Mark Kimber’s line-up of photographs oozes the cheesy titillation of a Victorian sideshow trawl teetering on the edge of peepshow voyeurism.
He knows this and lays on the gimcrack wizardry in spades. He can do this because he is an artist on top of his game and knows exactly what going on.
To understand why Kimber would want to create facsimiles of late 19th century spiritualist sessions, complete with ectoplasmic ejaculations and dematerialising bodies, it is useful to know that the artist for so much of his practice has been drawn to the twilight zones of human imagination and experience.
“I work at dusk,” Kimber says. “The edge of the day … Where the play of light, people and landscape converge in time and space to create an elusive and ephemeral piece of theatre.” One could add that he works with dusk as an elemental material, as real as clay to a ceramic artist or thread to a weaver. At times, this has been manifest in photo essays of ‘edgelands’, marginal landscapes haunted by human absence and squeezed through the lens of a dipping sun, a rising moon or a street lamp. At other times, the strangest of creatures with shimmering or crumpled faces, suspended in zones of spotlit blackness, confront the viewer.
The artist has said that he has always been interested in the night. “Things at night are not as fixed in time and place … They seem to hover between the past and the present.” This sense of reality in transition as sunlight fades and darkness weaves its magic is akin to the prose of Edgar Allan Poe who pitched his readers into chasms of darkness lit by the most fearsome of dreams. “Deep into that darkness peering,” Poe wrote, “long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Such an odd and disconcerting mix is this collusion in the artist’s work between the patently real and the suggestive. Kimber’s interest in hypnagogia feeds his imagination. Hypnagogia, which Salvador Dali called “the slumber with a key” is a recognised state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness characterised by dreamlike visions and strange sensory occurrences – a good starting point to unpick the mystery of The River of Faces with its haunted house menagerie of dissolving heads, wraith-like emanations, transfixed faces and levitating spirits.
The quotation of 19th to early 20th century spirit-photography tropes is deliberate and seductive. To simulate the theatrics of the séance, Kimber created backdrop panels using wallpaper patterns appropriate to the period. Furnishing and costuming followed suit. Achieving the bogus paranormal effects of auras, hovering and dematerialisation was straightforward for an artist of his extensive technical experience.
The ectoplasmic cloud formation surrounding the woman’s head in Swirling presence, for example, was achieved by the sitter waving a white plastic garbage bag while the photograph was taken. Kimber’s research into photography’s role in the rise of spiritualism in the later 19th century extends beyond appreciating the various tricks photographers employed to satisfy a growing market for images that appeared to reveal the ongoing presence of the dear departed and inner states of psychic energy, evident as shimmering auras.
His appreciation of the ‘dark arts’ of spirit photography runs much deeper than technical wizardry. Yes, it’s trickery but at the same time a source, as he says, of “peace and resolution”. “The belief is gone but the theatre of it remains,” Kimber says. “The recent death of my brother has led me to finding some solace in making these photographs. I understand the longing at the expense of the truth.” Longing was certainly at the heart of the late 19th to early 20th century spiritualism movement as the trauma of first the American Civil War (and, later, WWI) led families to believe that it might be possible to commune with the dead. Photography, with its pseudo-scientific credentials, was co-opted into this quest by producing images in which the living shared space with dear departed.
In trespassing into such territory Kimber exposes a relationship between the photographic image and inner recesses of the mind which seek surety and solace. In this regard, The River of Faces has much in common with Bill Viola’s use of video to evoke states of transition between life and death viewed through filters of grief and longing. Both artists understand that visual theatre is required to hold the gaze on this most unstable of subjects. And so, like pop-up characters in some penny arcade peepshows, Kimber’s ‘spirits’ do their schtick, daring anyone to find them even slightly spooky. But as Walter Sickert advised, look at the audience, not the stage. Are these diminutive images just fabulist fantasies? Or do they cruel the joke to summon spirits of memory and emotion to haunt our waking hours?
Feature image: Mark Kimber, Medium with Ectoplasm, June 14, 1.18 am.,
25 cm x 18 cm, Pegasus print