From “Playing With Dead Things: On the Uncanny” by Mike Kelley

3 Jan

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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”3. It is this ambiguity that I have attempted to give my own sculptures in Attic Basement Garage, which this essay accompanies.

“It is important to me, first of all, that the objects displayed maintain their physical presence, that they hold their own power in relation to the viewer. I decided, therefore, to exclude miniatures–smaller than life-size statues, dolls, toys, figurines, and the like–from the exhibition. Generally, I believe that small figurative objects invite the viewer to project onto them. By this, I mean that the viewer gets lost in these objects, and that in the process of projecting mental scenarios onto them they lose sense of themselves physically. The experience of playing with dolls is a case in point. The doll becomes simply an object to provoke daydreams, and its objecthood fades into the background. Once the fantasy is operating, it could be replaced by any other object. On the other hand, I am interested in objects with which the viewer empathizes in a human way–though only as long as the viewer, and the object viewed, maintain their sense of being there physically.”

(p. 75)

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“The disposability of the venerated substitute has modern correlatives […] Then there are whole classes of figures designed specifically to be destroyed in use: car-crash dummies, the effigies of hated political figures hung and burned at demonstrations, the mannequins that people the perimeters of nuclear test sites, and the electrified human decoys recently used in India to shock man-eating tigers into losing their taste for human flesh. In a way, all these figures ask to be mistreated. The iconoclast, the one who feels compelled to destroy images, knows: statues invite violence. Like the vampire, they desire a violent death to relieve them of the viewer-projected pathos of their pseudo-life.”

(p. 90)

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