The Uncanny (2017)
Perfomative reading of an essay about the doppelganger and the uncanny. Written by Esmée, read aloud by Sarah. Duration approximately 7 minutes.
Mike Kelley – The Uncanny, Playing with dead things
Esmée van den Akker
With some people, you wish you heard of them before they passed away. To me, Mike Kelley is such a person. However, I feel in a way it is quite nice that of all artists I admire it is Kelley who I learned of because of his death; being, in a way, more alive in my world while his body has become lifeless. For this positioning, I have used an essay by Kelley called “Playing with dead things”. The essay is the start of his book “The Uncanny”, which presents an overview of his eponymous exhibition in 1993. I will provide a summary of this essay and then look into it more closely, bringing in examples of my own work to push back some of the things Kelley states.
The uncanny is a physical sensation, provoked by a disturbing unrecallable memory. It is ‘creepy’, ‘weird’, and ‘spine tingling’. According to E. Jentsch, the uncanny is about having doubts whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate. Things which produce this feeling are, for example, wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automations and also the body as puppet under control of some outside force (epilepsy, insanity). In the exhibition Post Human in 1992, the curator spoke of some sort of Modernist version of a technological utopia, where man can construct the new self that one wants through technical manipulation.
Kelley states the importance of objects maintaining their physical presence, meaning in this case excluding miniatures. Miniatures become objects just to provoke daydreams, whereas larger objects can be empathised with by the viewer as being human, as being alive.
The 19th century mannequins were extremely realistic, including human hair; just like the ancient Greek sculptures were in fact coloured in their days. The classical Greek sculpture being uncoloured is a neo-classical misconception, where coloured sculptures were seen as a cheap and false version of the true; as kitsch.
According to Kelley, art is creation in response to lack. This means an artist felt something was missing and created the work of art to fill this ‘whole’. This makes art a fetish object. Belmer saw the body as an anagram, meaning you can randomly adjust all the parts and pieces. The meaning would change but in essence it remains the same thing. Freud called this ‘anatomical transgression’.
With his readymades, Duchamp does the seemingly impossible; he sculpts a sculpture from its true material. But, now that these objects are art, the objects refuse to stay themselves. They become their own doppelganger.
Kelley says the first statue must have been the first corps; it was the first object that the aura of life clung to. This means his definition of a statue is ‘an object that the aura of life clings to’. To those who hold on to an essential notion of the human body, the corps cannot be separated from the life that once occupied it; to others, the corps is just another material.
At the end of the text, a new definition of the uncanny is given. The once-familiar thing is an infantile narcissism in the child where it projects its thoughts onto others; others are its double. This is assurance of immortality. But when the infantile stage is left behind, the double changes into a sign of egolessness – death. The uncanny is an anxiety for that which recurs.
While reading Kelley, something struck me. He always speaks of the double, the doppelganger or empathising with larger objects as if they were animate, but he does not once mention the self-portrait in art. I first choose Kelley as a source because of his adding of an uncanny aspect to the doubling of oneself. But now, rereading his essay a few weeks later, I realise he meant something else. He describes the double as either an extension or a copy of the self, which has, according to Kelley, an uncanny starting point.
I do see his point. However, when looking at my own work I see some things that are in contradiction with this. In the past few years I have made several ‘suits’. These are sculptures I can wear and put on in video performances. They function as a second skin, hiding or transforming the person wearing them; in this case, me. More recently I worked on a totem made from the letters of the world einzelgänger (someone who ‘goes’ alone), and columns that have no actual supporting function but blend in with the building nonetheless. Recently I discovered all these works are, even though in an unrecognisable way, self-portraits. With this I mean that these sculptures and suits are images of me; not my physique or my appearance, but how and where I see or feel myself now at this present moment. However, I don’t feel like these self-portraits are dead or uncanny. This made me wonder if what I describe as a self-portrait, could be what Kelley means when the talks about the doubling of oneself. Because is a self-portrait not in a way a copy of the artist, just like a double is also a copy of the ‘initiator?’
To me, Kelley’s double starts to be problematic when he states that “art is creation in response to lack”1. This would mean that (all) artists feel like they are missing something, and then use their art to fill this hole. If you put it like this, I do understand the link that is made between art and fetish objects. According to the essay, the fetish object “is an object which does not picture what it symbolically stands for, yet it holds the same, in fact greater, power than that thing.”2 If a ‘pervert’ cannot get his object of desire, he will try to find (or create himself) a replacement; a fetish object. All the lust that was first directed at the actual object of desire but couldn’t be satisfied, is now directed at the fetish object. An object will never refuse you and the ‘pervert’ will therefore establish a very strong relationship with the object; it will always fulfil his needs. Note that I put ‘pervert’ in quotation marks, because according to Kelley, this process does not only happen with sexual connotations, but also with children and their stuffed animals, and artists and their artworks. I strongly feel this is a very short sided look on the relationship between an artist and his or her artwork. It I not so much that I disagree with Kelley, I just think he overlooked something essential. The way Kelley looks at the doubling of oneself is as stated above; as creation in response to lack. This may be true to some extent, but is definitely not true in the case of the self-portrait. A self-portrait is not merely a copy of the self, or even an extension. It can contain these two, yes. But mostly a self-portrait is holding up a mirror to yourself and the world, and to the position the artist holds in this world. It is debatable whether doing this is humble and honest, or extremely narcissistic. But where a fetish object, or a double of yourself is a substitute of something -they do not contain a life of their own; they are dead-, a self-portrait overcomes this state of mimicking. I realise this sounds contradictory, for a self-portrait mimics your self. But it does this with a different purpose. The line between a double and a self-portrait is thin and the area is grey. I will now offer you a proposition:
The double mimics with purpose of fulfilling a hole. The self-portrait mimics with the purpose of reflection. I guess you can say the following; a double is dead, it has no life of its own. A self-portrait does not come from a lack but from a desire to observe and improve; it is the starting point for change; for something alive.
1 Kelley, M. Playing with dead things in The Uncanny, Arnhem, Sonsbeek 93, p. 7
2 Idem, p. 16