Museums are considered places to appreciate art and history; this appreciation often takes the form of reverent gazing at artwork and conscientious reading of the explanatory boards nearby. But what if the artwork gazed back at the museumgoers? Would they see the rapt attention of fans meeting with celebrities, or something different? This is the question explored in ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’.
Andrés Wertheim is an Argentinian photographer who began taking pictures as a child, and went on to study photography with the filmmaker Horacio Coppola. He began exhibiting his work in 1984, and his earliest work primarily captured real situations in black and white film. His more recent exhibitions, however, have focused on surreal, even philosophical themes. In his ‘Alienated World’ series (2010-2013), he created disorientating, symmetrical mirror images of cities, buildings and landscapes. His aim was ‘to make a personal statement about the strange relationship we humans have with our planet’.
Similarly strange and unsettling was his subsequent series, ‘Your Other Self’, in which he overlapped portraits of people with slides of other images, such as clocks, wires, keys and animals ‘in an attempt to create an alter ego, a second self, of the portraited person.’ Each of these images aimed to evoke the sense of ‘a secret longing that will probably never be revealed’ and prompt ‘questions in the unconscious’ of his audience.
From the alienated and the quasi-psychoanalytical, Wertheim’s new museum project marks a shift towards studying the more light-hearted, human aspects of life on this world. ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’ is a playful, often humorous investigation into the world of museums and the relationship between art and its audience. Each photograph pairs a painting and a scene of museumgoers in a double exposure, creating unexpected stories as the characters of the artworks and the museumgoers appear to interact. Wertheim’s method in creating these pairings is spontaneous; letting the situations he observes in the museums speak for themselves. He explains, ‘I combine the museumgoers and the characters of the paintings out of intuition, almost always found in the same room. I never have a specific image in mind. I don’t even want to know in advance which artworks I’m going to see. It all depends if I may find a situation in front of me that I might consider interesting to photograph.’
Of course, as a photographer, Wertheim relies on his own vision far more than on fortuitous situations around him. He describes himself as ‘interested in optical illusions and what may be found in my imagination.’ Thus in ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’, we find a pastoral village scene interrupted by a towering Gulliver; a caravan of camels descending down the stairs past two museumgoers; an elderly man bent over to focus intently on a nude woman; and a group of cherubs playing around a girl who is reclining on a bench and checking her phone. We see museumgoers’ interactions with art through Wertheim’s curious eyes, which scan the ordinary surroundings of museums ‘to find a theatrical sensation, where the transparency between the two images may create a new dimension, a ghostly presence in which past and present intertwine.
In some ways, ‘The Museum’s Ghosts’ is not so much a departure from Wertheim’s earlier work as an elaboration of his interest in the surreal and in observing people. He explains, ‘The interaction between the visitors and the artworks fascinated me since my childhood but the idea of working on this photographic project hit me like a bolt during a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2012.’ There, it struck him that many visitors paid little attention to some of the artworks, so he began to imagine different interactions between the paintings and the spectators. The project has taken him to museums in Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, Istanbul, Krasnodar and Buenos Aires. Everywhere, says Wertheim, he is ‘surprised by the different unexpected situations I might find. Some museumgoers are totally immersed in a certain painting, while others are concentrated on reading and a few others even fall asleep.’
Wertheim makes no claim to trying to capture the internal experience of museumgoers or their relationship with the artworks in front of them – his focus is firmly on his own imagination of how art and the public relate to each other. ‘Although each of both exposures that I make with my camera is depicting a real image, by combining them I just try to create an ironic situation that doesn’t actually exist.’ Nevertheless, the pairings of the beautiful artworks and the mostly hapless museumgoers seem so fitting that it is hard to escape the illusion of the story told in each image. It is like being in a dream where surreal events appear perfectly sensible: indeed, Wertheim describes this new series as ‘a part of [his] quest to fusion [sic] reality with the unreal into an oneiric world.’
The dream-like world where the museum’s ghosts and humans meet is engaging and immersive. By presenting his own creative vision of what goes on in museums while their visitors aren’t paying attention, Wertheim takes his audience on a fantastic flight of fancy and at the same time invites them to consider their own behavior in museums and their relationship with art. Each photo gives a voice to the ignored works of art that fill museum walls, bringing the museum’s ghosts to life.
By Nika Jones