Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 14 - Life and Death
Log 14 - Life and Death

Art After Death


Gwynneth Porter interviews Anne Walsh and Chris Kubick (LA), aka Archive, about their Art After Death project whereby they interview artists from beyond the grave. Excerpts from their transcripts of exchanges with the Countess of Castiglione, the 19th Century Italian role-playing photographer, follow. Archive’s interviews with the Countess have been recently published as the first in a series of Art After Death cds,Conversations with the Countess of Castiglione. Volume 2, Yves Klein Speaks, is due out in November.

GP: When and how did this interest in interviewing the dead develop?

AW: It came up during a conversation Chris and I were having about museum audiotours. We were deploring the claims made about artists’ intentions and character by their critics and historians, particularly when they have no hope of defending themselves, or offering new information from beyond the grave. We just thought, why not talk to them ourselves? We originally imagined we’d mount an exhibition and make an audiotour with the artists speaking through the psychics, and that is what we still intend to do.

CK: I’ve done a lot of interviews for various projects, and I was working on an audiotour about el Greco or something, and Anne and I were talking - and we started joking about interviewing dead people. At first we were even thinking, why not just script it, it would be kind of a spoof on audio tours in general. And then we thought about it and realized that conducting Séances really wasn’t any more absurd than any other kind of art criticism and, basically, it’s a lot more fun. So we decided to do it all with real mediums, and really try to talk to the dead, and gradually started to take the whole thing more seriously. Of course, as the project’s gone on, it seems both more real and more unreal.

It is a pretty Gothic type of enterprise in some ways - do you identify much with things morbid in spirit?

Death as an aesthetic isn’t relevant to this project. But one of its metaphysical implications, unintended, but at this point undeniable, is that there's a good possibility that LIFE manifests itself in ways far beyond those we're used to recognizing. I don't consider it morbid at all. I think it's pretty life-affirming.

It’s more about spirit life, actually, than death. And spiritual life is not Gothic, it's really present in practically every aspect and period of human culture.What we actually do is, we sit down with professional mediums in museums (or private homes) and conduct interviews. The whole process is a lot more matter-of-fact than you might think. We haven’t yet worked with a single medium who used a servant of Beelzebub to contact a spirit. The general consensus is: there are always spirits around, if you know how to look for them. The mediums we work with are simply that - people who know how to look for spirits, and are able to speak their language.

Is death attractive to you? What does it promise or represent at least?

Death is neither attractive nor unattractive. If anything, acknowledging death's inevitability might be a way to learn about how to live the life I have - I'm trying to understand how they're intertwined.

Well, it would be awfully amusing if someone called up to interview US in a few hundred years - Death is the great unknown in life. One of my favorite formulations of it comes from Georges Bataille, who characterizes it alongside eroticism as the opposite of what is possible to speak about, i.e. the impossible. And I think that's about all that can really be said about it.  

First the Countess, then Yves Klein you say - what next?

We’re not sure. I can’t really start thinking about the third artist while we’re working on Klein; it feels like infidelity to me. I’m monogamous. I have to just stick with Yves for now, and then see who emerges when we’re done.

We choose artists based on the theme that Art After Death has been guided by, but also they choose us. We are interested in people whose work or life was invested in exploring the possibilities of multiple identities, of role-playing, of imaginative self-portraiture, and/or of mystical or spiritual existences. We’re interested in working with people who might relish this as an opportunity to come back and perform again.

But we also have discovered that we have to pay attention when people seem reluctant or unwilling to come back. We were considering Henry Darger, for instance, and the signals we got from the people we were contacting (collectors and curators of his work) were really negative, almost hostile. It seemed like a good idea to take that as a message that Darger wasn’t open to conversation. His work was private, he shared it with no one. So why would he want to talk to us?

We’ve also wrestled with questions about choosing people who are well-enough known that our mediums might have heard of them or know something about them. We haven’t ruled anybody out on that basis, and certainly there are a lot of folks we’d love to talk to. Also writers and musicians. But that would be for a different project. I really want to talk to Gertrude Stein.

We have an idea to do a sort of spiritual dinner party at some point, and invite the great wits of history... Though I’m sure it would hard to arrange, with everybody’s schedules and all.

Have you started with Yves yet?

Yes, and we had a magnificent visit with him last week in New York City. We conducted our first séance with him at the home of a collector, who owns several of his works. We brought a medium there with us, and Yves came through her in the most vivid and surprising ways.

He was so excited to be back! And charming’ He really seemed to enjoy flirting with Anne. Valerie, the medium, said that he was so ready to do the interview that he was trying to come through while she was still on the subway on her way over. He spoke eloquently about the blue revolution and talked a fair amount about the pieces that were there in the room, including the IKB bust of Arman. There were also these tables there, glass tables with IKB and gold leaf in them. The collector was using them as coffee tables, which really kind of pissed Yves off, but generally he was in a really good mood.

Anne, when I mentioned I wanted to interview Martin Kippenberger, you said this sounded like a bad idea - why? Was it him in particular? (Incidentally, the psychic I wanted to use has disappeared, so I decided to abandon the project in reality. If she had ‘ve been a decent psychic and a nice person she would have known I wanted to call her and she would have rung me. I might do it fictionally using my friend, Australian artist Adam Cullen, as a channel...)

That was kind of hasty of me. Personally, I’m reluctant to call up spirits who haven’t been disembodied for very long. Kippenberger seems so freshly dead to me, and that makes me nervous. He was a great artist but I really really disliked him as a person when I met him. So maybe I was just reacting to my memory of his personality.

The psychics you picked for the Countess project, did you find that they provided a consistent picture of her as you understand her, or were they too different?

Indeed. The picture is very consistent.

One of the fascinating things about the project is how consistent the mediums have all been, with each other and with the historical record. The details are all there, with totally uncanny stuff, like what kind of dog she had. But what is for me even more interesting, is how the actual spirit personality - i.e. the voice of the Countess - differs from séance to séance. Which could be a function of her (the Countess) different moods at different times; but I prefer to look at it as a problem of translation.

What did you find most uncanny about the Countess interviews? Most interesting? Amusing? Spooky? Were you ever frightened?

I loved it when one of the mediums told me that the Countess thought I should wear more skirts!

I really liked the way each psychic’s "issues," or passions, seemed to become part of who the Countess was. For instance, two of the mediums were single, middle-aged women, and both stressed the Countess’s independence, her desire to be unattached, her self-sufficiency. Another was a person who seemed to have some unfulfilled creative aspirations, and tended to stress ways that the Countess had felt unrewarded. But of course that’s also me just interpreting them, too!

The consistency was uncanny. It was just plain amazing to me that we could show a stranger a single photograph, tell them only the name and dates of the person pictured (the Countess), and then listen to them talk about her with such accuracy. I got very nervous during and after the second séance, because at one point my body felt extremely heavy, as though I was being crushed into my chair and couldn’t move or breathe. When I told the medium this was happening, she said this was because the Countess was in my body, she had chosen me as a channel and didn’t want to leave, and that I would have to ask her to leave. I was scared this would keep happening.

How do you think your subject/s liked being contacted?

Usually they seem to really appreciate it. As I said before, I don’t want to contact people who seem reluctant to be contacted. In Yves Klein’s case, he seemed genuinely impatient to come through and chat. Our first medium said she actually had to tell him to wait till she arrived at the location where we were meeting, he was so eager to start talking. And I felt really honored that Yves said that this project was the continuation of his work.

The Countess seemed to be happy and kind of flattered that we were doing the project. The mediums all said in various ways that she welcomed the opportunity. Several of them went on to say that we were probably making it possible for her to get some kind of monkey off of her back with regard to reincarnation or spiritual transformation.

Did you ever feel like you were intruding? Messing with the natural order of things?

I would have if we’d tried to talk to Henry Darger.

We talked to Claude Cahun once for about 20 minutes and it felt a little funny. She was kind of amused but not really interested, and it felt a little like being a telemarketer. Or a nosy reporter.

What is wrong with art history do you think?

Art history - or any kind of history, really - is rarely acknowledged for what it is, which is a form of storytelling. History asserts truths and then builds from those truths. Nobody really knows whether Rimbaud was mad with syphilis, or Shakespeare was a coke-head. But historians unearth these (often questionable) facts from the historical record and then draw conclusions based on them, which are often utterly absurd. Part of our project is about questioning the basis for historical or critical assumptions. We thought, well, is interviewing a dead person really any more absurd than any other form of historical conjecture?

Have people tried to talk you out of this?

Why would they do that?

Yes, actually. Mostly on the grounds of it being a dangerous pursuit that should not be taken lightly. But it tends to be part-time occultists who are used to regaling their friends with their notions of spiritual power, people who sort of derive some sense of their own importance from their dealings with the supernatural. We take the whole project very seriously, we’re careful, and we work with trained professionals. It’s still a little nerve-wracking sometimes, but it really feels like work that should be done. If it felt wrong we wouldn’t do it.

What has been the reaction of people in the art world to your project? Do they think you are mad? New Agey? Are you?

People think it’s a great idea and we are geniuses. We are waiting to be anointed the high priest and priestess of visual culture.

Really, the reaction has been stunning. Pretty much everybody thinks it’s a pretty fun, or totally odd, or an exciting idea. I think everybody’s just glad that somebody else is foolish enough to spend their hard-earned paychecks on spirit mediums, so they don’t have to do it, and they can still get the TRUTH.

Good to hear. Thank you very much.

Anne Walsh is and an artist whose recent creative output includes video installations, text works, curatorial projects in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Detroit, and editing X-Tra, a free art and culture magazine published in Los Angeles. Her work has been shown recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NYC, and in a solo exhibition in Utrecht, Holland. She is a professor of Studio Art at the University of California, Irvine.

Chris Kubick is an audio producer and composer whose work focuses on speech and other human sounds. His work has received awards from the Walker Center for the Arts (Mpls.), the Banff Centre for the Arts, and the National Association for Interpretation.

Refer to the Archive website at <http://www.doublearchive.com> for an overview of Archive activities, Art After Death cd purchases and subscriptions as well as audio samples.

Pierre-Louis Pierson, Les Jambes , ca. 1861-67,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George Davis

Pierre-Louis Pierson, Les Jambes , ca. 1861-67,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George Davis

Pierre-Louis Pierson, Countess de Castiglione , ca. 1856-60,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George Davis, 1948

See also Excepts from the Countess transcripts


Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room