By Janette Chien
Through March 14th
Never has a show given me such feelings of dread. I remember standing behind a black velvet curtain, frozen and unwilling to step through because of the horrifying sound emitting from behind it.
Chloe Piene’s film Blackmouth was playing behind that curtain. And only with curator Kaytie Johnson’s reassurance that my eyes would adjust and everything would be alright did I step inside that room and sit down. The film is a short loop sequence, dramatically slowed-down, of a girl sprawled on all fours, splattered in mud, and howling into the night. The effect is chilling. The girl’s voice seems to enter another dimension, registering at a frequency far below the voice of a girl or even a human. I was reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s theories of the traumatic dimension of the voice as “the ultimate moment or object of anxiety which distorts reality.” In A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Zizek described the girl in The Exorcist during the key moments of her possession by a demon: “at the beginning of the film, this was a beautiful young girl. How did she become a monster that we see? By being possessed, but who possessed her? A voice. A voice in its obscene dimensions.”
Zizek went on to describe how “this not just the pathology of being possessed by ghosts…but that we ourselves are the aliens.” The traumatic dimension of the human voice is not simply “a medium for expressing the depths of human subjectivity, but the human voice as a foreign intruder.” Piene, as described above, creates incongruity between the child’s physical being and the sound emitting from her mouth, evoking this feeling of possession by an intruder. We are left with the idea that the horror of the uncanny—the sound that evokes fear and dread—comes from within us and invades us. It is both familiar and frightening.
Freud describes the uncanny as the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar. He concentrates on the semantics of the German words heimlich and unheimlich, exploring two definitions of each, arriving at the conclusion that the uncanny is a kind of unwilling, mistaken, self exposure, a kind of “return of the oppressed” Thus the most frightening aspects–that foreign intruder–emerges (often unwillingly) from within.
Perhaps only Freud could aptly articulate the sense of pleasure and dread mixing at the pit of our stomachs. As difficult as it was to take in certain parts of this exhibition, other pieces created a kind of sensory pleasure. The curator created a tableau along one wall of the exhibition with interactive pieces. On one side is Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves, whose novel’s utter lack of consistency and structure disorients the viewer and challenges our understanding of narrative and form. Perusing through the novel, I found myself almost looking for words outside of the pages, searching for the ends of sentences; the process was dizzying and disorienting. Alongside Danielewski’s book is the video game Silent Hill 2 ready for the viewer to play. The game surrounds the viewer with uncanny architecture, referencing historical events, moments in film, with an impending sense of doom and violence.
Nearby, a seemingly lighthearted Herbie Hancock video entitled Rock it, directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Crème plays on repeat. I spent a fair amount of time with Herbie Hancock video, placing the headphones over my ears and bopping along to the music, enjoying myself. The music video features mannequins, some just fragmented body parts, with metal coils as eyes upon a wigged head, bouncing up and down in time to the beat. Freud describes the opposition of animate and inanimate as one of the sources of the uncanny. As I watched these inanimate body parts become animated I laughed and smiled, and everything was fun until suddenly it wasn’t. The moment of transition from pleasure to discomfort was the realization of the uncanny. Johnson’s juxtaposition of these interactive works, as both a source of pleasure and dread, demonstrates how much the uncanny invades all aspects of our society, from literature to popular entertainment.
The uncanny does not only occur in the modern experience. In fact, artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir’s work draws from Norse mythology and Icelandic saga. In her video Inside the Core, Fridriksdottir draws from old Icelandic saga literature, which often features corporeal transformations into monstrous entities. Fridriksdottir’s video shows one scene of a group of women wrapping and burying a live body in burlap and white powder, symbolizing a kind of mummification. This moment is followed by a baker kneading dough and woman sitting on the table with her head wrapped in dough and bandages. These two scenes are linked with ideas of ritual. Burying the dead is commonplace, but the animated figure is being transformed into a suffocated mummy, a monstrous entity that exists between our understanding of a mummy (the preserved dead) and the living. The baker kneads the dough, preparing the food materials for theoretical consumption. As he kneads, the material between his hands becomes sinister as the color of the dough changes from contact with his skin. We become afraid, not of the doughy appendage or growth wrapped around the woman’s head, but of that which seeps out of the man’s hands to taint the dough. We become afraid of what will be uncovered underneath the doughy bandages of the woman’s face, what unheimlich will be revealed, or even if the dough is itself a living tissue that has become monstrous part of the skin.
Fridriksdottir’s sculptures and performative acts seem to straddle the line between human and monster, creating a sense of the uncanny because they both depict otherness as well as likeness in human qualities. This ambiguity between categories creates unease because human and monster are not so easily separated, representing the horror and wonder of unstable corporeal boundaries.
Moving further into the historical realm, Johnson also presents us with Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s photo documentation of Psychic Phenomena, and audio documentation of exorcisms and séances, which are chilling even to a non-believer. It leaves you with a sensation that even what you may perceive as a fictional monstrousness can be a terrifying reality in another person’s experience. There is no comforting way to deny its validity.
The Sky’s Gone Out is a powerful show that places the viewer in a liminal space of discomfort and dread. Even the gray gallery walls and the tinted door breaks from the viewer’s expectation of a gallery setting, therefore removing us from the familiar and comfortable. Interestingly, Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” is much more focused on the aesthetic than the psychoanalytic. Aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling. This show has certainly captured this indescribable, visceral, and unsettling sensation.