Thoughts on Hauntology

‘Hauntology’ is a term coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1994) to describe the philosophy of haunting; the power for the past to continue to shape and influence the future, to return.  While Derrida’s focus was applying this terminology to Marxism, the term itself has proven useful to many writers from a multitude of disciplines to describe the shifting territory between being and not being, presence and absence.

It is precisely those apparent contradictions that define the term:  “Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” (Davis, 2005, p. 373) the spectral is a strange mid-ground, neither one thing nor the other.

A ghost, or spectre, is an apparition that lacks solidity, it is ephemeral and unformed, it cannot be described in absolutes, and yet it also cannot be easily dismissed.  A ghost doesn’t have to be the sentimental vision of a long dead loved one, nor the clumsy spook in a white sheet. It is not a literal ghost in the sense of thrilling stories told to scared children around the clichéd campfire.  No, a haunting in this sense is more a fixation or preoccupation; an idea that niggles.  It could be a person, yes, or the idea of a person perhaps, but whatever the case, a haunting is something that exerts more power than it ought, despite its lack of tangible formation. “Haunting denotes an obsession or fear of something, perhaps invisible or immaterial” (Tavin, 2005, p.114).

Hauntology is also about time travel in a way, a spectre is something that has stepped outside of its place in time and space, into the present.  Peim talks about the spectre as a disruptive force, as something from the past that corrupts the flow of time (2005, p. 76). Anything outside of its time, logically, is a disruption, and yet it is impossible to live without disruption, because it is through consideration of the past and projection of what the future might hold that humans come to understand and live in the world.  Davis says, “Phantoms lie about the past whilst spectres gesture towards a still unformulated future” (2005, p. 379). A ghost is a thing displaced, but it is a thing with an agenda; ghosts are messengers, they have a purpose, an unfinished business.  It is the lot of spectres to point at things we can’t, or refuse to, see.

The idea of hauntology, for me, is closely related to trace.  Trace uses what is present to suggest what is absent; trace is about what is missing.  Hauntology extends this idea by drawing attention to the fact that what is missing is also present as a spectre; that is to say, while not literally present, it cannot be said to be absent either, because the trace refers to that which is no longer there, “… the very business of representation  – where one, present, element stands in for another, absent, element – is necessarily ‘ghostly’ or spectral:  that is, its sense necessarily depends on something that is not there.” (Derrida as paraphrased in Peim, 2005, p. 74). Therefore it would seem that representational art by its very nature is hauntological, because it depicts, it re-presents something that is absent. “When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly.  Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.” (Gallix, 2001). Artworks are spectres of the people and things that they depict.  A photograph is the ghost of a moment that has passed, a drawing or painting emulates or replicates, it mimics, and in that mimicry something is lost and something is gained, but it is never quite the thing that it represents.

Melbourne Now

While in Melbourne briefly for my sister’s wedding, I managed to catch the Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), an exhibition celebrating the diverse art, design and architecture created by Melbourne based artists. This comprehensive exhibition was spread across the two Gallery sites: NGV International, and The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.  According to the exhibition guide it is the largest single show put together by the gallery, 8000 square meters of exhibition space to be exact (Ellwood, 2013, p. 4).

The ambitious scale of the exhibition and the diversity of the art shown made the exhibition an incredible experience, I described it to my family as being ‘like Disneyland’ to get them to understand the sheer childlike excitement it caused me! I only wish I could have savoured it a bit more, spent more time, or made multiple trips.

One of the highlights for me was getting to see Patricia Piccinini’s 2012 work The Carrier.  I actually can’t think of words to describe the encounter.  The sculpture is so magnificent and so realistic (down to every last hair) that it really seemed as though this strange creature would suddenly wander off; treading heavily, perhaps, with his large feet, but slowly and carefully so as not to give the old lady an uncomfortable ride.  Despite their odd-couple look, the pair seemed serene and comfortable together,  and contrary to their hyperreality and the darkened room they were positioned in, they didn’t seem creepy.  In terms of the Uncanny Valley, I felt as though they were ‘real’ enough not to provoke revulsion, possibly because they don’t move to spoil the effect.


In a nearby space was a room devoted to Julia deVille‘s Victorian gothic taxidermy, an installation called Degustation that was set up to look like a Victorian dining room complete with that characteristic overly decorative oppressive wallpaper and black curtains.  I’m not usually very interested in taxidermy, and I wasn’t particularly taken by the cat-drawn carriage deVille submitted to the Wallace awards (the twin of which was present in this show), however the silver platters containing small birds, puppies, rabbits, baby deer were much more visually compelling, and appealed to me a great deal more for stepping back the theatricality a little.  It is amazing what a subtle shift can do for an idea.  The gothic excess came in the combination of objects and the installation rather than trying to push it all into the one work.

Julia deVille

The other element that was really successful was that seats were provided along with paper (black) and pencils (silver and red) so that the viewer could sit and draw.  Interactive artworks don’t usually work for me, I’m not really a participator, but this was perfect.  Probably because it appealed to me in a language I understood (drawing), but it was so clever too, because it got the viewer to stay with the work longer, to really observe and consider it.

Richard Lewer‘s work was North Side Boxing Gym (2013) which consisted of a huge charcoal drawing, mirrors, a hanging punching bag and a recording of a training session. It was immersive because of the scale of the work, the way the mirrors caught the drawing and installation, and the sound that transports the viewer into the gym, but it was also somewhat disconcerting, because for all the sound and imagery, the lack of movement made the work quite eerie, as though I was somehow experiencing the ghost of a real occurrence.

Richard Lewer

The collective Hotham Street Ladies commandeered the entire entrance of the The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia.  Their three big installations, At home with the Hotham Street ladies were domestic scenes embellished with details made of icing.  There was a chaotic table of leftovers, a hall rug with shoes and mail casually laid out, and a living room  with couch cushions and ‘knitted’ afghans, books and paintings all made from icing.

Hotham Street Ladies

The work had a definite feminine feel to it with its commentary on the domestic in the themes as well as the materials, but the sheer cheeky humour of it was the overwhelming impression.

Overall the exhibition is teeming with inspiring artworks and very talented emerging and established artists, It brings together an eclectic mix from numerous disciplines to really capture the zeitgeist of Melbourne today.

Louise Hopkins

Louise Hopkins, 1996, 2/3 [oil paint on reverse of furnishing fabric 183 x 130 cm]

Louise Hopkins, 1996, 2/3 [oil paint on reverse of furnishing fabric
183 x 130 cm]

Louise Hopkins makes her work on pre-printed surfaces, through trace and erasure she interacts with the original print (image/text/pattern) in order to remake it (Bradley, 2005, p. 15). Her intervention supplants or obliterates and reclaims the surface.  It is a subtle colonisation, what was there is still there, masked, or slightly visible, reversed and repainted, but still inevitably present, even where its presence is only implied through erasure.

Louise Hopkins, 2003, Untitled (452) [partly erased comic 40 x 32 cm]

Louise Hopkins, 2003, Untitled (452) [partly erased comic
40 x 32 cm]

In fact, it could be argued that greater emphasis is placed on the presence of the original as the attempts to obliterate it only serve to draw more attention to its absence. The works are indeed haunted by their previous lives, and it is this halfway point between existence and oblivion, and the negotiated meaning created by the intervention that gives them true power as images.

Louise Hopkins, 1997, Songsheet 3 (ii) you're nobody 'til somebody loves you. (detail) [acrylic ink on song sheet]

Louise Hopkins, 1997, Songsheet 3 (ii) you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you. (detail) [acrylic ink on song sheet]

The paradox of the work is that it is in the modification and translation that the original purpose is reevaluated: it is through it’s partial absence, and the labour of carefully retracing or erasing, that its humble previous existence is reconsidered. Paradoxical too that in some instances each act of erasure involves carefully retracing each of the elements, as in Songsheet 3 (ii) you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you (1997), and 2/3 (1996).

Louise Hopkins, 2003, Untitled (476) (detail)[Acrylic ink on metric graph paper]

Louise Hopkins, 2003, Untitled (476) (detail)[Acrylic ink on metric graph paper]

Other works seem to speak of giving a new life, or a second chance, such as Untitled (476) (2003) the reformed graph paper and Untitled (452) (2003) the altered comic strip.  These papers have been set free by the deletion (Bradley, 2005, p. 19), and yet their past is still there, masked beneath, a subterranean narrative held captive between the layers.

The impossibility of seeing through someone else’s eyes

We always see from a point outside of the bounded space of the photographer.  We occupy, by implication, the viewing position of the photographer, but clearly not the same social, temporal, professional point of view.  Our position is itself, as it were, haunted by this difference.  We cannot reclaim this originary point of view and can only speculate as to its character.  The photograph to some extent depends for its very existence on the figure and position of the photographer, as imaginary agent of its existence, but for us this must remain forever an imaginary position that we cannot occupy in the same way.  Looking at a photograph effects a temporal dislocation. We are required to take up the impossible position of seeing through someone else’s eyes.  (Peim, 2005, p.70).

Sean Kerr / Nina Patel images.

These images by Sean Kerr and Nina Patel are from Sean Kerr’s book Bruce is in the garden; so someone is in the garden (2010) I enjoy the casual nature of them, like idle daydreams rather than planned artworks. The idea of trace is apparent in the ‘used’ paper, where the text (handwritten, typed) shows through faintly in reverse.

IMG_0010 IMG_0011 IMG_0009 IMG_0008 IMG_0006 IMG_0003

(Please excuse the quality of the images they’ve been photographed from the book).

Shadow of the wind

On that June morning, I woke up screaming at first light. My heart pounding in my chest as if my very soul was trying to escape. My father hurried into my room and held me in his arms trying to calm me.
‘I can’t remember her face. I can’t remember Mummy’s face,’ I muttered, breathless.
My father held me tight.
‘Don’t worry, Daniel. I’ll remember for both of us.’ (Zafon, 2001, p.2).


‘Don’t you have a photograph of her?’
‘I’ve never wanted to look for them,’ I said.
‘Why not?’
… ‘Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid of looking at a photograph of my mother and discovering that she’s a stranger. You probably think that’s nonsense.’ (Zafon, 2001, p. 235)