—a connection pursued by the most affecting works here. For Automatic Drawing Brought Forth through the Ouija Board, 2006, Christian Cummings spent the first few days of the show on the building’s sweltering third floor attempting to channel, via extemporaneous drawings, spirits contacted during live séances—the decidedly mixed results included, fortuitously enough, a drawing “by” Barnett Newman taken from an earlier session; the late master’s outlook on art and spirituality was one of the touchstones of the show. And Carl Michael von Hausswolf presented a wonderfully head-scratching selection of audio recordings by the late Swedish artist Friedrich Jürgenson, a proponent of so-called Electric Voice Phenomena (sounds that inexplicably appeared on random tape recordings he made that suggest voices from beyond). As they listened to the looping garble, visitors faced an image of Jürgenson that is said to have miraculously appeared, per his prediction, on his family’s television set the day he was buried.

Meanwhile, the show’s one truly haunting moment came from The Ghost of James Lee Byars, 1969—nothing more than a dark room, entered through layers of heavy black drapery. The small space was empty, but the pitch-blackness was sufficiently pervasive to destabilize its dimensions and contours, creating a vacuum into which all manner of anxieties could creep. Your eyes never quite adjusted to Byars’s void, and the best you could do was yield to its phenomenology, one familiar to both gallerygoers and mystics: that of finding yourself in a dark place, full of anticipation and perhaps a little dread, waiting for something to happen.

Jeffrey Kastner