Years ago, when I was studying the family history of my favorite author, American novelist Henry James, I noted that his father had become enamored of the writings of Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Accordingly, I spent some time reading his works. An 18th-century rationalist who suddenly found his worldview shaken by a series of dreams and visions, Swedenborg is one of the earliest individuals to record what we now call the “near-death experience” or NDE.
Such transformative moments, we are told, are marked by certain common constituent factors: a pulling away from the physical body, a feeling of levitation, and the presence of light. All three elements can also be found in the remarkable exhibition of mixed media works by Jennifer Onofrio-Fornes now on view at the Aiken Center for the Arts.
A Minnesota native who has taught at Augusta State University since 1995, Onofrio-Fornes has exhibited her work all over the country, but this is the first time that she has mounted a show in Aiken. What visitors will find in the ACA gallery are pieces from at least four series that have received prior critical attention and popular acclaim. They would also blow the socks off Swedenborg!
In the pieces that bear the collective title of “Dusk” (2007) and “Mortal Coil” (2010), the viewer is confronted with a shrouded figure – the artist herself wrapped in gauze from head to toe like a mummified corpse – shuffling off, as the title of the second series makes clear, the burdens of mortality. The phrase, first used by Hamlet in his famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech, encapsulates the dilemma of Shakespeare’s character who is caught in a cosmological trap – impelled to exact revenge for his father’s murder but knowing full well that the act is likely to cost him his life.
In the photographs that make up both series, each slightly more than three feet by two, the central figure set against a black background expresses the full range of meaning contained in that one resonant word “coil.” The figure stirs, thrashes, winds herself up in rings and spirals – each twist and turn frozen in the camera’s eye. It is as if we were witnessing the struggles of the individual to cast off her ties to the physical world – to escape from the bonds of the flesh – to release the soul to return to its source or to undertake any of the respective journeys outlined by the world’s religions.
The trajectory admirably captured in the “Mortal Coil” series can be said to begin with an image entitled “Of the Distant and Familiar.” Therein the figure, bent over by the burdens of life, trapped in a cage of flesh and bone, seems in the initial stages of corporeal disintegration – ectoplasm rising like steam from the hunched form. Later, near the end of the process of transcendence – this moment captured in the piece entitled “Frenzy” – the figure flaps her arms, like an avian creature first attempting flight or Swedenborg himself in the early stage of levitation.
The newest series entitled “Trace” (2012) goes one step further in the process since it focuses not on the translation from the physical to the spiritual but on the ultimate apotheosis. It’s like the shift from night to day. The shadows of “Dusk” and “Mortal Coil” are replaced by a realm of light. Indeed, each image in “Trace” is enclosed in a powder-white, ovoid frame, 8 inches tall by 6 inches wide – perhaps symbolic, as round shapes always are, of wholeness and completion. Center stage within each frame is a light-filled form, sometimes revealed through open curtains, like the opening of a portal to another plane of existence.
Are these photographs of the spirit itself following its final release? The artist writes that in the works collectively entitled “Trace,” she is “exploring transience in the context of eastern notions of transcendence.” Certainly the medium of photography is admirably designed to capture the fleeting moment. How ambitious, however, is the artist who attempts to create images that reflect some of humankind’s most enduring conceptions of what all of us may face in our final moments!
This hauntingly evocative exhibition of mixed media works by Onofrio-Fornes is on display at the Aiken Center for the Arts until March 15. Located on Laurens Street in downtown Aiken, the center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK) is available at local outlets and online.