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Attic Basement Garage: Uncanny Figures
Between the ages of 5 and 15 years, my friends and I enjoyed games and incidents involving gratuitous fear; that is, fear of imagined threats.
These activities typically took place after dark, sometimes outdoors, daring one another into lone missions ('run to the edge of the trees and touch the fence before you come back'), or else indoors, inciting a kind of group hysteria, blundering around with the lights off, fleeing or cowering from an imagined terror.
Fear was not fun in itself, for example, when alone in bed at night unable to sleep. It only took on its pleasurable aspect when shared with friends, either in the moment or in recounting ‘scary’ experiences to one another.During adolescence these fear games were superseded by other activities that did not share the same physicality or immediacy: viewing horror movies together, discussing Stephen King novels, telling urban legends.
However, even in adulthood, experiences still occasionally arise that recall the feelings that we invoked with our early games. It is in reference to these that I understand the word “uncanny”.
In 1993 and 2004 Mike Kelley presented an exhibition titled The Uncanny, consisting of sculptures, objects and images that he found “creepy”, with “an ‘uncanny’ aura about them”.
The majority were life-sized polychrome models of the human body in whole or part. This accorded with ‘scary’ experiences of my own involving figurative sculptures, particularly one winter in my early teens when I was repeatedly surprised and slightly unnerved by a deshevelled Guy Fawkes that we had propped in a living room chair awaiting the evening’s bonfire.
Kelley’s exhibition centred on Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919), which draws on Ernst Jentsch’s The Psychology of the Uncanny (1906), in which the uncanny is exemplified by “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”. It is this ambiguity that I have attempted to give my own sculptures in Attic Basement Garage, which this essay accompanies.
ART AND OBJECTHOOD
Michael Fried’s criticism of minimalist sculpture’s “degeneration” into “theatricality” highlights how objects with very little resemblance to actual figures can still give an impression of human presence:“...being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person; the experience of coming upon literalist objects unexpectedly – for example in somewhat darkened rooms – can be strongly, if momentarily, disquieting in just this way”.
I believe that this disquieting effect can unite people in pleasurable excitement; either when experienced simultaneously by two or more people, or experienced alone, which might be unpleasant at the time, but can provide a cathartic pleasure when subsequently described to others. It is this aspect, the joy of sharing gratuitous fear, that drives my interest in the uncanny.
If gratuitous scares are the aim then Attic Basement Garage could be alot scarier. The figures could be hidden behind corners, the room darkened, blacked out even, visitors provided with dim torches, animatronics occasionally launching the figures into grotesque movement. In short, all the strategies of the ghost train or carnival haunted house could be mobilised to provoke the greatest shocks possible, short of cardiac arrest, and why not? Firstly, an out and out sensory traumatisation of the viewer is not an exercise in the uncanny as I understand it; secondly, the more up-front the author is about his intention to create an uncanny effect, the harder he is likely to fall into the trap that Freud describes thus: “...by the time we have seen through his trick it is already too late and the author has achieved his object. But it must be added that his success is not unalloyed. We retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of grudge against the attempted deceit.”
Hence, when the uncanny aura is understood as the author’s intention, it is often superseded by an aura of pathetic redundancy. The initial effect passes and continued exposure incurs the law of diminishing returns. Knowing that the intensity of our experience is testament to the author’s ability to manipulate us can, in itself, take the edge off. Therefore, it may be that certain uncanny effects are best experienced as un-authored; a difficulty for works displayed in the context of Western art’s attributive tradition. This is also a question for Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics: what is the nature of an authored social relation?
STATUES AND CORPSES
In his essay Playing With Dead Things, Kelley writes, “The aura of death surrounds statues. The origin of sculpture is said to be in the grave; the first corpse was the first statue. And early statues were the first objects to which the aura of life clung.”
This association is made explicit in Dennis Nilsen’s description of the body of a young man he had murdered:“...I gently undressed him and carried him naked into the bathroom. I washed him carefully all over in the bath and sitting his limp body on the edge I towelled him dry. I laid him on my bed and put talc on him to make him look cleaner. I just sat there and watched him. He looked really beautiful like one of those Michelangelo sculptures.”
However, the similarities between statues and corpses (their cold inanimacy), as opposed to living bodies, are not a source of uncanny feeling in themselves. Rather, it is precisely the obvious lifelessness of most statues that forecloses uncanny ambiguity. The marginal status of moving statuary attests to the fact that viewers prefer their statues this way: patently dead.Where performance offers a display of the living body, statuary allows contemplation of a well-kept corpse; the body as a passive object of scrutiny; a face that will never return our gaze. It is this pleasure that the uncanny disturbs.
This, in turn, is a prompt to that heightened attentiveness to one’s environment that characterises gratuitous fear.
An urban legend of the early 90s claimed that the ghost of a young boy could be seen standing in the background of a scene in the comedy movie Three Men and a Baby (1987) . The rumours picked up after the film’s video release, allowing people to replay and assess the footage for themselves.
As the camera pans across a room, following two actors in the foreground, a small figure with dark hair is clearly visible between the curtains of a large window. This figure was subsequently revealed by the filmmakers to be a cardboard cut-out image of actor Ted Danson, propped arbitrarily on the floor by the window, and not intended to create an illusion.
A similar effect was deliberately created by the makers of BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992). Imitating live-broadcast factual television techniques, a handheld camera panned quickly around a child’s bedroom, affording a brief glimpse of a tall figure stood infront of the curtains. The camera panned back past the same spot in the opposite direction and the figure had gone. There was no indication in the camera work that the camera operator was aware of the figure.
Unseen figures also populate urban legends. For example, the story of a young woman who returns a borrowed item to a friend’s bedroom at night without switching the light on, so as to avoid waking her; the following morning the same friend is discovered murdered in her bed beside a note that reads “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”
Here, we are invited to identify with the heroine’s narrow escape, and therefore to become hyper-vigilent ourselves. In other words, to ‘get scared’.
THE LIVING DEAD
Jentsch lists examples of things that produce uncanny feelings, including “wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons,” but also, “epileptic seizures and the manifestations of insanity.”11This reminds me of an uncle of mine who, as a child, would frighten his siblings by “doing the stick-man”. This involved moving through the corridors of their home with his arms and legs held straight and rigid, walking in a fast, jerky, exaggerated manner, his face held in a manic rictus grin.
The awkward movements and facial contortions of George Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) perhaps also exemplify this aspect of the uncanny. However, I have a misgiving about the genre’s convention of zombie ‘death’.
For example, in Night of the Living Dead the living characters are able to ‘kill’ the zombies by shooting them in the head. Clearly, as a plot device this resolves the undecideability inherant in the idea of the living-dead. The problem is that it also suggests that the zombie formula not only plays on the audience’s fear of bodies that are both dead and alive, but that it also satisfies a repressed desire to watch lunatics and the diseased, that is living people, being executed by the sane and healthy.My least favourite zombie films are those that exhibit this characteristic most blatantly, descending into a thinly veiled form of war movie in which one side (the zombies) are depicted as categorically mindless and abhorent, therefore justifying a lack of empathy for them on the audience’s part when our side (the living) attempt to exterminate them en masse.
Resident Evil (a series of zombie ‘shoot em up’ computer games) literalises this tendency by arming the player with a gun and presenting a succession of zombies that must be killed in order to win the game. Though grotesque, the imagery is barely given time to be experienced as ‘creepy’, and the frenzied action shares little in common with the uncanny figures offered by Jentsch, Freud, and Kelley.
By comparison, a scene from Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975) conforms closely to Jentsch’s formulation. A woman preparing coffee is stabbed but does not bleed or show pain. Instead, she begins to repeat a series of physical gestures robotically, spilling coffee beans and breaking crockery, like a malfunctioning animatronic statue. Here, according to the narrative, what initially appears to be a living person in seizure proves to be a mechanised object.
In other instances, covering the face of a performer with a mask can invoke the dehumanised uncanny air of a statue brought to life. This can be seen in ‘slasher’ movies The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) , Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982) , and also in the art of Paul McCarthy whose work includes performances involving masks, and masked (sometimes animatronic) sculptures.
IDENTIFYING WITH THE UNCANNY OBJECT
There is a temptation to banalise an appetite for the macabre by concealing it with campy excess and ironic humour (common amongst suburban teenaged ‘Goths’), thereby repressing the anxieties on which the appetite is founded. This is a tacit apology to the surrounding community for (indirectly) expressing sadness, anger, and resentment against it. Unfortunately, this apology devalues the ‘loser’s’ taste for the macabre, distracting attention from the shift of view point that it affords: in this case, an identification with the psychopathology of an irrational indiscriminately predatory outsider.
Returning to the example of fear games, this shift can be seen as a movement from the social pleasure of shared gratuitous fear to an identification with the object of fear. This is precisely what would have been unthinkable to my friends and I during our fear games: to identify with the uncanny figure, alien to the group, standing silently, alone in the shadows.