Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: 'The Uncanny' at the Freud Museum, 30th October 2019

Sigmund Freud's 1919 paper Das Unheimliche / The Uncanny seeks to define that stomach-churning feeling when you encounter something that's just not quite right. His prime examples are dolls and waxworks: objects that have a human form yet lack an animated spark. 

It's an argument that's found new relevance in the modern world with the concept of the 'uncanny valley'. I experienced this recently in Tokyo's Miraikan technology museum, where I encountered a disturbingly realistic 'gynoid'. It (she?) has realistic latex flesh over a metal endoskeleton, with every skin pore and eyelash precisely placed to create the illusion of life. But our brains are too well-trained, and staring into her glassy eyes made me feel like I was looking at an animated corpse. It gave me the willies.

Said willies are at the heart of the Freud Museum's new exhibition, The Uncanny: A Centenary. Within the famous psychoanalyst's former London home a group of artists and writers have created a number of new artworks that attempt to get under the skin of the uncanny. The goal is to pin down precisely what feeling 'uncanny' is, and how to differentiate it from simply being afraid.

Something Looming Large (Yet Not Quite Here)
Artists and writers Martha Todd, Lili Spain, Karolina Urbaniak & Martin Bladh and Elizabeth Dearnley* have thrown themselves at the question. My favourite piece was in the centre of the gallery: Lili Spain's Something Looming Large (Yet Not Quite Here). This was a waxy bust sat in the middle of what looked like chewed up bits of dried meat. The caption reads:
"He sat in a corner hunched over a tiny antique sewing machine, unaware that she had woken to find him feeding it with his spindly fingers. As she watched out of sigh, a stream of human hair, cat fur and wax spilled out of the machine forming an arch in the wall. It occurred to her that the machine was familiar. It had been a gift from her mother, which had sat proudly on her bedroom mantlepiece. "Save me", it whispered, "and I'll save you"."
Paging Doctor Fr.. oh wait, no need. There's something about the not-quite-fleshiness of the materials that captures the uncanny - a body horror queasiness of malleable, oozing human that resists any single form. It's awesome. And disgusting.

But the best thing about the exhibition is Elizabeth Dearnley's The Sandman: an audio trail that leads you around the Freud Museum as you hear the disturbing and sad story of a boy called Nathaniel. He grew up in this house, with every ornament, photograph and fitting pregnant with memories - not all of them happy ones.

I love audio pieces like this as they make you into a silent participant in the story. Rather than simply absorbing a narrative it's as if the character is whispering it directly to you. The Sandman makes you feel connected with both character and place, with the trail placing you in his shoes. 

Nathaniel's memories become your own, and ordinary actions like peering into a mirror take on an unnerving new feeling. Ordinarily, you wouldn't sense the uncanny quite so strongly when examining your own reflection, but the vivid writing and performance can't help but send a shiver up your spine.

Dearnley also successfully fights an uphill battle with these surroundings. Despite the Freud Museum being full of objectively creepy things like ancient relics, old masks and photos of children now long dead of old age, it's an open, warm and homely environment. 

So it's to her credit that she zeroes in on ways to make you uncomfortable within it: asking you to examine the cruel curled lip of an Egyptian mask or stare on at a gallery of former lovers while picturing a battlefield corpse with pecked out eyes.

I won't spoil the particulars, but the finale is an 'immersive' room that fully draws you into the story, bringing Nathaniel's buried past rushing back up to the surface. It's bathed in the cool glow of ultraviolet light, giving white furnishings a supernatural quality. 

There are also a series of two-way mirrors designed to transform the observers face into a blank mask and a Matryoshka doll style miniature-room-within-a-room diorama. It's creepy stuff, especially if you're lucky enough to spend time in here on your own.

The Freud Museum is worth a visit any time of year but this particular exhibition really knocks it out of the park. Full credit to all the artists involved. 

The Uncanny: A Centenary runs until 9th February 2020. Information here.

*(Full disclosure: I know Elizabeth Dearnley personally, but am being objective!)

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