by Katherine Neil

William Hope
Elderly couple with a young female spirit, c. 1920
National Media Museum Collection

There is a spectre-like presence in the Rodney Graham: Collected Works exhibition. Graham’s ghosts haunt the artworks within these white walls—from the artist’s mysterious appearance – in Film Still from ‘Mr. Moto in Danger Island’ (1939) (2013), to the expectant emptiness beneath Donald Judd (Catalogue Raisonne, The National Gallery of Canada) (1994).

While Graham is a multidisciplinary artist, two of the mediums he is commonly associated with are photography and film. The history of photography and film is intervolved with spectrology: the study of ghosts. Captured images—still or moving, staged or candid—often suggest the presence of a ghost. On the verge of light and dark, shadows flit and objects shiver: a spot of overexposure, or a movement frozen in time as a blur, is transformed from barely visible blemish into apparition.

‘Spirit Photography’ is a term used to describe photographic images that depict spirits or ghosts. In the mid eighteen hundreds photographs like these were sold to people desperate to see their deceased loved ones once more. Though often simply the result of an extra long exposure, or some other photographic process, for a time these pictures stirred debate regarding the existence of a spiritual realm.* The modern equivalents of such images can be found online and on daytime television, on shows like the SyFy channel’s Ghost Hunters.

Today, the notion that a photograph is an accurate reflection of reality has come under intense scrutiny, and it is widely understood that this so-called ‘truth’ is easily manipulated. Despite this, pictures and videos continue to have incredible evocative power. In his book on photography titled Ghost Stories: Stray Thoughts on Photography and Film, author Pavel Büchler writes,

[it is] [a]s if we lived in a multitude of parallel realities, time frames, separated only by the medium – through which there speaks the spectre, the ghost of photography. Like a hall of mirrors, this is a world in which objects and images are becoming interchangeable.**

Film Still from ‘Mr. Moto in Danger Island’, 2000
In an odd coincidence, Rodney Graham found his name in a film
produced 10 years before he was born.

That is, with the continuing improvement of the photographic and filmic mediums, and the proliferation of images generally, the division between reality and fantasy (fantasy > phantasy > phantom) is becoming more faint. As evidence, it is now possible to watch television in three dimensions.

Graham’s work recalls a time when post production effects were less commonly used. His photographic triptychs and performance videos are not remarkable because they have been manipulated after the fact, but because the detailed scenes they depict have been carefully constructed by the artist and his assistants before being captured on film. Graham’s light boxes are like glowing portals to ghostly worlds that would crumble were it not for the frame provided by the camera lens, which captures only what is immediately in front of it, and not the unfinished edges of the artist’s construction.

Loudhailer Vitrine (Wicker Man) (2003)
infront of A Partial Overview of
My Brief Modernist Career (2006-09)

In Film Still from ‘Mr. Moto in Danger Island’ (1939), Graham’s ‘ghost’ haunts a scene devised before he was even born! Likewise, in The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007) and 3 Musicians… (2006), Graham presents not as a troubled spirit from the past, but as a spookily anachronistic figure from the future. And when the idea of the ‘spectre’ or ‘ghost’ is taken less literally, disturbances are also apparent in works by the artist that are not photographs or films, and which do not feature the artist himself.

On the first floor of the gallery—the entry point for visitors to the exhibition—are several of Graham’s earlier works, each referencing the work of minimalist artist Donald Judd. On one of my tours, gesturing to these works, a visitor asked, “What does Judd think about all this?” Even though it is an impossible question to answer, it has a rhetorical impact. It lingers in the space, and in the imagination, like the missing forms under Graham’s piece referencing Judd’s stacks: a stand-in for the artist whose work remains long after he is gone.

On the second floor, visitors are confronted by Graham’s series of forty paintings titled A Partial Overview of My Brief Modernist Career. A large, white, ornate frame reminiscent of the pre-modernist period and the era of the Paris Salons surrounds each one. By painting the frames white, Graham succeeds in almost erasing them. They blend into the wall, becoming a part of the modernist White Cube. They are like ghosts, alluding to a tradition of exhibiting art that is now antiquated.

In the same room the thin glass shelves that suspend the megaphone and the hat above the RCMP uniform in Loudhailer Vitrine (Wicker Man) (2003) give these objects the illusion of weightlessness. Though they are static, held in a parody of the human form by one headless, limbless dummy, the viewer is left with the eerie impression that they might suddenly jump to life.

A photographic or filmic image is a window into a parallel world—a ghost world. Büchler refers to the ‘ghost of photography’, but the Rodney Graham: Collected Works exhibition proves that every medium has its ‘spooks’. Graham’s ghosts are found in the references he makes to the history of art and pop culture, and the way that he opens the past up to the average viewer—like a hall of mirrors—allows them to reflect on it, and consider the ramifications it has and will have.

* Harding, Colin. “G Is for Ghosts… the Birth and Rise of Spirit Photography.” National Media Museum Blog. National Media Museum, 22 Sept. 2014. Web.
** Büchler, Pavel. Ghost Stories: Stray Thoughts on Photography and Film. London: Proboscis, 1999. Print.