Visual Arts: The call of the weird

Inexplicable, disturbing, hinting at odd possibilities: the paranormal and contemporary art have a lot in common. By Tom Lubbock
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I mean, for god's sake, we're living in the 20th century. In traditional horror films, there was always a man who used to say that. He was the sceptic. He was sure such things couldn't happen now. He was always wrong. In fact, if there was one clear piece of advice horror films dinned into their audiences, it was this: should a man ever tell you that we're living in the 20th century and that bogeys do not walk the earth, don't believe him: bogeys do. Well, maybe. But even if true, as a general tip it doesn't seem very useful. After all, for most of us, how often does the bogey- question arise?

Yet we live in a culture absolutely saturated with fictional and factional representations of the paranormal: movies, The X-Files, the Spooky World of Carol Vorderman and all that. A fascination, certainly. But what level of belief, what kind of belief, does that imply? Or, on the other hand, if few people really believe in it, but millions still lap it up, what does that mean? What needs are being answered? Might the fine arts help here?

"E.S.P. - Contemporary Artists Investigate the Paranormal" is a three- handed show at IKON in Birmingham. Normally I'm very against thematic group-shows. But, as a theme for contemporary art, the paranormal is rare and curious enough to overcome the usual objections. Besides, one of the works here is a stunner: Susan Hiller's video installation, Wild Talents.

"Wild Talents" was the phrase coined by weirdness-researcher Charles Fort to describe human psychic abilities generally. He saw them as an untapped resource. Hiller's piece focuses on the supposed psychic powers of children. In a darkened gallery, there are two huge, floor-to-ceiling screens, meeting where two walls meet, and projected on each of them is a series of clips from quite recent films, some famous, some not, each showing children in assorted acts of levitation, telekinesis and general hell-raising.

You'll catch a glimpse of The Shining (the sea of blood from the lift), and Poltergeist (when the little girl makes contact with the TV People), and Carrie, and from something which must be a biopic of Uri Geller. Bodies and objects fly, cups of cocoa boil over all by themselves, and men catch fire. But the clips flash by fast, monochromed with single colour washes so they become almost a single film, your eye having to flicker between the two screens, trying to take in both projections at once, the scary soundtracks having been sort of mulched together. You have a continuous, careering, not quite graspable reel of amazement.

The gallery literature seems to draw a media-studies moral from this - about the representation of children, and the way they're made out as either pure innocents or pure evil: quite off the mark, I think. The great coup here is that, released from their surrounding film plots, the clips move beyond good and evil, and beyond fact or fiction, into a realm of pure possibility - and the viewer does, too. The subject matter of the clips gets merged with the experience of them. You identify entirely with the children's powers. Watching this rolling sequence of fear and wonder is like being a child standing in a high wind, or a storm, or in the middle of a burning stubble-field, overwhelmed and caught up by these forces, revelling in them, feeling at one with them, and strangely in control of them. What Wild Talents offers is a very persuasive simulation - far better than its source movies - of what it would feel like to have such powers. It's got awe.

That seems to be the overall attitude to the paranormal in this show - as precisely that: the paranormal; the unexplained; a pure possibility of something bewilderingly other. Vanished!, an hour-long film by Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni, does that, dramatising, via talking heads, the "true" story of a family in the Thirties whose Manx home was visited by a strange, human-animal presence called Gef. ("Vanished!" is what it said when its visits were over.)

Father, mother, and daughter each saw it, talked to it, and incorporated it into their lives. The press got interested for a while, but the story just peters out without climax, and you're left feeling that whatever you might say about it - hoax, collaborative fantasy, real haunting - is less interesting than the odd thing itself. Meanwhile, Wendy McMurdo's spryly manipulated photos make children into false doubles of themselves, or have them playing musical instruments that have suddenly, mysteriously, vanished from their hands. No clues.

It's not a bad attitude. Most people interested in the unexplained are really interested in explanations - either supernatural or psycho-sociological. Most films have to reach a conclusion. But one can put explanation on hold, and I suppose the visual arts, with fewer narrative obligations, are well equipped to do this. "Yes, Trudi - we know you saw something." That's the other thing the men always say. But to leave the matter exactly, blankly, there, is a position we don't hear from too often.

At the National Portrait Gallery in London, there are more strange flickerings and perplexing claims. The Painter's Eye is a small and rather confusing exhibition which displays the first results of an art-science experiment whose subject is the artist Humphrey Ocean. While making a series of portrait drawings, Ocean's gaze was monitored by an eye-tracker, and his brain was monitored by a brain-scanner, and a movement-sensor was attached to his pencil. Wall texts and video screens show what happened. The "mystery of the creative process" is somehow the object.

I'm not sure what the tests prove, or what they might prove. An experiment with but a single subject is clearly in its early days. There seem to be a vast number of ineliminable variables. The terminology is dubious. For instance, the one big result so far involves brain scans of Ocean doing one-minute drawings from photos, compared with those of unspecified "non-artists" doing the same task. They show that (surprisingly) Ocean used frontal, non-visual brain areas while the others used posterior, visual brain areas.

The comment is that the non-artists were "slavishly copying" the photos, but Ocean "was `thinking' the portraits". Hmm. The one-minute "slavish copies" aren't displayed, and I wonder if that's what we'd call them if we saw them. And what "thinking" means when you take the inverted commas away I don't know, but you notice that the experimenters don't use words like "formula" or "trick" or "style". And how far Ocean is a typical artist, and what "artist" is taken to mean, are obviously crucial questions, but hard to answer.

The whole project seems to rely on untestable judgements, viz that Ocean is a good artist, and quite a realistic one. Both are true, I think: Ocean's easily the best portraitist the NPG has commissioned in recent years (see his Willie Whitelaw), and he does good likenesses. But these two things together conform to the experimenters' preconception of the artistic process: that information goes in the brain, gets arted up a bit, and comes out as a picture.

They wouldn't have wanted an artist like Frank Auerbach, because his portraits don't retain enough hard information; and they wouldn't have wanted one of those hack pavement portraitists who ply their trade round the back of the NPG, because there would be no question of "creativity". The basic problem with this experiment is that it's in a dodgy relationship to normal, non-scientific ways of talking about art - wanting to move beyond them, but wholly dependent on them. I don't know if there is a "mystery of creativity", but probed this way there's bound to be.

`E.S.P. - Contemporary Artists Investigate the Paranormal', IKON Gallery, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1. To 13 June, closed Mondays; free admission.

The Painter's Eye: National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2. To 13 June, everyday; free admission