Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance

Nostalgia is a word that means “a wistful desire to return” or “a sentimental yearning,” but from these cloying definitions one would never guess that the word originally meant “homesickness”. At its heart, Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is nostalgic, but it is also complex and engaging without a hint of the saccharine. Nostalgia as homesickness is the distant light that guides this excellent melancholic exhibition.

Sarah Charlesworth, "Herald Tribune, 1977" (1977). Twenty-six chromogenic prints, 59.7 x 41.9 cm each, edition 2/3.

Despite its subtitle, Haunted includes work in a wide variety of media, including painting and sculpture. Helpfully, the works are organized into thematic sections that guide the viewer through the winding gallery: Appropriation and the Archive; Documentation and Reiteration; Landscape, Architecture, and the Passage of Time; and Trauma and the Uncanny. These divisions assist the viewer in comprehending the modes in which current artists have reckoned with history and their art-historical antecedents. Insightful wall text accompanies the beginning of each new section.

Idris Khan, "Homage to Bernd Becher" (2007). Bromide print, 49.8 x 39.7 cm, edition 1/6.

Walking up the curving ramp, the viewer encounters Appropriation and the Archive first. This is the perfect introduction to the show for both uninitiated and seasoned viewers, featuring imagery “borrowed” from print media, movies, and other images taken from the public domain. The textbook-classics are here: Andy Warhol, Sherry Levine, Richard Prince, Sarah Charlesworth. For the experienced, it’s like greeting old friends; for the newcomer, it’s a well-rounded primer. Though it may be familiar, Charlesworth’s Herald Tribune, November 1977 (1977) is particularly gratifying to see in person. Idris Khan’s Homage to Bernd Becher (2007) is a diminutive powerhouse of layered emotive lines that conjure up the industrial structures documented by photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The work in this section stands as a persuasive critique of the myth of artistic originality.

Spencer Finch, "42 Minutes (after Kawabata) (2005). Seven chromogenic prints, 15.2 x 15.2 cm each.

Continuing up and around, the Documentation and Reiteration portion displays the photographic evidence of performance work, citing notables such as Marina Abramovic, Tacita Dean, and Ana Mendieta. Though most of the works in this section stand on their own, they function primarily as reminiscent testimonials to events in the past. The performances that provide the basis for this section provoked conversations among fellow viewers: one well-dressed woman recounted her experience of seeing an Abramovic performance to her companion; an elderly couple argued about the processes likely used to make Markus Hansen’s Curtain (2004).  Landscape, Architecture, and the Passage of Time is modest, with many of the works being smaller than their counterparts in other sections of the exhibition; but it also contained some of the most evocative work. Spencer Finch’s 42 Minutes (after Kawabata) (2005) is a series of seven photographs that transform a snowy landscape into a picture of an interior door via a reflection on glass. The subtle shift from landscape to door, inside to outside, means that one image manifests itself in another, and no image in the series truly exists without its counterparts. This is a literal haunting, and it is eloquent.

Nate Lowman, "Loser" (2009). Alkyd on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm.

Organized around a theory that originated with psychologist Sigmund Freud, Trauma and the Uncanny contains intriguing and provocative work, some by lesser-known artists. Nate Lowman breathes new life into the raster-dot image first promoted by pop artists like Sigmar Polke, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. The Last Supper (2009) and Loser (2009) are compositions that manage to be smart, funny, and heart-rending all at once. Gillian Wearing’s Self-Portrait at Three Years Old (2004) provides a double-take experience: the artist took a sweet childhood portrait and cut out/replaced her three-year-old eyes with her own adult eyes. The new portrait could function as a mask, hiding the adult self behind a guise of innocence; or show the outward form of a child who understands more than she lets on. The effect is disturbing.

Gillian Wearing, "Self-Portrait at Three Years Old", (2004). Chromogenic print, 182 x 122 cm.

There is no doubt that the work in the exhibition is superlative, and the thematic arrangement makes it easy for the casual art viewer to understand the context—without seeming too obvious for the more sophisticated habitué. This is museum curation at its best: stimulating but accessible, informative without condescension. The nostalgia in evidence brings to mind a quote from the late cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard: “Simulation is master, and nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remains.” The nostalgia demonstrated by the artists is wistful but not sentimental; and the history they mine tells us as much about the present as it does about our past.