Thomas Eakins’s watercolor box, palette, armchair, and paintbrush are awaiting his return at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. Eakins has been dead since 1916, but just in case he wants to manifest within the gallery and interact with his possessions, artist Fernando Orellana designed machines to be triggered by Eakins’s arrival. There’s even a nude model striking a cycle of poses from his photographs, to encourage this phantom manifestation.
His Study of Life at PAFA considers the life of Eakins through relics of his existence. As an artist, and a teacher, Eakins emphasized the beauty of the nude body, which is partly what got him fired from PAFA in 1886. Perhaps this summoning of Eakins’s ghost back to the very place he lost a job is the beginning of a rather academic horror story; yet what was once seen as degenerate by the administration is now celebrated. Alongside His Study of Life, PAFA is exhibiting Thomas Eakins: Photographer, featuring several galleries of his nude photographs.
Back in 2012, Sarah Walko interviewed the New York-based Orellana for Hyperallergic about the challenge of designing interactive art for an incorporeal audience. He explained that to “detect the dead, the machine is constantly sampling three different measurements: electromagnetic, temperature, and infrared. All three of these are some of what pseudo-scientist and paranormal researchers measure when they try to detect ghost activity.”
In his letter to the models, Orellana writes: “Remember, this artwork is not intended for the living to use, it has [been] painstakingly created for the dead.” Likewise, each object has some action meant to replicate Eakins’s presence, whether metal arms that pound the chair, or lifts that open the paint box.
You can see each device in action through the video above. The most complex is a drawing robot that generates images based on Eakins’s photographs. On Hyperallergic’s recent visit, Jodi Throckmorton, PAFA curator of contemporary art, said that unusual things had been happening, such as images oddly overlapping in the robot’s drawings. According to the artist, the appearance of the second, a preprogrammed image that can only be accessed by the “ghost,” suggests paranormal interaction with the machine.
While we were standing in the gallery, the lights over the palette, installed by Orellana so Eakins can “mix” colors, suddenly came to life like a carnival. Was Eakins present? Either way, the machines evoke the physicality of the departed person, so the potential for supernatural interaction is almost secondary to the reminder of the life behind Eakins’s art.
Fernando Orellana: His Study of Life continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (118–128 North Broad Street Philadelphia) through November 6.