Eight to twelve: the age before adolescence, before we were taught that we are not the protagonist of the story. Witches are women with magic. Witches are dangerous. These are myths invented to wrest us, all of us– but especially girls, from the ache of magic potential when our consciousness is growing two sizes too big for a child’s body and our powers to lie, deceive, appear innocent, feel immensities, and touch god, are actually at their height. A phantom wind moves the curtain (Fantôme, vinyl composite and gold-leaf). A faint knocking can be heard in the wall (E.V.P.R.S.P.K.A.S.M.R., 20-minute .mp3). The furniture is alive and off-kilter. What looks like a magician’s table with lifted legs walks on ghost icebergs made of sparkling plexiglass (Margery, birch plywood, pine, brass and steel hardware, lasercut acrylic). It could be an escapee from the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the live-action/animation musical I saw countless times on television as a kid. Angela Lansbury plays the witch who enchants the furniture.
Throughout the works, the ghost in the machine is honored, called forth. Incidences of techno-stalgia and screen mysticism bookend the exhibition. Cabinet Sessions, a black and white video in a small room of its own, features a candle– already a ritual object– but reformed and recast into a crystal formation, bringing its past uses into the new geometry of its digital frame. The soundtrack is reminiscent of CDs I once had with tracks like “bubbling brook,” “rain sounds,” and “crackling fire.” CDs are a recently passed-away object: here Sinks and Steele hook into the current trend of fetishizing the 90’s, but instead of commodification as the goal (vis-a vis: Urban Outfitters cassette tape shaped iPod covers) they mine the nostalgia housed in these references for its psychic personal power. They demonstrate what listening to the object’s pull on them could mean. In the case of Spirit Writing (Haunted Device), in which a cursor slowly writes out the sentence “Oh Don’t.” on the open screen of an old laptop, the ghost is the machine. Having grown up in California with frequent trips to Disneyland, I’ve seen the piano playing without player in the Haunted Mansion ride. Amazement that this clunky old computer still runs outweighs the effect of its “automatic writing.” The encounter feels familiar, a remembering from my pre-adolescent magic mind.
Artists Corkey Sinks and Jamie Steele conjure a world of magic in Black Cauliflower, an intentionally haunted a two-person exhibition at Roots and Culture. I believe it is a very specific spirit haunting these works: the spirit of an eight year-old girl in the early 1990s.
A heart tattoo peeks out beneath the fabric on the wrist of the hand that reaches out. An homage to a girl’s doodle made forever into the flesh. The other hand is disappeared. This bodiless arm inPartial Materialization Veiled in Auratic Fabric is the photographic result of photoshop, stagecraft, magic, or all three. There is much spirit and little body in the whole show. When the body appears, so does danger: hints of animal skulls and grotesque brains, hands trapped. Below the Thin I & II each depict a hand against a surface seen from the outside. If read left to right, the hand is getting farther away. I imagine Sinks and Steele making these photographs: One woman sets the trap, the other steps into it. Maybe it’s a good-bye? A bit of filmic melodrama, the effect is chilling nonetheless. Like in The Ring or The Exorcist— why are little girls so terrifying to/in mass culture? And why, when I see this work made by two grown women am I brought so specifically to this type of girlhood?
The title of the show comes from a quote from an eyewitness who sat with Eusapia Palladino, a turn-of-the-Century spiritualist and medium whose famed powers were revered and contested in many countries throughout Europe. Eusapia’s image appears in the show in the form of a small photograph entitled Eusapia at Table. When Sinks spoke to me of Palladino she put a hand over her heart, as if mentioning a departed loved-one.
I was born in 1984, the median age of Sinks (1983) and Steele (1985). Their material choices and references bring back me to an age when magic was everything. The clear sparkly plastic thread used to hold up the title piece, Black Cauliflower– a looming dark planet-brain which hangs at the center of the show– recalls hours spent making lanyards at day camp, and it is fastened to a hook at perfect eye level for this eight-year-old self. My astrologer recently said that the age of eight was a time of heightened spirituality for me, a time that will soon return when I am 36. I bring this up because in seeking out an astrologer in my thirties, I’ve begun to look for systems of mysticism that connect me to a truth of my childhood. And I am not alone. A revived interest in Tarot, crystals, divinations, spells, seems to be happening to my peers all around me. Sinks and Steele’s work brings out suggestions in which these impulses, generationally, may be coming from. Near a large black and white cave image titled Den, I couldn’t ignore the familiarity once more. This time, it brought to mind a sense of the major films that surrounded us as we were forming our young consciousnesses. The Dark Crystal, The Never-Ending Story, Labyrinth, Alice Through the Looking Glass, the live-action t.v. series Beauty and the Beast… These worlds are all present in the show, yet re-written to include bits of the eight-year-old heroine’s journey to adulthood, here, now.
We are a generation raised in late Reagan-era dichotomies of good and evil. “The nothing” in The Never-Ending Story was a thinly-veiled warning of what happens when children lose the ability to dream– it was a caution against the evils of T.V., but coming to us from the T.V.. These movies understood that children are more twisted, possibly more evil than the prevailing myths of innocence and “family values” being spread to cover over the government’s very adult evils could admit. Looking at Sinks and Steele’s dark hanging brain, hairy and overgrown from its skull like a Goosebumps book cover, I get real goosebumps to think of the violent potential of children. The “hairs” on this knot of darkness are made of zip ties and my brain fills with dark images from current news stories— Zip-ties on wrists, kids in the woods, the slender man stabbings.1 Myths, magic and media produce a powerful cocktail that points to the dangers of spirituality gone awry. For me, the power in Sinks and Steele’s work is its vibratory resonance with an age of life when children are quite literally monsters.
I was eight when I made a solemn promise in the mirror that when I grew up I would not underestimate or talk down to children this age. I swore to remember what worlds they contain.
Black Cauliflower is on view through July 19th at Roots and Culture Contemporary Art Center, 1034 N Milwaukee Ave. http://www.rootsandculturecac.org