Art

When the Possessions of Departed Loved Ones Become Otherworldly Spirits

At the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, Emilia Sandoval grapples with the loss of her mother by creating ghostly echoes of her worldly possessions.

Emilia Sandoval, Buscas aún, nos buscas lugar, installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

OAXACA, Mexico — In the introduction to her remarkable book High Static, Dead Lines, on “sonic spectres” and artifacts, curator Kristen Gallerneaux asserts: “Finding ways to allow our media to haunt us is crucial to understanding it.” Though Gallerneaux’s interest concerns unexplained audio phenomenology, she entertains the notion of “stone tape theory,” which suggests that historic events, trauma, and sounds can be subtly recorded within the physical matrix of stone architecture or natural materials, such as quartz crystals.

Such new-agey concepts must be relegated to the realm of pseudoscience, but within the arts, they provide a philosophical underpinning to the intuitive sense that we impart life-energy upon our objects after we die. In a body of work by Emilia Sandoval, Buscas Aún, Nos Buscas Lugar (You Are Searching Still, Searching for a Place for Us), on display at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, the artist grapples with the loss of her mother by creating ghostly echoes of her worldly possessions. Gallerneaux might argue that Sandoval does not, in fact, create these echoes, so much as sense and remake them as more visible to the physical world.

Buscas aún, nos buscas lugar, installation view

Sandoval is on a mission to recover what she has lost, presenting a spectral domestic ensemble, framed by midcentury furniture pieces — a display case, dining room set — that radiate a sense of use and history. Above the circular dining room table hangs an array of images from her mother’s old cookbooks, favorite dishes she prepared, and gifts of food offered to her in her decline. Overlaying and obscuring these images are sheaths of translucent white fabric, shot through with metallic thread. These are shrouds for the images, already an abstraction of the objects they represent, and like a shroud, they conceal and soften the blunt reality that without the animating spirit of the departed, objects and bodies are flattened husks. In another corner, the wooden display case frames images and objects replicated in etched glass — almost easier to see in the shadows they throw on the wall than in their physical form.

In this assemblage, Sandoval has transformed elements from the architectural plan for her mother’s house into stuffed versions of some of her favorite things.

Sandoval uses transparent materials that diffuse light and cast multi-layered shadows, but the artist goes further than that. A video sequence, projected on a scrim of fabric, attempts to rescue precise shadows — those that were reflected in the blinds of her mother’s bedroom. An installation of name tags to conferences throws rectangular shadows against the wall, the ghost image intangible, stripped of identity, but still hanging around.

Buscas aún, nos buscas lugar, detail view
Buscas aún, nos buscas lugar, detail view

This show was on display, by chance or intention, during the celebration of Dia de Muertos, the annual Mexican celebration of beloved and departed family members (and others felt to be close in spirit). Oaxaca City, and its surrounding pueblos, is an area particularly known for its Dia de Muertos celebrations, which involve the cleaning and dressing of graves in fresh flowers, candles, and food; parades and band jams taking place in the streets; and ofrendas, the traditional altars that are erected temporarily in remembrance of specific loved ones. In this context, it was difficult to see Sandoval’s work as separate from the ofrendas on display everywhere in Oaxaca, from coffee shops to churches to the central plaza. From a painstakingly tidy square comprised of her mother’s carefully folded handkerchiefs, to an assortment of greeting cards and letters addressed to her mother, Sandoval seems to suggest — and perhaps Gallerneaux would agree — that stripped of their quotidian use, they have taken on an otherworldly significance: every object haunted. Every arrangement can serve temporarily to hold these spirits, like an ofrenda, but Sandoval, it seems, is still looking for a place to put them.

Buscas aún, nos buscas lugar, detail view

Buscas Aún, Nos Buscas Lugar (You are Searching Still, Searching for a Place for Us), curated by Mónica Castillo, continues at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca (917 Miguel Hidalgo Oaxaca, Oax., 68000 México) through February 10.

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