Wanda Gillespie

Fig. 1

       Wanda Gillespie is a New Zealand born visual artist and photographer. With degrees in Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland University and Melbourne University, Gillespie’s first major shows were in 2005 with a group exhibition in Australia and a solo exhibition in Melbourne. Since then her work has featured in various museums and gallery spaces throughout New Zealand and Australia, including this exhibition Levitation Practice: Lesson 2, that is featured in the Artists Alliance office during Artweek 2017. Her sculpted works are often made of carved wood and draw on spiritual forms and beings. Levitation Practice: Lesson 2, as well as her previous carved works, have been greatly influenced by the stories and depictions of ghosts and spirits in Javanese/Indonesian, Balinese, Japanese, Maori, Aboriginal Australian and Western cultures.

        Upon her graduation from art school, Gillespie started in video and sound editing. However, this was cut short when all of her equipment was stolen, prompting her to switch to photography and sculpture. Though she primarily spends her time carving nowadays, photography continues to be an integral part in her process, as she frequently photographs the faces of people she is carving and refers to the dimensions of the photo to help guide the structure of her carvings. Gillespie uses the faces of people she knows and has experimented with using the faces of saints, priests, gurus, and other spiritual leaders. She has a particular fascination with whether the increased spirituality of certain people can come across or be read through their facial features. Her first conceptualized works were done during her residency in Indonesia, and she carved her first sculptures during her formal training at the Melbourne Guild for Fine Woodworking. During her residency in West Java, she created her first series of carved artifacts. Gillespie was inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, and particularly his short story “Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius.” Borges’ art is frequently accompanied by factional stories written in an academic tone to build a world around his pieces. Gillespie’s current exhibition, Levitation Practice: Lesson 2, is set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world where most people have been wiped out by a natural disaster, and the survivors are now commemorating the event and trying to connect with the spiritual world to transcend their worldly bounds. Her abacuses, also featured in her current exhibition, were a product of her thoughts about molecular structures and the relationships between math and spirituality. By reassigning function to everyday objects, she hopes to create a more mystical purpose to the item via its transformation into a tool of higher consciousness that would help integrate people with their spiritual endeavors. The abacuses also play with the absurdity of trying to measure spiritual achievement in a material or numeric way.  The other focal piece in her show is the form of a peacefully resting woman clad in fur. The woman rests atop two wooden logs in a play between the earthly nature of the logs and the mystical nature of her suspension in the air. Gillespie enjoys experimenting with this universal human desire for flight through creating a sense of floating and suspension, which can be seen in many of her hanging and freestanding works. She has worked with various furs, which came about during a study of shamanism and the practice of Siberian reindeer hunting. Gillespie is extremely considerate when selecting the materials she works with, as working with natural material and caring for the environment are not only integral to her work, but also to the way she chooses to live her life. She is interested in exploring the idea that objects have a soul and a life to them, so by incorporating natural materials into her art, she is able to create a connection with her sculptures as their energies are allowed to flow together.

        While on residency in Java, Wanda heard many tales of the Javanese/Indonesian ghost known as a pocong.[1]

Fig. 2

Pocongs are wrapped ghosts, frequently depicted in Indonesian and Malaysian cultures as a vaguely human figure wrapped tightly in a thick white cloth with a knot at the top of the head, as the pocong is said to be the soul of a deceased person trapped in its shroud.[2] In Java, as well as in many other Southeast Asian cultures, human bodies are seen as porous containers that embody the person’s spirit, or semanget.[3] Since the bodies are porous, however, they are highly susceptible to the influence of malignant spirits that can cause a person to become sick. The human spirit is able to wander away from its body and enter other bodies, human or animal. This is especially problematic with children, whose bodies are less strong than those of fully-grown adults. In order to protect people from the loss of their spirit or from possession by a malignant alien spirit, the Javanese wear various amulets known as sikep or jimat in order to strengthen their bodily container and fortify the boundary between the inner spirit and the outer world. Some amulets consist of herbs or citations from the Koran. Reciting verses from the Koran is also thought to help protect the self from the influence of evil spirits. This same care is taken to protect households as well, as each individual housing unit comprises a vital part of the community as a whole. Sorcery in Javanese culture is a community affair, and instead of blaming outsiders for the misfortunes of an area, the Javanese believe that the misfortunes are the result of a neighborhood sorcerer.[4] Sorcerers put their neighbors at great risk, as their powers demand frequent sacrifices. Therefore, while allegations against a suspected sorcerer may turn to violence, these matters rarely leave the local level. Any person on trial for sorcery will go through a Sumpah pocong, or an Oath of Innocence, which draws various parallels to the pocong ghost figure throughout the ritual. The suspect is wrapped completely in a shroud of unbleached cotton, in the same material and way that corpses are wrapped. The alleged sorcerer’s relatives and neighbors then perform shalat jenazah, the funeral ritual prayer, again in the same matter as they would for a corpse. A Koran is placed atop the suspect’s head, and an oath is repeated by those attending the trial and by the suspect. The suspected sorcerer then swears that s/he is not a sorcerer, or God will damn her/him for all eternity. People found guilty of sorcery are chased from their communities and their houses are burnt down, so as to protect the rest of the community from any disasters that may befall them as a result of the sorcerer.[5] Spirits dwell in places that they lived during their life, though it is not “haunting” in the Western sense of the word. When going to new places or walking unfamiliar paths, people are expected to ask permission from the local spirits and pay respect to the spirits that guard a house, whether it is the person’s own home or someone else’s.

      Balinese culture also places a lot of importance on respecting spirits of the dead. Ceremonies for the dead, known as pitra yadnya, far exceed all other ceremonies in terms of importance and decadence.[6] Using a framework of Balinese concepts of the afterlife, the pitra yadnya seeks to free the divine essence of the deceased person’s soul by releasing it from its bodily shell that keeps it tethered to the material world. The hope is that a freed soul will be able to ascend into the spirit world and a higher reincarnation will occur. When a person dies, her/his spirit is thought to hover near the body. The corpse is then washed by family members and ceremoniously laid out until it can be cremated. Through cremation of the body, the soul is able to reach a higher realm of spiritual existence. The Balinese live a ritualistic lifestyle, and all of their rituals stem from the “Complete Ritual,” which acts as the basis of all other ceremonial proceedings.[7] Spirit mediums are a common way to get in touch with deceased ancestors.[8] Most people consult mediums for issues concerning illness, cause of death, instructions for mortuary rites, and household conflicts. Like the Javanese spirits, Balinese spirits have a strong influence over the lives and well being of the living, and are able to make their relative sick if they are not properly buried and mourned. The relationship between the living and the dead, therefore, is one of mutual dependence, as the living depend on the dead for their maintained welfare, and the dead rely on the living to follow proper funeral rituals. For the Balinese and Javanese, social relationships are created, rather than severed, through death. Balinese afterlife is hierarchical, with the uncremated dead making up the lowest position of servitude presided over by Yama, the deity of the realm of death. Those with great wrongs to atone for are tortured in the cauldrons of Hell and presided over by the demon Jogormanik. Cremated spirits serve light tasks until their living descendants free them by completing the post-cremation ceremony.

        Ghosts in Japanese culture are well represented in Japanese art, literature, and society, though the ties between the realms of the living and dead are not as interconnected as those in the Javanese and Balinese cultures. A popular trick on a hot day or night is to tell ghost stories, because the specters are thought to chill a person to the bone and take their mind off the heat.[9] Ghosts are frequently depicted in Japanese art in correlation with dreams, as both lack a physical form and can often converge to talk to the living.[10] Until the early part of the Edo period (1603-1867), dreams were the main form of communication between Japanese and the spirit realm.  Some ghosts enter dreams to transmit divine messages, while others are more malignant and seek to possess and kill the dreamer. Like in Western cultures, ghosts frequently take on the form they had during their life, as opposed to demons, known as yokai, who appear in distinctly nonhuman forms. In the early Edo period, ghosts were always depicted with feet. 

Fig. 3

However, by the end of the Edo period, ghosts began to be depicted without feet and typically appeared as the spirits of dead women clad in a white shroud called a kyo katabira. Ghosts and spirits also frequently appear in popular culture and Japanese films. A mononoke, for instance, is the spirit of a person living or dead whose main purpose is to avenge something the person feels or felt extremely strongly about. This mononoke is regarded as a ghost, and can be seen in the classic Studio Ghibli film “Princess Mononoke.” Spirits are thought to exist in both animate and inanimate objects, and they give form to natural phenomena like thunder and lighting.[11] Sickness, like in Javanese and Balinese cultures, is also embodied by certain malign spirits. Separate world exist for the living, dead, and the spirit of the Buddha, but the distinction between each realm is not strong enough to make it completely impassable. Though people are not as porous as in Javanese thought, the restriction between the material and spiritual worlds are not completely restricted. These beliefs came about through the combination of traditional Shinto beliefs and the legends and myths of Buddhist religion.[12]

      While a majority of Gillespie’s work is influenced by the stories of Southeast Asian spirits and their relationships to the living, spirits in Pasifika cultures also play a role in the creation of her sculptures. Like in Javanese and Balinese cultures, deceased ancestors in Māori culture do not disappear after death. The Māori hold funeral services, known as tangi, at the back of the familial marae, furthest away from the light streaming in through the marae doors and windows.[13] The marae itself is often a symbol of past ancestors, and carvings are posts of important members of the hapu are depicted along the walls, ceilings, and middle of the marae. The back, therefore, is the deepest point into the ancestral history. The Māori hold twigs and leaves as a sign of mourning. Since the spirit does not leave the body until it is buried, friends and relatives will not leave the body until the proper funeral rites are followed. After the body is buried, the spirit of the deceased is now free to travel up through the middle of the North Island to a Pohutukawa tree that sits at the very tip of Cape Reinga, which lies at the most northern tip of the North Island.

Fig. 4

The spirit slides down the roots of the Pohutukawa tree and emerges into Ohaua, which is located at the highest tip of the Three Kings Islands, where it bids a final farewell to the living before descending into Uetonga, the realm of the underworld, to join its ancestors. Ghosts and spirits are an extremely tapu, or sacred, subject in Māori culture.[14] Deceased ancestors may come back to the realm of the living to warn family members of upcoming dangers or natural disasters. Spirits of the dead watch over the living, though they are not as involved in the everyday lives of the living as Javanese and Balinese spirits. As a way of paying respect for those who have been gone over a year, Māori will hold blessings of gravestones and unveiling services. Like in Japanese culture, spirits will continue to live in inanimate ancestral taonga, or treasures, that are passed down through various generations. These taonga continue to house the spirit of the ancestor, so death never completely severs a person from her/his family. People are considered to have two active immortal spirit elements within them: the wairua and the mauri.[15] The wairua of a person is the part that travels down to the spirit realm Uetonga after death, never to return to the realm of the living. The wairua of a person can also leave for brief moments during a person’s life, like during dreams, unlike the less active force of the mauri, which is unable to detach itself from a person or object. Both animate and inanimate objects have mauri, and it is a deceased ancestor’s mauri that remains in various taonga. When a person is near death, the spirits of the dead will beacon the person’s wairua to the spirit land, and the local tohunga, or priest, may perform a tuku wairua, which is thought to help the wairua spirit leave the body so that it does not become restless and wander.[16]

        Ghosts in Western culture are not supposed to cross from the spiritual world into the material world, and most people do not believe they do.[17] Objects do not have a spirit to them as they do in Māori and Japanese cultures, and the ghosts of ancestors are typically not thought to have any influence on their living relatives. Like in Japanese culture, ghosts can sometimes appear in dreams, though it is not their only mode of transport into the world of the living. Ghosts are generally described as solitary essences that take on the form of their living self, and ghosts are almost exclusively human. Unlike in Javanese culture where spirits are expected to reside in various locations, Western ghosts are frequently unwelcome in the physical world and a ghost residing over a particular location, object, or person is a “haunting” rather than an acceptable occurrence. Unlike the more benign spirits in ancestor worship, Western ghosts represent restless and often aggravated spirits that could not go peacefully into the afterlife due to some unresolved conflict or strong emotion at the time of the person’s death.[18] Similar to the mediums in Balinese culture, Western cultures have the practice of Spiritualism, which is defined as a monotheistic belief system with the belief in one central God as well as the belief of spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world.[19] These spirits can also be reached through the use of a medium, who are able to interpret the words and desires of the spirit. Spiritualism was started in the United States and reached its peak popularity from the 1840s to the 1920s in various English speaking countries. The United States in the 1920’s saw the development of the “professional ghost hunter,” which still spans into modern media and society.[20] In the 1970’s, depictions of ghosts in movies and pop culture were divided into the benign, romantic ghost and the malignant, haunting ghost. The 1990’s saw the return to the classic gothic ghost, which threatened people psychologically more so than physically. The classic bed sheet ghost came about in the Victorian period, and has roots mainly in the art of theatre.[21] In English Renaissance theatre, ghosts were depicted in armor, as this set them apart as something from antiquity next to the actors portraying living people in contemporary dress. However, around the 19th century, the loud and constantly clanging on-stage ghost had more of a humorous effect than a somber or scary one.  This prompted the change to ghosts depicted as people under sheets, because the sheets masked the human form, giving the actor an ethereal and otherworldly appearance. Like the pocong in Javanese tradition, the idea from the sheet was taken from the white burial shroud that corpses were frequently buried in, suggesting a spirit that has risen directly from its grave.

        Gillespie’s carved works seek to explore the ties between the spiritual and physical realms and between the living and the dead. She draws influence from the pocong in Javanese culture, the Balinese relationships between the human and spirit worlds, the Japanese artistic depictions of spirits, the Māori interest of life encapsulated in material objects and treasures, and the Western depiction of the classic sheet ghost. Gillespie’s ghostly spirits do not haunt or seek to harm anyone in the physical world, but rather encourage an acceptance and flow of communication between people living and those who have passed away. By advocating for the intermingling of spirits and people, Wanda seeks to create a world where people are able to transcend beyond the physical plane of existence and become comfortable with forming casual relationships with spirits of worlds too often forgotten.

You can see more of Gillespie’s works at http://www.wandagillespie.com

Essay written by Cadence Seeger

[1] Refer to Figure
[2] Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology. McFarland. p. 102.
[3] WESSING, ROBERT. “Porous Boundaries: Addressing Calamities in East Java, Indonesia.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 166, no. 1 (2010): 49-82. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27868551.
[4] RETSIKAS, KONSTANTINOS. “The Semiotics of Violence: Ninja, Sorcerers, and State Terror in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 162, no. 1 (2006): 56-94. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27868286.
[5] WESSING, ROBERT. “Porous Boundaries: Addressing Calamities in East Java, Indonesia.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 166, no. 1 (2010): 49-82. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27868551.
[6] Connor, Linda H. “Seances and Spirits of the Dead: Context and Idiom in Symbolic Healing.” Oceania 60, no. 4 (1990): 345-59. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/40332451.
[7] Duff-Cooper, Andrew. “Remarks on Balinese Invocations.” L’Homme 34, no. 132 (1994): 35-57. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27976219.
[8] Connor, Linda H. “Seances and Spirits of the Dead: Context and Idiom in Symbolic Healing.” Oceania 60, no. 4 (1990): 345-59. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/40332451.
[9] Clar, Mimi. “Japanese Ghosts.” Western Folklore 17, no. 1 (1958): 64.
[10] Kajiya, Kenji. “Reimagining the Imagined: Depictions of Dreams and Ghosts in the Early Edo Period.” Impressions, no. 23 (2001): 86-107.
[11] Allen, Nancy S. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 5, no. 1 (1986): 36. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27947567.
[12] Allen, Nancy S. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 5, no. 1 (1986): 36. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/27947567.
[13] “The Maori: Tapu and Noa.” New Zealand in Historyhttp://history-nz.org/maori6.html
[14] Julie Miller; Grant Osborn (October 2005). Ghost Hunt: True New Zealand Ghost Stories. Penguin Group New Zealand, Limited.
[15] “Spiritual Concepts of the Maori.” Victoria University of Wellington Library. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-BesMaor-c4-3.html
[16] Julie Miller; Grant Osborn (October 2005). Ghost Hunt: True New Zealand Ghost Stories. Penguin Group New Zealand, Limited.
[17] Bunge, Mario. Philosophy of Science: From Problem to Theory. Transaction Publishers; 1998.
[18] Richard Cavendish (1994) The World of Ghosts and the Supernatural. Waymark Publications, Basingstoke: 5
[19] Carroll, Bret E. (1997). Spiritualism in Antebellum America. (Religion in North America.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 248
[20] Chanko, Kenneth M. (August 8, 1993). “FILM; When It Comes to the Hereafter, Romance and Sentiment Rule”. The New York Times.
[21] Ann Jones & Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Image References:
Cover photo- Wanda Gillespie, 2016. Seeker 1 (Fuyuko). [Woodcarving (ash), paint, fur, fabric, leather, rope, hanger, wool, kauri nuts, 1400x400x400mm].  http://www.wandagillespie.com
Fig. 1- Wanda Gillespie, 2017. Levitation Practice, wood sculpture (carving in Matai), fabric, fur, leather, she oak nuts, logs, DIMENSIONS]. Gillespie.
Fig. 2- “Pocong.” Scary for Kids. http://www.scaryforkids.com/pocong/
Fig. 3- “Japanese Ghost with Feet.” Demons and Monsters. https://www.pinterest.com/jalka/demons-monsters/?lp=true
Fig. 4- “Cape Reinga-Spirits Rest.” White Wolf Journeys. https://www.whitewolfjourneys.com/weave-the-web/cape-reinga-spirits-rest/