In 1919 Sigmund Freud published his essay The Uncanny, which followed Ernst Jentsch’s 1906 text On thePsychology of the Uncanny. Beginning with a linguistic appraisal of the uses of the words heimlich and unheimlich inthe 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 tomean concealed or hidden, which is fundamental to the notion of the uncanny: to be something that is strange butfamiliar 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 theirwork. Combining painting, drawing, sculpture and video, the exhibition is curated in order to create an experience forthe audience that is simultaneously compelling and unsettling, where the familiar is employed in order to unlock thepeculiar.
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 orinanimate, and whether the lifeless bears an excessive likeness of the living’. But although as adults we mightpostulate 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 incombination with tiny winged skeletal humanoids that are handmade with incredible delicacy from plant roots andinsect 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’. Heparaphrases 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 ofdeath, is suggested as the ‘first double of the body’. In Gavin Tremlett’s paintings beauty vies with deformity as hisclassically rendered, often mask-like visages both obscure as well as disclose. This rendering of face as mask is oftencoupled with abstract, painterly marks that serve to obfuscate the subject, thus interfering with the totality of an idealself. 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 theirperformance and videos. Acting as a virtual cargo cult, The Cult of RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ translate internet clips of NewYork graffiti history into physical ritual, in this case in collaboration with Korean calligraphy performance artistYange Younghee and her performance artist daughter Hyeyoung Ku. Through the ritual The Cult respond to aYouTube 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 graffitiphilosopher RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ’s Gothic Futurist ethos of letter liberation into their performance at an abandoned Lidoon 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 vastlydifferent effect. Her work derives from the poetic friction and productive misunderstandings that emerge whendifferent models of reality collide, overlap or don’t quite fit together. Of particular relevance are objects that serve asmediators between different belief systems or carriers of sentimental value, such as cult objects, fetishes, heirloomsand 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 fromthe process of taking care of objects. ‘You cannot know what an object really is until you dust it every day’, wroteGertrude Stein in 'The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas', and by doing so suggested that knowledge can not only begained through sensual interaction but has to be maintained or questioned through a daily care taking ritual. 'The EaseOf Handling' displays an object that is stroked by a pair of gloved hands - a performance that is evocative of arthandling, 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 wereattributed 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 executionas well as their emotive content. Manigaud has collected 19th century photographs of asylum and hospital inmates andrenders each piece in pencil on large scale paper. These awe inspiring drawings are alluring, poignant, unsettling anddeeply moving.
Balanced delicately between beauty and the grotesque, Tom Butler works seamlessly over the faces of subjects inVictorian calling cards, where they become overtaken by hair; feathered or mottled surfaces; and more recentlybandages or geometric patterns. Occasionally features of the subject remain unpainted, asserting the presence of thesubject from beneath some parasitic growth that appears to emanate from within. There are clear allusions to avisualisation of the unconscious where the monstrous becomes apparent. Freud’s theories were contemporaneous tothe use of cabinet cards, as was public interest in freak shows, and Butler recalls these areas of interestsimultaneously.
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 inorder to create a personal mythology. This clash operates within a landscape environment where figures and motifsdissolve into or emanate from the environment. We are urged, therefore, to experience an inconsistent place that isenveloped by familiarity, mystery, reality and illusion.
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