For artist, art historian and now collector Honorary Associate Professor Martyn Jolly, the magic lantern shows that came to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century were much more than just the precursor of today’s PowerPoint presentation.
Magic lanterns were pervasively important
in Australia for a century. They were used by various operators, from sophisticated professional showmen to Sunday School teachers. In a range of venues, from theatres to home parlours, they projected multiple types of slides, from ingenious hand painted mechanical slides to high quality hand tinted photographic slides. These were combined with different forms of musical and theatrical accompaniment to entertain and inform a wide variety of audiences, from opening night crowds to gaggles of local kids.
Martyn Jolly’s exhibition, ‘Phantasmagoria of Magic Lanterns’ opened to the public on 10 June 2020 at the Canberra Museum + Gallery. It includes some of his collection, as well as documentation of his creative re-enactment performances. The performances wouldn’t have been possible without the contemporary crafts people from the ANU School of Art and Design, including Nick Stranks (Lecturer and Technical Officer in Sculpture & Spatial Practice), Simon Ramsay (Technical Officer in Furniture) and Sean Booth (Technical Officer in Jewellery & Object) whose expert knowledge allowed the nineteenth century apparatuses to be used again. The performances were creative collaborations with colleagues from the School of Music, particularly Dr Alexander Hunters, as well as local artists such as Dr Waratah Lahy (Outreach Coordinator and Sessional Lecturer), two of whose original slideas are in the exhibition. Jolly collaborated with Dr Elisa deCourcy as a co-lanternist and together, they invented several, entirely novel projection techniques to add even more indeterminacy into the projections.
The exhibition is another outcome of the Australian Research Council Discovery Project; Heritage in the Limelight: the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World. The project has investigated the ways in which Australia was profoundly shaped by the technology of magic lantern slide projection. Although previously neglected, the visual culture of the magic lantern is continuing to become an exciting new archival resource for historians, curators and artists.
Jolly says that he hopes his creative re-enactments create the fleeting manifestation of an uncanny delight in audiences. “We invite our audience to feel they are perhaps sharing that experience with an audience of a hundred and fifty years ago.”
‘Phantasmagoria of Magic Lanterns’ is curated by Virginia Rigney, Senior Curator Visual Art at the Canberra Museum + Gallery. The exhibition continues from 10 June 2020 until 5 September 2020.
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