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Gary Simmons, “Ghost Reels” (2016), mixed media, site-specific installation at The Drawing Center, New York, 2016. (All photographs by Martin Parsekian, courtesy Drawing Center)

James Wright once wrote a poem about the lost, “who flutter in the driven wind, / Wild for the body, ghost on ghost.” That wind might be generated by our own energetic efforts of recovery:  frantically searching historical accounts for a wisp of the record, because we haunt the dead in almost direct proportion to the degree that they haunt us.

If you are a person of color who imagines that your history is tied to the history of those who looked like you, then you might linger, like Gary Simmons has done over the records of people passed in the night before you. To be a ghost is to wildly, uncontrollably desirous of a body that will tell your story. Simmons mirrors this grasping appetite at the Drawing Center, using that well-known horror movie trope of the names of forgotten (but not quiescent) figures appearing on walls — the letters dripping down, slicked by the sweat of fright or desperation.

Another view of Gary Simmons, “Ghost Reels” (2016)

It’s a small installation, on the walls of the landing leading downstairs to the left of the front desk when you are facing it. The names are of black silent film actors: Bledsoe, Paul Robeson, etc. Their names are in white paint, bleeding down against a black background like stigmata that suddenly appeared by divine intervention on the body of the gallery’s walls. Wild. These words are meant to be regarded as untameable. The spirits come back to speak finally. They were silent screen actors of color, so perhaps doubly silenced, by the genre and by the socio-political context. So they’ve returned, via Simmons as spiritual medium, to haunt us, wild for a body that will remember them and give them voice. To be haunted is to be sought after, to be entrusted with the responsibility of reminding us that they were here, seeking nourishment, wild for a body that could provide them what they needed, all that time hungry for recognition, for a name until they became ghosts and became hungrier still.

Detail of Gary Simmons, “Ghost Reels” (2016)

Gary Simmons’s Ghost Reels continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) until October 6, 2017.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...