Spooky Action at a Distance: Langdon Graves

June 22, 2016

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When’s the last time you heard a good ghost story? Artist Langdon Graves’ most recent exhibit “Spooky Action at a Distance”— a title that we’ll let Langdon herself explain below — is an exploration into the fragile cycle of memory, and an inquiry into the unknown. Graves tells us she has always been fascinated by belief — most of her work focuses on subjects like religion, folklore, and mysticism. For the work featured in “Spooky Action at a Distance,” Graves attention is concentrated on the supernatural, tapping into her grandmother’s stories of ghosts and spirits she’d encountered in her lifetime.

Graves told us she became more interested in exploring these stories recently, after her grandmother suffered from a heart attack. The result of those conversations is a vibrant exhibit, featuring pieces of domestic objects from her grandmother’s home, and plenty of themes and imagery that instantly give off a nostalgic atmosphere. We took a day trip to the exhibit and got the chance to learn more about the inspiration behind the art. Read on below to see how Langdon’s “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” approach balances that tricky, blurry line between the supernatural and science.

Your new exhibit “Spooky Action at a Distance” is full of surreal visuals and brilliant color. What was your overarching theme when working on the art?

The big theme for all of my work is belief, which always takes me down interesting roads in terms of research— religion, folklore, medicine, neurotheology, etc. For this show the central ideas took a more personal turn after my grandmother suffered a heart attack about a year and a half ago, which made me suddenly realize how important it was to learn everything I could about her life while I still had the chance. Starting when I was very young, my grandmother has made a kind of tradition of telling me about strange, supernatural events she has experienced throughout her life.  Some of the stories feature what she believes are ghosts and the imagery I created in my head as a child has stayed with me. I’ve always wanted to make work about it and dig more deeply into the subject matter.

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Can you explain the meaning behind the show’s title?

 The title has a few layers to it. First, it’s a quote from Albert Einstein describing his reaction to the strange phenomenon of quantum entanglement which, watered down, asserts that two or more like particles may be linked together even when spatially separated, allowing scientists to predict the state of one by observing the another. This concept and Einstein’s poetic phrasing have been claimed by both physicists and by occultists, true-believer types, interpreted by the latter as general evidence that not all aspects of life (and death) are visible or knowable, and more specifically that energies, perhaps even human-based, may continue to exist independent of their corporal origin. But what first led me to Einstein was a book I found by Upton Sinclair entitled Mental Radio, which documents his wife Mary Craig Kimbrough’s experiences with telepathy. The book’s preface was penned by Einstein, who admits to not believing in, but nevertheless vouches for the credibility of his friends’ beliefs. This is where I find my own position on the subject and my grandmother’s experiences – I’m a firm skeptic, but my connection to her stories of offers a kind of emotional truth that I can’t dismiss. I don’t believe in these ideas outright, but I believe in her belief.   

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When you walk into the exhibit it instantly feels like a home and the colors are nostalgic — what was the process of building the environment?

Creating an environment for my work, and for the viewer, has always been more interesting to me than just hanging a drawing on a wall. The relationship of the objects, wallpaper, colors, and drawings moves a viewer through the space in a way that is slightly familiar, and perhaps a bit cinematic, suggesting a narrative and offering more than just a flat visual experience of the work. With this show in particular, the atmosphere is definitely that of a domestic space of a particular era, pulled largely from my memories of my grandmother’s house and also of the mental illustrations I designed for the stories she told.

How long did the process take, and what mediums did you use?

This show actually came together very quickly, because I had opened a solo show just two months earlier in Florida. The split portrait which shares a title with the show, Spooky Action at a Distance, was the piece around which everything else was built. The portrait is of my grandmother, from a photo taken when she was 19. The media ranges from graphite drawing to hand-carved wood sculpture and found objects to the digitally designed wallpaper. The work drove the media – whatever it needed to be dictated how it had to be made.   

Langdon6“The cigarette first came up simply as something I remember seeing a lot of in my grandmother’s home growing up”

There are so many hidden gems throughout the exhibit, one being the white crow with the cigarette. Can you explain the meaning behind it?

The “hidden gems” are the real pulse points of the show, in my mind – I’m always glad when people start to visually collect them. The white crow comes from of a quote by the philosopher William James, who was an associationist and founder of the American Society for Psychical research. Once when asked to share his stance on the potential for spirit communication, he said, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.” The cigarette first came up simply as something I remember seeing a lot of in my grandmother’s home growing up, but I then did some research into ritual smoking and the historical significance of burning and inhaling certain dried herbs and plants, considered to be sacred among many ancient cultures and offering a kind of portal to the spirit world.

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And then there’s the major theme of the white glove.

The story of the white glove goes like this: When my grandmother was a young child, her Aunt Mary passed away and the body was kept in the home in the days leading up to the funeral. My grandmother’s father was a mortician, so the practical aspects of death were commonplace. The night before the wake, my grandmother slept in her aunt’s bedroom and remembers some time during the night, hearing a dresser drawer open and seeing two white day gloves place themselves neatly over the edge of the drawer. The vision was accompanied by the smell of funeral flowers.  That story has stayed with me all my life and the white gloves have become for me a symbol for ghosts.

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You can tell that you’ve put a lot of time studying both the spiritual and scientific side of life after death. Have you developed a position on the credibility of the supernatural from working on this exhibit?

My position on all within this subject matter remains that of skepticism. Interestingly, my grandmother is also highly skeptical and a pragmatist and that’s perhaps why I have taken so much interest in her stories. I have to see to believe, but I sometimes can see glimpses through the eyes of believers.

Can you tell us about one of your more interesting discoveries while researching?

My favorite discovery throughout the research leading up to this work is a book by Peter Aykroyd, Dan Aykroyd’s father, entitled, A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts and Ghostbusters.  The book shares accounts from his grandfather’s journals documenting spiritualist séances held at their home in the early part of the 20th century, which led to Dan Aykroyd’s ideas for Ghostbusters.  Many things from the movie were culled from actual events in the Aykroyd family’s lives, such as a belief in the production of ectoplasm, once considered to be a material manifestation of a spirit entity as channeled through a psychic medium. I thought it was just a made-up, scientific-sounding word from the 80’s.

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Apart from art, what are some of your other major interests?

When I’m not in the studio I’m professing at Parsons and Pratt, and I also mentor teen artists. Teaching for me is an essential part of my artistic practice and cultural engagement. I also love to play the ukulele and sing, which I would do all day if I could get away with it.

Lastly, what’s next after “Spooky Action at a Distance”? Are you currently working on anything new?

In September, I have a solo exhibition at the University of Central Arkansas’ Baum Gallery, the space of which is quadruple the size of the last two shows I’ve done.  I’m nervous but also excited for the challenge.


Langdon’s exhibition “Spooky Action at a Distance” is being shown at Victori + Mo from May 20 – June 26.

To see more of Langdon’s work and to keep up with future exhibitions, be sure to check out her website here.

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