ABOVE: A stack of recent watercolour paintings from memory by Kathleen Fonseca based on her psychic readings.
KATHLEEN FONSECA'S PSYCHIC ART
On December 13, 2006 a set of psychic readings by Kathleen Fonseca was videotaped in anticipation of this exhibition. Shot and edited by Collin Zipp and directed by Fonseca, this tape was made for projection in Gallery One One One's Kathleen Fonseca installation.
Several subjects - all University of Manitoba students - volunteered to participate in the videotaping.
In silence, Kathleen and her subject sat close to each other on a cushion, holding hands. A single candle burned beside them as they stared into each other's faces. Kathleen stared intensely, without blinking, for about twenty minutes. As she broke out of her trance, she talked about other faces she saw in the subject's face. Then she got up, sat at a drawing table and made a watercolour painting or two and/or some automatic writing about the subject's past lives. The paintings are depictions from memory of the faces Fonseca sees while in meditation, and the automatic writing - which is done very rapidly - is also about visions conjured during the session.
Fonseca will continue to do readings of volunteers within a curtained area in the Gallery as the exhibition happens. She will pin up paintings and automatic writings from these sessions on a Gallery wall as the exhibition unfolds. The exhibition will begin with a few pinned up drawings and automatic writings from past psychic sessions.
The Work and the Controversy
Kathleen Fonseca is an artist who is part of a contemporary Manitoban spiritualist subculture1 that has roots as far back as the nineteenth century. She has developed this art privately in paintings, drawings and texts made in a trancelike state during and after séances that she conducts. This exhibition consists of a set of actual séance/performances by Fonseca, videotapes of séances made for this show, and related works pinned to the Gallery walls as they are produced.
Fonseca is a multimedia artist based in Winnipeg. In 1989 she returned to art school to earn a degree in Fine Arts at the University of Manitoba, and in 1995 she completed an MFA at the University of North Dakota just across the US border from Manitoba. She currently teaches at University of Manitoba School of Art as a sessional instructor in the Foundations area. Fonseca worked for four years at the Manitoba Museum, designing and building dioramas in the new Parklands Exhibit there. She has had three solo exhibitions and she has participated in several group shows during her career, working mostly in sculpture and mixed media, work that has little to do with her current practice based on her spiritualist readings. This Gallery One One One solo exhibition is a kind of coming out party for Fonseca, a public declaration of her true interests in art.
Fonseca's claim that she can see into past lives need not be believed in order for her art to be appreciated, just as a Baroque depiction of a crucifixion does not require sharing Christian beliefs to be appreciated. One has every right to ask if when viewing a Rubens painting whether or not Jesus is God and whether or not Rubens or the curator of a Rubens exhibition believed or believes in Jesus, just as a viewer has the right to ask while looking at Kathleen Fonseca's art whether or not her subjects have actually had past lives and how Fonseca might know about them.
Of course, both Rubens and Fonseca can also be regarded on other levels irrespective of the facts of his depiction of Jesus or her depiction of the results of a séance. We are used to looking at Rubens in an open and secular way, but not at spiritualist art in an open and secular way. In fact, spiritualist art tends to make us hard secularists, but for Rubens, given the historical distance, we are content to be dispassionate art appreciators who keep our spiritual beliefs to ourselves.
Both The Skeptic's Dictionary and the The Skeptical Inquirer magazine (http://www.csicop.org/si/), to give one a sense of the contemporary climate of serious sceptical opinion, are replete with damning invocations against pseudoscientific practices like séances and divination, which are not seen as culture but as non-science.
Other practices that seem like culture are also given the damning treatment by The Skeptical Inquirer. Jerry Vardaman, for example, is an archaeologist who claims to have found microscopic texts bearing witness to Jesus on Roman coins. The Skeptical Inquirer magazine does not suggest that Vardaman is an artist who has missed his calling, but a simple fraud. He is, fact, both, depending on one's point of view.
The Skeptical Inquirer would no doubt also call David Wilson a fraud, even though the accusation would completely miss the point of this clever artist's work. Wilson, with a very straight face and a background in conceptual art, actually runs his own "natural history" museum in Culver City, California called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The Jurassic's museum exhibits are both true and not true in varying degrees. For example, one of Wilson's more improbable exhibits is about the camponotus floridanus or stink ant. The following is Lawrence Weschler's description of his inquiry into the truth of David Wilson's stink ant from his delightful book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. Weschler describes what Wilson would have us believe about the stink ant:
Upon being inhaled, [a] spore lodges itself inside the ant's tiny brain and immediately begins to grow, quickly fomenting bizarre behavioural changes in its ant host. The creature appears troubled and confused, and presently, for the first time in its life, it leaves the forest floor and begins an arduous climb up the stalks of vines and ferns.
Driven on by the still-growing fungus, the ant finally achieves a seemingly prescribed height whereupon, utterly spent, it impales the plant with its mandibles and thus affixed, waits to die...
After approximately two weeks, a spikelike protrusion erupts from out of what had once been the ant's head. Growing to a length of about an inch and a half, the spike features a bright orange tip, heavy-laden with spores, which now begin to rain down onto the forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale.... [Weschler, 3-4]
[Weschler] decided to try this stink ant story out on [Tom Eisner, the prominent Cornell biologist]. Wait until you hear this, [Weschler] told him, this one is even funnier.... 'Yup,' he said. 'Yup...yup.' When [Weschler had] finished, [Eisner the biologist] said, "So, where's the joke? All of that stuff is basically true." [Weschler, 66]
I am reminded of Mordecai Richler's famous story about the interviewer who asked him if his novel were "true," or had he "just made it up?" An archaeologist like Jerry Vardaman could be seen as making art unconsciously (the way we classify some historical Oceanic religious objects as art); an artist like David Wilson makes pseudoscience as art while being coy about it; and an artist like Fonseca exposes her practice to a take-it-or-leave-it proposition as art that is derived from spiritualist practices. An especially rich kind of artistic truth can be extracted from these things.
My intention as a curator of Kathleen Fonseca's work is not to defend the literal truth of the sources of her art but the work's value within a long art tradition of divination and related practices that in the last century spawned the Surrealists and in the past few years a host of Goth artists. Like Winnipeg art historian Serena Keshavjee, who did her doctoral work in nineteenth-century spiritualism, and the authors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue The Perfect Medium Photography in the Age of the Occult, I am careful to respectfully position myself at a distance from what Fonseca believes to be the true origins of her art as I make an argument for her work's significance.
- Cliff Eyland
1. In January 2004 Gallery One One One displayed a set of photographs from the Hamilton collection of the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections that documented séances conducted by Winnipeg physician Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton (1883-1935) and associates between 1918 and 1939. Trauerspiel: The Gothic Unconscious was part of a Sigrid Dahle-curated series that briefly touched on the continuing tradition in Winnipeg of such spiritualist practices. More recently some of these photographs appeared in the above-mentioned The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult September 27, 2005-December 31, 2005 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Carrier, Richard C. "Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman's Magic Coins" The Skeptical Inquirer, 26,2 (March/April 2002) 39-41/61.
Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary (New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2003)
Chéroux, C., Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, Sophie Schmit. The Perfect Medium Photography and the Occult (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004)
Weschler. Lawrence. Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)
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