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Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits

21 April – 27 June 2015

Georgiana Houghton, Yuri Ancarani, Jan Bäcklund, Kathy Barry, Belle Bassin, Vincent Ceraudo, Mikala Dwyer, Max Ernst, Madame Favre, Chiara Fumai, Diena Georgetti, Madge Gill, Tamar Guimarães & Kasper Akhøj, Susan Hiller, Susan Jacobs, Jess Johnson, Kristine Kemp, Joachim Koester, David Lamelas, Dane Mitchell, Matt Mullican, Olivia Plender, Lea Porsager, Laurent Schmid, Georgina Starr and Dorothea Tanning

Lars Bang Larsen, independent curator, art historian and writer, and Marco Pasi, Associate Professor in History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam

The major group exhibition Believe Not Every Spirit, but Try the Spirits takes as its departure point the art of forgotten Victorian-era Spiritualist Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), and features contemporary and historical painting, sculpture, video and photography that both explore and  adopt  Spiritualist practices and  methodologies.

Rarely seen outside a Spiritualist context since 1871, Houghton’s 25 abstract watercolours from the Victorian Spiritualist Union collection were produced as part of her Spiritualist practice, which saw Houghton use drawing as a way to channel communication with spiritual entities. The works were  brought to Australia for an exhibition in 1910, during a period in which Spiritualism was especially popular. The Victorian Spiritualist Union is the longest continuously operating Spiritualist organisation in the world and counts amongst its many distinguished patrons Australia’s second Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who was the organisation’s President before devoting himself to politics. Believe Not Every Spirit, but Try the Spirits affords an opportunity to reflect on the influential role of the Spiritualist movement in Australian history.

A unique amalgamation of artist, Spiritualist and medium, the fascinating and unexpected story of Houghton has generated international interest from curators and writers who see her work as representing an abandonment of figurative form that anticipates the development of modern abstraction by artists such as Kandinsky or Malevich by several decades.

At a time when few opportunities were present for women to explore creative practices, Houghton’s work draws attention to the role of women within society by creating an alternative space through ritual. The perceived irrationality of Spiritualism has in the past been used as an excuse to systematically belittle the importance of Houghton (and other female artists such as Hilma af Klint) within a history of abstract art. Houghton’s strange mediations between individual self and the collective otherworld foreground a feminist investigation that complicates common tropes of hysteria and feminine theological excess as dangerous or disturbed.

Houghton’s seemingly frenetic, yet highly deliberate, and beautiful watercolours accept as legitimate that which lies beyond the bounds of conventional experience, and offers a fascinating context for an array of contemporary artists who are interested in the spaces between dream, after life and living reality. Artists such as Joachim Koester, Matt Mullican and Jess Johnson absorb both shared cultural and personal memories through the aesthetic of ritual to interrogate notions of the world beyond.

Lars Bang Larsen is an art historian, independent curator and writer based in Copenhagen. He has curated projects at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Sala Rekalde, Bilbao; and Raven Row, London.

Marco Pasi is Associate Professor in History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on the complex web of relations between modern Western esotericism, religion, politics and art.

Public Programs:
Matt Mullican Boiler Room Lecture
20 April

MUMA Artists & Thinkers Talks: Kathy Barry and Dr Jan Bryant
21 April

Lars Bang Larsen and Marco Pasi MADA Artform Lecture
22 April

Spectral Stories: A Melbourne Spiritualist’s carte-de-visite album with Dr Martyn Jolly
13 June

Image: Believe Not Every Spirit, but Try the Spirits. Installation view, Monash University Museum of Art, 2015. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Installation Views