BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

The Uncanny

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 05 MAY 04

Mike Kelley's contribution to Sonsbeek '93, 'The Uncanny' - an exhibition within an exhibition - has since attained almost mythical status. Many know it only through the book, which sold out long ago, so its return in updated form 11 years on, in Liverpool rather than Arnheim, is itself a little uncanny.

The book's essay, 'Playing with Dead Things', accompanied by a long and extraordinary photo-essay, is the artist's most ambitious to date. Like the best writings of Dan Graham and Robert Smithson, it is a remarkable piece of cultural synthesis that makes most academic writing on art seem pale, confined and reiterative. Without the essay the exhibition is just half the story.

Taking its cue from the resurgence of figurative sculpture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and from Sigmund Freud's essay 'The Uncanny' (1919), the exhibition brings together mannequin-related art works, mostly from the 1960s onwards, with objects from disparate cultural contexts that engender a similar sense of unease in the viewer: medical dolls, anatomical waxworks, religious statues, pagan figurines, ventriloquists' dummies, sex dolls, taxidermy and so on. These are joined by photographs that illustrate objects and art works that couldn't be loaned (Francisco de Goya's Straw Dummy from 1791-2 or Oskar Kokoschka's life-size fetish doll that acted as his mistress), that document bizarre incidents ('an accidental suicide during auto-erotic stimulation') or that have an impact as physically intense as the sculpture (Hans Bellmer's Poupée from 1935, and Cindy Sherman's 'Sex' pictures from 1992).

The objects are virtually all human-scaled, and mostly in colour. Many are rendered in materials not traditionally associated with fine art, such as wax, while some wear actual clothes. A few move or emit a sound - Kelley uses the latter minimally to eerie effect in each gallery. According to his persuasive account, these various attributes have been repressed in the history of Western sculpture, beginning with the fallacy that Greek statues weren't coloured. A life-size three-dimensional representation of the human body that is polychromatic, perhaps made of flesh-like and ready-made materials, which might even move or talk, is too anthropomorphic for comfort, prompting an uncanny degree of identification between subject and object, 'so much so that me and it become confused'.

Kelley attributes the lifelikeness of the diverse vernacular objects in 'The Uncanny' to the fact that many once acted as doubles for actual human bodies: sexual partners (fetishistic dolls), Catholic saints (religious statues), film actors (stand-ins used in violent scenes), dissected corpses (anatomical wax models) and servants who would otherwise have been put to death in order to wait on an important person in the afterlife (Egyptian figurines and the 'terracotta army'). As such, they dimly recall taboos that have been individually or collectively repressed: perversion, idolatry, grizzly violence, human sacrifice, mortality in general and the Oedipal drama. Hence our discomfort.

Shorn of their original functions and contexts by being brought together in large numbers in white spaces, the objects took on a creepy ambiguity and equivalence. At the same time, as a congregation, they transformed the site. Instead of feeling we were in a modern art gallery, it seemed we'd stumbled upon an amalgamation of a horror film set, an 18th-century anatomy lesson, a hideous crime scene and an occultist tableau. One room, for instance - featuring a Paul Thek decomposed limb, a Damien Hirst taxidermy, a film of Marcel Broodthaers interviewing Jeremy Bentham's stuffed corpse and, most disturbingly of all, several wax models of pox-ridden female pelvises - resembled a serial killer's lair.

The climax of the exhibition was reserved for the final gallery, a space approaching the size of a football pitch, filled with some 60 life-size figures. Most of those at the back of the gallery were prone, seemingly asleep or dead, while those nearest the entrance were on their feet and relatively unencumbered by plinths. The darkly comic effect was of a population of zombies in varying degrees of re-animation, the front line consisting of the most 'undead'.

In this way Kelley made an otherwise innocuous church statue of a Madonna and Child and a Duane Hanson of three American football players seem as zombiefied as Dean Barrett's more obviously ghoulish Tied Up (1983), Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker (1997) and the unauthored Warhol Robot (1981-2).

One of the four rooms of the exhibition seemed anomalous. Resembling a hobbyist's den, the walls were covered in church banners, of the kind Kelley parodied in the late 1980s, while other categories of objects were densely displayed in picture frames, vitrines or in the manner of slide shows on monitors. The 'Harems', as Kelley calls them, were 15 of his own collections, ranging from fossils and marbles collected as a young child to album covers, pornography, college flyers and coat hangers used to break into cars. Some, such as his 535 comic books, were obviously collected with passion, while others were accumulated for research purposes, and some were obviously arbitrary (Harem #9: 47 ordinary household spoons). Together they stood for the impulse to collect and organize, which in psychoanalytic terms is a repetitive compulsion and, to Freud, a form of behaviour that is itself uncanny. Their inclusion, by implication, made the rest of the exhibition a 16th 'Harem', prompting the pseudo-biographical and self-reflective suggestion that 'The Uncanny' is a symptom of repressed trauma on Mike Kelley's part, instead of the breathtaking curatorial act we know it to be.