MICHELLE NGUYEN: THOUGHTS ON THE FEAR OF EMPTY SPACE
To accompany her new solo exhibition, Michelle Nguyen offers a full artist statement essay below, in which she identifies and discusses six concepts which contributed to the Victorian aesthetic of horror vacui (Latin for fear of empty space): a direct social reckoning and acknowledgment of death and the unknown of the afterlife.
THOUGHTS ON THE FEAR OF EMPTY SPACE
1. Fearing the Dark
Growing up, I was a very fearful child with an overactive imagination and terrible eyesight. The combination of these traits made it very difficult for me to sleep at night, even with the aid of a nightlight. I hated the dark. I hated the vast emptiness it provided. I hated how it was capable of housing all of my greatest fears, which at the time, was ghosts and the supernatural. If I woke up in the middle of my night, which was often, I would wake my mother next door and she would wordlessly curl up at the foot of my bed like a cat. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I would lie awake and my thoughts would race. I would wonder if there was a ghost in my closet or a dead girl in my mattress. If I went to the bathroom at night, I would avoid looking at my reflection in the mirror, fearing that I would see my reflection doing something out of sync with mine.
There’s a notion that Vietnamese people are superstitious people. I’m not quite sure where it comes from. Google isn’t being very helpful at the moment. I call my mother instead. She tells me she believes in ghosts, even though she hasn’t seen one before. She grew up in a deeply Buddhist family, and although she no longer practices it, she still believes every human being has a soul.
Every survey and poll I assess finds that roughly half of human beings believe in ghosts. These numbers have seemed to remain steady throughout the last few decades, which I find fascinating. Religious belief has been on decline in Western societies; faith-based practices have become less of a necessary source of support and meaning in many people’s daily lives. Science and capitalism help fill the void, provide us with some kind of meaning and order. When answering the question myself, I am unsure. I consider myself a pragmatic person; I think I don’t believe in ghosts, but I hesitate to answer 'no' in fear that if ghosts happen to exist, I would upset one with my nihilism. Maybe I have seen a ghost before in my frightful childhood years, but my weak eyes and anxious nature failed in aiding me to detect it.
2. Disembodied Voices
On Mary 2nd, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first message via telegraph from the chambers of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC to his colleague Alfred Vail in Baltimore, Maryland. It read:
What hath God wrought?
Despite the telegraph’s diminished glory in an immense and volatile digital world, at the time of its conception, it was seen as revolutionary to long-distance communication. Previously, the most reliable method of correspondence was the written letter, delivered by horse and carriage. This method of exchange could take weeks to reach its destination (if it reached its destination at all). The telegraph expedited communication considerably; it became a key innovation that allowed the Industrial Revolution to flourish. The telegraph changed the way wars were fought, how money was sent, how newspapers conducted business and did their reporting.
In 1866, the first telegraph line was successfully laid across the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Europe. The world was connected in a way it had never been before. A decade later, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray would both submit independent patent applications for the telephone.1 In 1877, Thomas Edison created a version of the phonograph2 that was capable of playing back recordings. For the first time in human history, sound could be captured and replayed. For the first time, not only could the human voice be divorced from the human body, but it could continue to exist after the passing of the person themselves. The dead could literally speak beyond the grave. In just three decades, for the first time, people could speak to someone who was not physically in earshot, in an instant. Surely, it couldn’t be long until someone would be able to invent a method to communicate with the dearly departed?
Dog Fight. Oil on canvas, 50x59 inches
3. Speaking to the Dead
In late-March of 1848, two teenage sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, approached a neighbour, eager to share their experiences of the uncanny phenomenon occurring in their Hydesville, New York home. They claimed that every night around bedtime, they would hear a series of raps on the walls and furniture. Skeptical, the neighbour came over to witness for herself. She joined the two sisters in a small chamber they shared with their parents. As the two girls huddled together in bed, their mother, Margaret, would demonstrate spirits' willingness to communicate. Her commands and inquiries were followed by reverberating sounds of heavy thuds that could indicate yes or no for a question, or a particular letter of the alphabet. It was enough to convince both their mother and neighbour of the existence of a ghostly presence in the home. Margaret was adamant in her belief that both her daughters were too young (fourteen and eleven years old) to play such elaborate tricks. It was not long until others heard of the sisters’ supernatural abilities.
Upon moving to Rochester, family friends Issac and Amy Post reached out to the girls to see if they would be able to communicate with the local spirits. The Posts were quickly convinced that the girls were spiritual mediums upon speaking to their deceased daughter through them. The Posts were quick to spread the word amongst their local community.3 They would soon rent the largest hall in Rochester so the Fox sisters would be able to demonstrate their otherworldly gifts to the public. On November 14th, 1849, the Fox sisters performed in Corinthian Hall for an audience of four hundred.4 Though there were many early skeptics, it didn’t take long for the Fox sisters to become famous for their public seances. They performed hundreds of them over the course of their careers as mediums. From their success emerged a massive religious moment known as Spiritualism, as well as a slew of imitators who claimed that they too could speak to spirits. In 1888, shortly before her death, Maggie Fox admitted to it all beginning as a harmless prank. The girls had created the ominous rapping sound by cracking their joints, and by tying apples to strings, which they covertly bounced off the stairs. Despite her confessions and the many skeptics that came before it5, Spiritualism’s popularity continued to swell well into the 1920s. Though the Fox sisters were credited with launching the movement, the technological advances in communication and general shift in the cultural and political landscape at the time allowed Spiritualism to widely sow its seeds.
4. The Good Death
Prior to the 1860s, the ideal dying experience, known historically as “the good death,” occurred in the home. The dying person’s bedside would be surrounded with loved ones to care for and comfort them in their final days. Funerary preparations (such as the washing and preparing the body) were done by family members. Ice wasn’t yet readily available, so the families would have to work quickly, especially during warm weather, which sped up decay. This was also the era in which post-mortem portraiture became more commonplace. The Daguerreotype process had rapidly popularized portrait photography. Often taken in a photographic studio, the images were originally created by spreading photosensitive chemicals on copper plates, coated in silver. An exposure time of at least two minutes was needed, and it was vital for the subject to sit still and straight-faced to prevent a blurry image. The physical photos themselves were small, fragile pieces kept in folding cases lined with cushy velvet. Despite being revolutionary, Daguerreotypes were expensive, which meant that the only photo that might exist of someone was a post-mortem portrait.
Looking back on old photos from this time, I cannot help but approach them the way one does with the box that contains Schrodinger’s cat, not knowing if the person in the photo was dead or alive when it was taken. Though post-mortem photos might seem unsettling now, they were treated as objects of comfort and were often displayed in the home. The person was gone but a piece of them still remained in the world of the living in the form of a photograph.
Burning Shroud. Oil on canvas, 14 x 12 inches.
5. Absent Flesh
In 1861, the photographic medium was once again improved upon with the introduction of the wet-plate process. By utilizing chemical-coated pieces of plate glass instead of copper, photographers could create higher quality images and reproduce them onto paper. While photographs of earlier conflicts exist, the American Civil War was the first major conflict to be extensively photographed because of this.
Despite these advancements, photographers of the American Civil War were still faced with many difficulties. Their equipment (which included a mobile darkroom) was heavy and cumbersome and carried by wagon. Additionally, photographers rarely attempted to capture action scenes - battlefields were too chaotic and dangerous for the painstaking wet-plate process to be properly carried out. Instead, they would capture scenes of camp sites, preparations for or retreat from combat, and sometimes the grisly aftermath of battle. These photographers6 became renowned for their work, which was widely displayed and sold in large quantities nationwide. The photos were printed in newspapers accompanying the names of the dead. They brought the war home in ways that other media at the time, such as illustration, could not. These images violently stripped away the Victorian-era romance that formerly surrounded warfare.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) continues to be the largest and most gruesome war to be fought on US soil. The degree of destruction was partially made possible by new technologies, such as the railroad and the telegraph. It became one of the first wars to utilize industrial warfare. At least 620,000 soldiers died in addition to an undetermined number of civilians.7 This was a degree of loss that had never been previously experienced. That being said, the American Civil War had an incredible impact on how death was understood and managed in the United States. “The good death” no longer seemed obtainable - people were dying on the battlefield far away from the home; the families did not have a body to mourn. They no longer had a hand in preparing their dead. Photos further served as a vessel for their grief, becoming precious mementos and keepsakes of loss loved ones. In absence of a body and a voice, the photo would become the closest likeness to the real thing. Spiritualism became another way to make sense of this new type of trauma. People flocked to mediums, desperate to commune with their deceased. When a void appears, one finds ways to fill that empty space.
6. Empty Spaces
It is strange for me to think of how commonplace it has become to document our lives with photos, when so many before me have died faceless. It is strange for me to think about how the telegraph and camera of the late 19th century gave us the ability to reproduce an objective reality when today, a united truth feels farther away than ever. Our capacity to fill the empty spaces within ourselves is greater than ever, yet the void is cavernous and never satiated in a profit-driven world. The old ways were not necessarily better by any means. So much changes but stays the same.
The women8 who found empowerment in mediumship, who were mostly white, were merely treated as vessels for dead men to speak through. Occasionally, mediums would pretend to be possessed by the souls of deceased Indigenous peoples in order to forgive other guilty white folk for their hand in the violence of colonialism. The abolishment of slavery was officially adopted into the United States Constitution on December 18th, 1865, shortly after the end of the American Civil War; yet, racism continued to disenfranchise black people in countless ways, through land dispossession, redlining, and segregation—to name a few. The beast is capable of taking many different forms.
The more I sift through readings and information in attempt to contextualize my experience against the vast quilt of everything else before me, the more rabbit holes I find myself falling down. Sometimes, eagerly. Sometimes with great hesitation. I try to make sense of it all - to pull the sheet off the ghost, hoping to find a huckster, like the denouement of an episode of Scooby-Doo. More often than not, I find a more ancient ghost with a different face beneath, like an endless and haunted set of nesting dolls. There will always be more things I don’t know than things I do. I still don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I know I’m okay not always having answers.
-Michelle Nguyen 2022
1 Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, had actually begun development on the telephone (or as he put it, the ’talking telegraph’) in 1849. When Meucci’s wife, Esther, became paralyzed, he rigged a system that linked her bedroom to his adjacent workshop. In 1860, he held a public demonstration of the device, which was then reported only in the New York Italian press. Meucci struggled to find financial backing and could not afford to file a patent for his talking telegraph. Bell was said to have stolen Meucci’s material from a lab they shared. In 2002, the US House passed a resolution to acknowledge Meucci as the official inventor of the telephone.
2 The earliest rendition of the phonograph was invented by Edouard-Leon Scott in 1857. His device could record sounds but could not play it back.
3 The Posts were part of a community of radical Quakers who would become the early Spiritualists.
4 Not only was this the first public spiritualist event, it was would also be the first time in which women were featured speakers at a public event.
5 In 1853, Charles Grafton Page investigated the sisters and found that the rapping sounds came from underneath the sisters’ long dresses. In 1857, the Boston Courier offered $500 to any medium who could prove the legitimacy of their paranormal powers to a committee. The Fox sisters’ abilities were deemed to be fake. No one who came forward was successful in claiming the money.
6 Such as Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan.
7 Accounting for 2% of the general population at the time.
8 Because women were considered to be the fairer sex, they were thought to able to reach through the veil.
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