What, if anything, might follow death remains an impenetrable mystery, but the latest exhibition at Gallery 1C03 proves one thing is certain: humankind has an enduring interest in all things paranormal.
The Undead Archive: 100 Years of Photographing Ghosts is on display at The University of Winnipeg’s campus art gallery through November 10.
The arresting exhibition, which resides at the intersection of history, science, and the supernatural, is co-presented University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections and the School of Art Gallery at the University of Manitoba, which are also hosting the exhibition.
There’s a real interest in spirituality, and that happens with cultural shifts, it happens when there’s a big change.
Dr. Serena Keshavjee
Curated by Dr. Serena Keshavjee, a UWinnipeg Professor and art historian, The Undead Archive showcases contemporary artists’ responses to the century-old séance photography and spiritual investigations of Winnipeg physician Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and his wife, Lillian Hamilton, a nurse.
Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Winnipeg in 1923 to lecture on the topic of communicating with ghosts and spirits, the Hamiltons carried out hundreds of controlled experiments in a séance laboratory, investigating the invisible psychic force that they believed was evidence of personalities surviving corporeal death.
“This may sound odd to us now, but in 1920 this was acceptable science,” Dr. Keshavjee said. “After the Second World War, this was no longer orthodox science and it was forgotten. It’s a good reminder that science is constructed. Science changes all the time.”
Four years of research
Dr. Keshavjee began her archival research in 2019 with a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. UWinnipeg students Sierra Hill, Christina Thomson, Emma Dux, and Alireza Bayrat assisted her during the curation process.
“Archives for me are places that reveal forgotten or suppressed histories,” she said. “They are these amazing places where you can get a more accurate sense of history.”
Few may know that Winnipeg is home to a trove of 700 séance-related scientific illustrations, plus thousands of related documents. The materials are housed at University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
“It’s probably the best-organized psychical archive in the world,” Dr. Keshavjee said. “It’s highly sought-after.”
In 2001, the archive was digitized and put online, where artists soon found it began producing a new wave of works inspired by the paranormal or supernatural.
“What surprised me was how many artists found these online,” Dr. Keshavjee said. “Artists were attracted to these photos before art historians. I realized there were so many artists hovering around that I better look at it.”
The Hamiltons’ photographs depict individuals expelling ectoplasm, a spiritual energy believed to manifest as a fabric-like substance during séances. Photography was believed to be one way to document ectoplasm.
“They’re aesthetically interesting and they’re technically very sophisticated,” Dr. Keshavjee said of the photographs, which retain their eerie, uncanny quality 100 years later. “They’re really akin to Surrealist art of the same period, and I think that’s one of the reasons artists and art historians are attracted to them.”
The Undead Archive and an accompanying anthology, The Art of Ectoplasm, contextualize the photographs, revealing attitudes toward science and religion in a prairie city recovering from the twin of upheavals of the First World War and the 1919 pandemic.
“We are also in our post-pandemic period, and I would say there’s a real interest in spirituality, and that happens with cultural shifts, it happens when there’s a big change,” Dr. Keshavjee said.
A host of adjunct programming is accompanying The Undead Archive exhibition, including performances, panel discussions, and a book launch. For more information, visit Gallery 1C03’s programming homepage.
Gallery 1C03 is the campus art gallery of The University of Winnipeg. It opened in September 1986 with a mission to engage diverse communities through the development and presentation of contemporary and historical art exhibitions and related programming activities.
The Gallery is also responsible for the development, preservation, and presentation of UWinnipeg’s art collection. Since its inception, Gallery 1C03 has hosted more than 160 exhibitions and welcomed more than 170,000 visitors.