In 1919 Sigmund Freud published his essay The Uncanny, which followed Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 text On the Psychology of the Uncanny. Beginning with a linguistic appraisal of the uses of the words heimlich and unheimlich in the German language, Freud outlines the roots and meaning of the terms. Heimlich, we are told, means the familiar, the homely. Its antonym unheimlich means unease, fear, horror, eerie or the uncanny. But heimlich can also be read to mean concealed or hidden, which is fundamental to the notion of the uncanny: to be something that is strange but familiar or hidden but apparent, otherwise termed as cognitive dissonance.
The selection of artists that we present here is based on the strong and underlying sense of the uncanny within their work. Combining painting, drawing, sculpture and video, the exhibition is curated in order to create an experience for the audience that is simultaneously compelling and unsettling, where the familiar is employed in order to unlock the peculiar.
Wendy Mayer’s small scale waxwork figures are illustrative of the proposition, leading on from the novelist E.T.A. Hoffman, that ‘intellectual uncertainty’ (the feeling of the uncanny) is ‘aroused as to whether something is animate or inanimate, and whether the lifeless bears an excessive likeness of the living’. But although as adults we might postulate a fear of the inanimate coming to life, Freud asserts that the feeling of the uncanny caused by waxworks or
automatons actually derives from ‘an infantile wish, or simply from an infantile belief’ for the inanimate to become living.
Tessa Farmer also asserts an animate / inanimate anomaly. Insects, animal bones and carcasses are presented in combination with tiny winged skeletal humanoids that are handmade with incredible delicacy from plant roots and insect wings. We are presented with an imagined world where malevolent fairies seek to attack and overcome progressively larger prey. Instilling fear and curiosity in the audience, Farmer’s complex installations and animations echo the natural world, revealing the often violent fight for survival and supremacy that take place beneath our feet.
Freud goes on to discuss the idea of the ‘double’, where the self might be ‘duplicated, divided and interchanged’. He paraphrases Otto Rank, who ‘explores the connections that link the double with mirror-images, shadows, guardian
spirits, the doctrine of the soul and the fear of death’. The idea of the immortal soul, in order to deny the power of death, is suggested as the ‘first double of the body’.
In Gavin Tremlett’s paintings beauty vies with deformity as his classically rendered, often mask-like visages both obscure as well as disclose. This rendering of face as mask is often coupled with abstract, painterly marks that serve to obfuscate the subject, thus interfering with the totality of an ideal self. There is a denial of the whole but also a doubling in process here, both physically and symbolically.
Performance group The Cult of RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ (with Yange Younghee) harness much of the above in their performance and videos. Acting as a virtual cargo cult, The Cult of RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ translate internet clips of New York graffiti history into physical ritual, in this case in collaboration with Korean calligraphy performance artist Yange Younghee and her performance artist daughter Hyeyoung Ku. Through the ritual The Cult respond to a YouTube interview with the late iconic one armed abstract graffiti artist Case 2, who in conversation with mass transit graffiti documentary photographer, Henry Chalfont (author of the graffiti bible ‘Subway Art’) professes ‘We’re like
ancient fossils Henry- We don’t leave time- time leaves us’. The Cult channel the late nasal rapper and graffiti philosopher RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ’s Gothic Futurist ethos of letter liberation into their performance at an abandoned Lido on the seafront, framed by the chalk cliffs of Margate, an abundant source of ancient fossils.
Marie von Heyl also refers to the ritualistic and repetitive in performance, video and other media but to vastly different effect. Her work derives from the poetic friction and productive misunderstandings that emerge when different models of reality collide, overlap or don’t quite fit together. Of particular relevance are objects that serve as mediators between different belief systems or carriers of sentimental value, such as cult objects, fetishes, heirlooms and souvenirs. Von Heyl uses drawing, collage, film and text to point to the beautiful, trace the uncanny and explorethe absurd. ‘The Ease Of Handling’ is a video installation that pushes the subject-object relationship that emerges from the process of taking care of objects. ‘You cannot know what an object really is until you dust it every day’, wrote Gertrude Stein in ‘The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas’, and by doing so suggested that knowledge can not only be gained through sensual interaction but has to be maintained or questioned through a daily care taking ritual. ‘The Ease Of Handling’ displays an object that is stroked by a pair of gloved hands – a performance that is evocative of art handling, care taking and pantomime and in doing so becomes overtly erotic.
Freud goes on to discuss how a living person can be called uncanny. Animism leads to genius which leads to insanity:
‘The uncanny effect of epilepsy or madness has the same origin.’ In the Middle Ages manifestations of insanity were attributed to the influence of demons, and Freud notes our unease at observing that in others we ‘can dimly perceive
in remote corners of [our] own personality’.
The pencil drawings of Eric Manigaud are devastating in their execution as well as their emotive content. Manigaud has collected 19th century photographs of asylum and hospital inmates and renders each piece in pencil on large scale paper. These awe inspiring drawings are alluring, poignant, unsettling and deeply moving.Balanced delicately between beauty and the grotesque,
Tom Butler works seamlessly over the faces of subjects in Victorian calling cards, where they become overtaken by hair; feathered or mottled surfaces; and more recently bandages or geometric patterns. Occasionally features of the subject remain unpainted, asserting the presence of the subject from beneath some parasitic growth that appears to emanate from within. There are clear allusions to a visualisation of the unconscious where the monstrous becomes apparent. Freud’s theories were contemporaneous to the use of cabinet cards, as was public interest in freak shows, and Butler recalls these areas of interest simultaneously.
Dominic Shepherd’s folkloric paintings illustrate perfectly Freud’s notion of cognitive dissonance. His paintings
represent an idiosyncratic reappraisal of cultural history, signs and symbols that utilise familiar reference points in order to create a personal mythology. This clash operates within a landscape environment where figures and motifs dissolve into or emanate from the environment. We are urged, therefore, to experience an inconsistent place that is enveloped by familiarity, mystery, reality and illusion.
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