FITCHBURG — Spiritualism, a philosophy and religion concerned with contacting the dead, was popular in the 19th and early-20th centuries and is still practiced today. An exhibition about it could be about grief, or it could be about fraud.
You can tell from the title — “After Spiritualism: Loss and Transcendence in Contemporary Art,” now at the Fitchburg Art Museum — which path it follows.
Spiritualism has shady roots. It began in the 1840s when Margaret and Kate Fox, two girls in western New York, heard a knocking in their home. When a skeleton was found buried in their basement, people took it as proof of an afterlife. As an adult, Margaret Fox admitted the story was a hoax. She later recanted that admission.
Massachusetts was a Spiritualist bastion. The Banner of Light newspaper, started in Boston in the 1850s, was published for 50 years. A Spiritualist camp was incorporated in the village of Lake Pleasant, in Montague, in 1879. The National Spiritual Alliance is still headquartered there. Spiritualists were abolitionists and suffragists.
Starting in the 1920s, magician Harry Houdini did everything in his power to debunk Spiritualism. Knowing how tricks worked, he would attend seances in disguise, point a flashlight at deceptions being practiced, and reportedly cry out, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”
But consider the yearning that drove Spiritualism’s believers. In the 19th century, more children died young, more mothers died in childbirth, and more people died of disease and infection. The Civil War saw 750,000 dead.
A search for solace was thrust upon Americans. Spiritualism thrived, and not all its practitioners were kooks and shysters. They longed for meaning. In “After Spiritualism” curator Lisa Crossman finds striking parallels between then and now.
A section focused on history pointedly calls back to the Civil War. Brian Knep’s interactive video installation, “Deep Wounds,” was originally made for Harvard University’s Memorial Hall, where the names of Union soldier alumni are inscribed on the walls.
But what of Harvard’s Confederate dead? Knep evokes them with video tiles on the floor. Step on them and much is made visible: A man’s relationships, the year he graduated, and the battle he fell in. But, quite explicitly, not his name. More than 150 years after the most divisive era in American history, Knep points out, silence and recrimination remain.
In the series “Within Our Gates: Site and Memory in the American Landscape,” painter Keith Morris Washington likewise probes America’s unhealed wounds. For more than 20 years, he has visited the sites of lynchings and painted them as he saw them — benign, shimmering landscape or suburban serenity. Beside each painting, he places text from a news report about the murder. He leaves out dates, so the horrors seem ongoing despite appealing paintings in which roiling, loose gestures stir the air.
One addresses the death of an unknown black man “accused of attacking an aged white woman,” in Maryland, according to the news article. Another visits the housing development tract where Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. Gutting to read, these stories raise specters of present-day mob violence and hate crimes. Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice? Or does it circle back to fear and loathing?
These works aren’t merely about loss. They’re about a society that spurs violence and resists resolution. They are very much about 2020.
Innovations in technology make another rhyme with the past. Scamming Spiritualists capitalized on the magic of photography, conjuring spirits with double exposures. Other so-called spirit photographs had white smudges (darkroom tricks or the result of faulty cameras) that were labeled as ectoplasm — a gooey substance mediums were said to emanate during seances.
Ectoplasm, during the stuffy Victorian Era, had a not-so-veiled association to sexuality. Arising in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment’s valuing of reason and science, Spiritualism addressed in direct and sidelong ways what reason could not satisfy: mortality, longing, sensuality, and intuition.
Even technology. It moves faster than we do and shakes up our perceptions of ourselves and the world. Today, social media is hardly a breeding ground for reason. Maria Molteni and Lacey Prpić Hedtke did a performance at the Boston Center for the Arts, inviting visitors to pose for spirit photos with homemade ectoplasmic goop, collected in a comical and informative book on view here, “Ectoplasm Selfies: DIY Ritual in the Age of Social Mediums.”
Many works address the show’s central theme of bereavement and the question of life after death. Imna Arroyo’s installation “Ancestors of the Passage” invites visitors to pin notes to an altar. It’s a simple installation: A table covered in white, a bowl of slips of paper. The action is what matters; the momentary sense of communion with a lost loved one.
Society and common sense fall away when we touch into our own tender places of loss. Spiritualism suggests that relationships do not harden into amber after a loved one dies. Whatever you believe about an afterlife, that is a potent tonic.
At its heart, “After Spiritualism” honors the yearning to connect with someone gone. Art, like religion and unlike science and reason, can do that. But the exhibition leaps to no assumptions, and it peddles no snake oil. Rooted in the context of history and society, it’s a two-way lens that invites viewers to understand what drives Spiritualism even as we remember our own losses.
AFTER SPIRITUALISM: Loss and Transcendence in Contemporary Art
At Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm St., Fitchburg, through June 7. 978-345-4207, www.fitchburgartmuseum.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.