The Uncanny in Art

Robert Gober Untitled Leg

In 1919, Sigmund Freud published his essay “Das Unheimliche. The German word “unheimlich” generally refers to feelings of unease and discomfort, utilizing the German root “un-heim” or “not-home”. In the essay, Freud explored the uneasiness associated with dolls and wax figurines. According to Freud’s analysis, this uncanny eeriness is due to elements of strangeness and confusion permeating the ordinary. When individuals are subjected to these images and figurines, they are consumed with feelings of intrigue, fear, and revulsion.

 

Since Freud’s essay, many theorists have analyzed the concept of the uncanny. For example, roboticist Masahiro Mori explored the “uncanny valley” in the 1970s. When creating robots, Mori noticed that audiences were more disturbed by the more human-like his creations became.

Cadeau, 1921, Man Ray
Cadeau, 1921, Man Ray

His essay hypothesized that an individual’s reaction to a robot would shift from understanding to revulsion if the robot was approaching a humanlike appearance, but failed to attain a lifelike appearance. These reactions are simplified in a graph created by Mori, coined the Uncanny Valley.

 

In artwork, the concept of the uncanny can be felt in works that strive for realistic qualities, but aspects of the work feel “off”. Something in the familiar object or face is not quite there. This can be seen in many artworks of the Surrealist movement, as Surrealists find art in the strangeness and eeriness of the human experience.

For example, American surrealist Man Ray’s Cadeau (1921) features a household iron with fourteen thumb tacks attached to its sole. When observing the sculpture, a domestic object that is typically associated with comfort, work, and mundane life is given a sinister and unexpected deviation. The familiar iron is combined with objects of pain and sadism, eliciting feelings of disturbance and unease.

Oppenheim
Oppenheim

In 1936, German-born Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim was seated at a Parisian cafe with Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar. Picasso remarked that any object could be covered in luxurious fur, like Oppenheim’s bracelet adorned in fur and metal. Later, Oppenheim would step into a department store and buy a porcelain teacup, saucer, and spoon. Inspired by Picasso’s playful jest, Oppenheim began to wrap the dishes in Chinese gazelle fur, creating a surrealist sculpture that is equally uncanny and erotic, a social commentary on women’s sexuality triumphing over domestic expectations. Viewers of the teacup are disturbed and intrigued by its absurd qualities, imagining sipping tea from a fur-lined cup and stirring in sugar with a furry spoon.

The uncanny can also be felt in photography. Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer used life-sized female mannequins and dolls to create uncanny photographs. The positions and bodies of the dolls are almost but not quite human, as Bellmer explores the distortion of the human body by adding and replacing limbs and creating mask-like faces for the dolls. The result of Bellmer’s contortion and manipulation is an uncanny body that disturbs and invokes curiosity.

The Doll, 1936, Hans Bellmer
The Doll, 1936, Hans Bellmer
Mori
Mori's Uncanny Valley

In 2015, an anonymous Tumblr user and photography student became intrigued by forgotten photography of the past, leading to the creation of the blog cursed images.tumblr.com. The first image posted to the blog features an elderly man standing in a dark basement, surrounded by boxes of tomatoes. When interviewed by Paper Magazine, the anonymous Tumblr user said, “It’s the perfect cursed image to me because there’s nothing inherently unsettling about any part of it. It’s a totally mundane moment transformed into something else by the camera and the new context I’ve given it.” The subsequent photographs posted on the blog evoked similar uncanny feelings, with the blog being composed of spontaneous and amateur photographs whose contexts are unimaginable. These so-called cursed images flooded social media during this time, attempting to curse viewers with their uncanny and eerie ambiences.

 

The uncanny evokes emotions that carry us out of our comfort zones. Uncanny artwork executes the unthinkable, the unimaginable, and the unexpected, making them perfect mediums to explore our fears and disturbances.

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