Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

A Real Phantasmagoria: The Great Belzoni’s Show: The Aura of the Facsimile

The Aura of the Facsimile

To have, therefore, restored to our eyes such ancient records of this busy frame, embodied in sculpture and painting, fresh as when touched by the workmens’ hands, is of itself a great and inexpressible privilege; for as they are presented to our feelings and understanding, it annihilates the vast space of time between ourselves and the era of their existence, the heart flows forth in eager surmise, and would learn the dread tenets of those mystic days of yore; still more are we irresistibly drawn to their contemplation, as they embody the yearnings for immortality; the hopes and fears, and all the thousand glorious harmonies that link the struggling spirit within us—to the awful eternity it is hourly passing onward to experience.
– Edward Upham74

As opposed to Robertson’s fantasmagorie, the goal of Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria was not to frighten his spectators. Yet, what Belzoni managed to do in his facsimile of The Tomb was more than provide a perfect copy of an Ancient Egyptian burial chamber for the amusement and edification of his metropolitan audience. By exhibiting it as though it were a real place and by virtually transporting its visitors 3,000 years back in time, the Great Sultan of all Conjurors summoned The Tomb’s virtual aura (fig. 27).

The term aura was first introduced by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin argued that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Such “presence” inevitably “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction.”75 Referring to Benjamin’s idea of the aura, Adam Lowe, the founder of Factum Arte, which directed the scanning of Seti’s tomb, has written: “Walter Benjamin struggled to define exactly what he meant by ‘the aura.’ His choice of metaphor, suggesting both halo and radiation, is actually the opposite of the physical evidence that makes an object specifically what it is. Objects are the repositories of compounded ideas, thoughts, materials, evidence, transactions and the actions of time.”76

With perfect replicas of an Egyptian tomb’s walls and ceiling and original relics displayed in an upper gallery, Belzoni’s exhibit managed to magically, or psychologically, “reanimate” Seti’s final resting place for the consumption of its visitors, arguably an immersive imaginative experience similar to that provided by a VR simulation. One could say that Belzoni obtained, with a physical installation, the effect that nowadays is produced in a virtual way with digital tools. Indeed, the analogy between Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria and the working of digital technology is striking. As Lowe writes: “New imaging technologies and 3D recording systems allow us to close the gap between an object and its reproduction. No copy will ever re-materialise everything that is in the original, but the closer the replication comes, the more can be revealed.”77 It is the nature of this “revelation” that explains the aura of the facsimile. “Digitality and auras have much in common,” Lowe adds. “Digital technology can be used to accurately record different aspects of an object. The aura inhabits these spaces.”78 From these words one could surmise that the aura revealed by digital reproduction is tied to its immateriality, as though a virtual copy would somehow reveal the “soul” of the object. Yet, the virtual is an effect of a physical apparatus and the process of digitization. If for Benjamin the aura is an emanation of the object, what actually shines through is the original “presence” of the object as perceived by the viewer. In short, the aura is in the eye of the beholder: it is the perceptual manifestation of a symbolic accumulation.79

The aura is intimately linked to the emotion of traveling back in time, something registered by all the visitors of the exhibit. At the core of Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria was an intent not too dissimilar from the scope of digital “regeneration” described by Lowe.80 A visit to Belzoni’s facsimile of The Tomb would indeed provide an experience similar to that provoked in us by digital models of ancient ruins: the closer and richer the replication, the more “realistic” the effect, the more “revealing” of the object’s aura. Such virtual presence is the product of a short-circuit between the original time and space in which the reconstituted object existed and our own in which it is regenerated, a process of simultaneous dematerialization and rematerialization. As contemporary virtual archaeology shows, imaging technology can both halt and reverse time: we can retrieve a material artifact from its irreversible loss by preserving its facsimile, and remodel it through the stages of its decay—all the way back to a reanimated approximation (a simulacrum) of the original. Yet, as we have seen from the comments of The Tomb’s visitors, Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria triggered another kind of emotional or psychological response: the voyeuristic and somewhat morbid curiosity for the exotic relics of a dead civilization—namely, a fascination for its peculiar funerary customs. In short, Belzoni’s Tomb encapsulated for its metropolitan visitors an ambivalent reflection about time and space, decay and regeneration, mortality and immortality, a meditative, sublimating one (like that of Don Juan) and a more thoughtlessly shocked one (like that registered by Lady Blessington). One could say that the first reaction was absorbed in the aura of the exhibit while the second remained engrossed by its effects as an exhibit. In other words, the former focused more on the realistic and the latter on the phantasmagoric elements of Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria. Indeed, with all its pedagogical intent, the exhibit gave its visitors the illusion of “being there,” in a real place and in another time, but it also managed to summon another kind of virtual presence: that of the mysterious being who once inhabited the original tomb and whose manifestation was felt by the most sensitive visitors—judging from what one of them, the poet Horace Smith, wrote in a poem describing his experience:

Statue of flesh, —immortal of the dead!
Imperishable type of evanescence!
Posthumous man, —who quit’st thy narrow bed,
And standest undecayed within our presence!
Not like thin ghosts or disembodied creatures,
But with thy bones and flesh and limbs and features! 81

Just as Belzoni’s own exhibit was a “facsimile” of Seti’s tomb, our interactive model is a facsimile of the facsimile—or better, a simulation of a simulation. Indeed, our model has no pretense to reproduce the realistic effect of the exhibit but, rather, to capture its aura as an exhibit. In order to do this, we have taken the liberty of inserting into our model an artifact that was not in fact exhibited at Egyptian Hall: the most prized item in Belzoni’s collection, an alabaster sarcophagus inscribed with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. The work of Factum Arte, the “regeneration” of the sarcophaguslink is the latest chapter in the narrative which began two centuries ago when Seti’s Tomb was unsealed by Belzoni.82 (fig. 28) We have inserted an image of the “regenerated” sarcophagus into our model of the exhibit because its ghostly virtual presence symbolically embodies the ambivalence of Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria as well as the aura emanating from the digital reproduction of the facsimile.83 However, by inserting the sarcophagus in our virtual model of The Tomb, the mummy of Seti I is implicitly evoked as well. If, for imaginative contemporary visitors such as Horace Smith, the mummy was present “not like thin ghost or disembodied creature,” but “with [his] bones and flesh and limbs and features,” then perhaps our digital reproduction underscores the “imperishable type of evanescence” at stake in the exhibition.


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