Talking to the dead: Artist's exhibit explores afterlife

Fernando Orellana's interactive artwork at the Everson Museum draws from ghost folklore.

When a person dies, three to four months later, his house and belongings are often sold off in an estate sale.

“These are weird places. People act like vultures scavenging through all of people’s leftovers. Usually if you go there, a little late, all that is left are the dishes and silverware. The stuff that no one wants,” Fernando Orellana said.

Photo: Manmeet Sahni
"The show is actually for the dead, not for us."
- Fernando Orellana

The man visits these sales. He goes around observing the house of the dead. And tries to piece together what that person must have been about.  Was he an academic? Was she a cook? Then from the pile of trash that everyone has left behind he picks up an object and goes home.

“I make interactive art, art that has a user interface. With these objects that I collect I make the same thing - machines that can record if the dead owner will ever return,” Orellana said.

The man wears a sincere expression. The New York based artist often fiddles with new and traditional media to convey his ideas.

“These machines have an infrared sensor, a thermometer and an instrument to measure electromagnetic waves. If two of the three go off, the machine will start working and a ghost could be around,” Orellana said.

These ‘Techno-effigy’ machines as he calls them are displayed at the Everson Museum until Jan. 11. They are picked from estate sales within a 50-mile radius in Syracuse. They are currently on display at an exhibition the artist calls “Shadows”.

“The show is actually for the dead, not for us,” he said. 

“My obsession with ghosts started in 2005 when I moved to Schenectady. We moved to a house that was behind a graveyard. And when I went to the basement to do my laundry, six feet under, I was on eye level with the dead,” he said.

That is when the artist started toying with a bizarre idea: What would it be like to design a user interface for a ghost, and how do you design an object for someone who doesn't have a body?

“If there is such a thing as a ghost then it has to be an accumulation of memories that they had while they were living. If the ghost wished to interact with the world that they have left, they would do so through something familiar,” Orellana pointed out.

So, the object that he picks up has to be something that seems very personal to the departed, he said.

Orellana said he enters the house observing, listening, and piecing together a story. He never talks directly to the family, out of respect for the dead.

Usually, he observes patterns of collectibles. Orellana once entered a house that had bells all over the house. Another had piles and piles of books.

“But I picked up the bell that must have been used at the fireplace. The house with the books had to be an academic. So, I thought my machine should have a dictionary,” he said.

Orellana said that he goes around hunting these objects, picking what he thinks makes sense. However, this one time he is sure that the object called out to him.

When he entered the house he found that everything had been picked clean. He said he was about to leave, when he said he heard a tune. He walked toward a corner of the house, where he found a box that would open and close with a chime. Inside was a collection of recipes.

The machines are simple. The recipe box, the bell, or the dictionary is each attached to the three detectors, which will set in action a lever if they detect any outwardly presence. The box will chime, the bell will immediately start ringing and the dictionary will turn a page.

“The dictionary sitting was next to ‘Leave Her to Death’ the book that references Hamlet, in which the ghost tells Hamlet, ‘leave her to heaven, do not obsess over her.’ So I knew I had to pick up this object,” he said.

Some viewers have firm Christian beliefs. “I do believe in after life, but in the presence of a definite heaven or hell. If something like a machine measures a ghost, it will be a record of something I don't know. I am curious to see what happens,” Kelly Cooney, a 42-year-old local teacher remarked.

A mineral collection, a peanut butter maker, a recipe book, a little child of Prague, a doll collection, a hammer with its nuts and bolts and a hundred year old piano are the other techno-effigies on display.

“This is my way to pay homage to the dead,”Orellana said.

Even though the man has built machines to measure ghosts, Orellana believes there is no way to know for sure what we become once we die.

“I believe in afterlife, but it is hard to have a conversation about it. Humans have a limited vocabulary and mind to visualize it. I think everything that we know, including religion is an approximation,” he said. 

Orellana’s method to detect ghosts may seem familiar. Ghost hunters in TV shows and films about the paranormal often use infrared detectors, thermometers and electromagnetic waves.

He admits that he has based his machines on folklore, television shows, cinema, and pseudoscience. He said that he has also spoken to a few paranormal researchers. However, such research is not concerned with ghosts but extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and the sixth sense, he said.

“These machines are like the Horcruxes in Harry Potter. The way Voldemort’s life is preserved in objects called Horcruxes that he was most fond of, like his diary, Orellana’s machines also preserve the essence of the owner,” Jason Webb, 36, a media student said.

One such machine is a hundred-year-old piano, which Orellana said, came with the tune "When Irish eyes are smiling". Music that is connected to our senses would enthrall the living and the dead, the artist said.

The piano sits center stage in the exhibit and has been programmed to go off every 90 minutes. Viewers get a scare, startled how the keyboard manages to play itself.

It is sheer coincidence that there is a substantial Irish population here in Syracuse, Orellana said. Perhaps, we may wonder if the ghost is playing them a tune. 

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