Haunting Mystery
Return to the fabled Winchester Mystery House with Jeremy Blake
by Hesse McGraw

The tragic pang of survivor's guilt has provided the impetus for many a venture, humanitarian and otherwise, and simultaneously, this country is rife with examples of individuals who found themselves with a lot of time on their hands, extra cash, and the motivating thrust of eccentricity. Watts Towers in California and the Garden of Eden in Kansas are well-traveled examples. Add to these the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, which thoroughly unites both patterns of behavior.

The story of the house begins with Sarah Lockwoode Pardee, a beautiful, giggly New Haven socialite described as being "well-received at all social events, thanks to her musical skills, her fluency in various foreign languages and her sparkling charm." She found herself courted by William Winchester, heir to his family's rifle fortune, and they were married in 1862, at the height of the Civil War and the Winchester family's windfall. Following the death of their daughter one month after her birth, Sarah became deeply depressed and began to seek spiritual counsel. Subsequent to her husband's death from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah Winchester found herself sole proprietress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. With the receipt of a $20,000,000 lump sum of turn-of-the-century dollars, a $1,000 per day Winchester stipend and few real responsibilities, Mrs. Winchester's grief over the loss of her husband and child was compounded by the harbinger of a spiritualist medium who informed her that she would be haunted by the spirits of those struck down by the Winchester Repeating Rifle unless she immediately bought a house and began to build upon itcontinuously and until she died. Moving west from Connecticut to San Jose in 1884, she purchased a six-room farmhouse with substantial surrounding acreage and supervised additions to the house without pause until her death in 1922.

Every night, Sarah retreated to her sťance room and conferred with her architectural consultants from beyond the grave. The home's features were designed to confuse the spirits that were after her: doorways routinely open to multistory freefalls, staircases abruptly end at ceilings, windows are placed in ceilings or floors, hallways double back on themselves, and vacant zones in the floor plan suggest inaccessible corridors and rooms. Her disregard for conventional architectural logic resulted in the construction of an estimated 160 rooms, 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, and 467 doorways. Despite the never-ending construction, aural and kinetic paranormal activity is said to have frequently occurred in the house. Organ music would play randomly, the sound of unseen footsteps, sonorous voices, and banging doors were commonly heard, windows would slam with such force that the glass would shatter, lights would flicker unaided, and the pages of books would flip under their own power. Whether the medium's soothsaying was verified by this activity or the architecture of the house provided a locus for such occurrences is a question that sits outside the folklore. At the very least, the architecture is the manifestation of its creator's paranoid fixations and unending psychosis.

Created over a century later, Jeremy Blake's digital animation piece Winchester, 200102, is a euphoric salute to this peculiarly American kind of "narrative pile-up" and to Mrs. Winchester's ecstatic mania from which it sprang. The New York artist's DVD projection, included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, primarily provides "an abstract or emotional tour--not so much of the architecture, but of some of the more fearful chambers of Sarah Winchester's mind." Essentially it's a structured attempt to study and describe the house's creator, the batty woman with the frightful daydreams and eternal guilt who scribbled diverting corridors and staircases onto paper napkins. The Mystery House remains a permanent memorial to Winchester's folly, a testimony that plays out on multiple levels, from the squandered labor of such an immense effort to an irrepressible cultural reliance on activity and modes of communication framed by spectacle.

Throughout its 18 minutes Winchester repeatedly returns to a few sharp images of the exterior of the house. These static sequences of old photographs are accompanied by the staccato sound of a flapping 16mm projector gate--a cleverly spurious insertion of archaic noise into the soundtrack's fashionably electro-ambient stutter. Blake's digital animation is seamless. A fluid gestalt without cuts, pans or zooms, it's simply a straight-ahead, fixed view that shifts in and out of focus--representation and abstraction--from psychedelic gunshot wounds to monochrome gabled roofs. The gradual metamorphosis of color and shape is transfixing. Amidst paranoiac glimpses of murky riflemen and their trail of dead, the viewer is coaxed into the work and loses all desire to question the processes behind its execution. This is the case with most successful digitally rendered artthe skill of execution erases the artifacts of the software and its digitized information. That Blake chooses to make evident his use of 16mm film in the digital animation is significant in that it aligns his very contemporary practice with the "archaic" media of film and painting while it calls attention to the foundation of the project, the antiquated house itself.

With the warmth of the images and their captivating transitions, Blake actively denies the common stereotype that equates digital art with a cold and harsh technological aesthetic. The observant viewer will notice many brief, knowing winks to Modernist painting and its afterthoughts. As the 16mm stills of the house blur into less recognizable forms, one witnesses a few moments of striking resemblance to the black and white blurs of Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof paintings. Also along the way, eerie Tanguy landscapes ooze into Gorky's cock's comb, and structurally graphic interludes explode into technicolor, Warholian Rorschach tests that give way to Matta-ish dreamscapes and Bleckner's spot fields before erupting into the energetic, cyborg postures of Inka Essenhigh. As the parade of references pile up, the spectacle of images is made electric.

Blake's projection travels along its ecstatically-colored course of disintegrating rainbows and imploding kaleidoscopes, while glimpses of Winchester rifles mingle with the ornate patterns of seeping gunshot wounds. These fleeting representations quickly settle into purple-gray wisps and bluish whirls that offer eager mediums, spiritualists, and casual haunting-hunters ripe opportunities to detect the menacing presence of ghostly orbs and apparitions. Just as quickly, the rushing noise is systematized into the staccato 16mm ringing and the Winchester Mystery House itself flickers into focus--a convoluted, schizophrenic entanglement. However abstractly, Blake's narrative piles up, along with Sarah Winchester's grief-riddled escapism, into a lustrous example of prime American wonder.