Most of the fun of a good ghost story is in the banality; true hauntings are seldom showy. Stories like the Enfield poltergeist are noteworthy precisely for their ordinariness and for their extreme economy. What unsettles us are ambiguous details we can relate to: a swinging lightbulb in a basement or a pair of house keys left in the middle of a kitchen floor.
At Camden Arts Centre, Bonnie Camplin is showing ‘The Eight Pieces’. Described as ‘a semiotic technology’, the work consists of eight drawings arranged as a schematic diagram. Camplin claims these were transmitted to her and downloaded through psychic communication. Whatever this psychic seance involved remains mysterious.
The eight-panel installation consists of various size and shape c-prints of loose and scratchy notebook sketches depicting geometric shapes, foetuses, yogically contorted feminine forms, and a recurring motif of a cat’s head connected to electrodes, together with a densely spooky biro sketch. Circles recur, with the effect of making the abstract patterns seem like early 90s rave slipmats as much as totems of ancient wisdom.
‘The Eight Pieces’ makes for an extremely spartan display, almost entirely in black and white. Even with these limited means, Camplin’s work evokes extant parapsychological systems like Zener cards, the zodiac and the tarot. There’s a full house here of semiotic symbols to represent the world beyond, and by placing a cat motif at the centre, Camplin has her own familiar spirit, drawing on the mythology that cats are somehow necronauts, patrolling the border between the living and the dead.
The notion that the work here is in any way calculated or controlled is flatly denied by the accompanying statement, which suggests that the drawings originated in another realm, and Camplin psychically received them. In this framing, the eight works here are presented as though they are mere documentation of the real work: the psychic system the artist has ostensibly developed, transmitting these drawings as a kind of automatic writing. As documentation of a seance or netherworld, however, ‘The Eight Pieces’ is a tautology: its subject matter is psychic communication itself. As a result, the great beyond can’t furnish us with any spectral insights into other realms or truths about the universe. What we see is just what we would expect to see.
Whether you believe the premise – or are minded to play along – is up to you. But either way, based on a knowledge of Camplin’s previous scholarly and impressively esoteric work, and the incredibly fertile academic landscape that ‘The Eight Pieces’ situates itself in, you can be sure that the artist’s reading and research was extensive. That said, you can’t help but wish that she’d shown her hand a little more. As it is, the drawings are all that remains – and, like the swinging lightbulb in the basement, they’re dependent on an implied context. The success or failure of Camplin’s enterprise depends entirely on your own leap of faith.