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Just below street level at the Bodega gallery, on the Lower East Side of New York, the sculpture and video artist Hayley Silverman has created an ethereal world of wonder and illusion. In Entering Heaven Alive, her second one-woman show at Bodega, DIY magic lanterns create a cheerful phantasmagoria where shadow-objects and supernatural beings drift through a papaya and strawberry-pink mist.
In the three centuries before the advent of cinema, an early image-projection technology called the ‘magic lantern’ enchanted audiences in Europe and the United States. In a type of theatrical performance known as ‘phantasmagoria,’ projectionists used the gas-lit lanterns with adjustable lenses to animate images on slides. Phantoms or apparitions of the dead would dance on the walls, and imaginary creatures from myths and legends might appear to charge toward the audience. The tools of phantasmagoria often lent authority to séances, because they helped participants believe they were communicating with the deceased.
In those times before electricity, the illusionist could choose whether or not to expose the technology that was creating the projections — and audiences sometimes believed that they really were experiencing a supernatural phenomenon. Today’s audiences aren’t so easily tricked by projected images, and Silverman doesn’t try to deceive. If anything, she draws attention to the apparatus that makes the projections possible.
On the lit surfaces of overhead projectors — the kind that many of us remember from high school algebra — Silverman places translucent plastic seashell-like objects. The orange-pink hues and shadows, refracted through plastic, cover the walls. The lighting effect creates the atmosphere of an angel’s cave made from cumulous clouds at sunset, with photograph and sculpture set into the fluffy walls.
Pieces like “The Custodian” (2018) — a framed photograph of a tranquil elderly woman lying on a pillow — seem to symbolize the fragility of life and the contemplation of the hereafter. “Shrinking World” (2018), a bronze collar tethered with a brass chain to a mirror frame, captures the difficulty of imagining one’s own appearance through the eyes of others. “Restrain is Support” (2018) is a diorama behind a one-way mirror. Looking at “Restrain” from 20 feet away, it’s difficult to make out anything more than an eye-shaped mirror reflecting the entire room. But approach the mirror and it becomes transparent, exposing a shadowy world of angels entangled in twine and electrical cable. Because of the illusion of depth, some who view this piece walk to the other side of the divider, expecting to see an entire room full of angels. Instead, they find a plain room with a single square sculpture hanging on the far wall.
Those who look for meaning in the stars may notice that the last day of the show, February 18, also marks the end of Aquarius, an astrological sign associated with technology and justice. This seems fitting. For one, the modified overhead projectors have something of a fireplace feel— a welcome alternative, on long and cold nights, to the glow of a smart phone or television. Entering Heaven Alive gives viewers a chance to stop and gather their senses. Perhaps it can also provide some psychic armor, to protect us from the horrors of the political phantasmagorias that dance daily across our screens.
Hayley Silverman: Entering Heaven Alive continues until February 18 at Bodega (167 Rivinginton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).