The Uncanny: where psychology meets art

The uncanny, a Freudian term which describes an instance where something is simultaneously familiar and foreign, resulting in a feeling of discomfort. The idea of the uncanny was first identified by Ernst Jentsch in his 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, where he defines the uncanny as being a product of “intellectual uncertainty.” In 1919 Sigmund Freud published his essay, The Uncanny, in which he elaborates on the uncanny through aesthetic investigations. Freud’s aesthetic investigations on this psychological phenomenon have intrigued artists since its publication; from the Surrealists to contemporary art, artists have tried to visually represent and fabricate objects which provoke an uncanny effect.

Freud states in his essay that the uncanny lies in the realm of the frightening and evokes both fear and dread. Though the uncanny is not clearly definable, because it relies on a personal experience, Freud outlines circumstances that would be considered uncanny which are: animism, magic, sorcery, the omnipotence of thought, unintended repetition, the double or Doppelgänger, the castration complex, and instantaneous wish- fulfillment. Even though each of these categories may seem disparate, Freud connects them through the definition of the German word unheimlich, (the equivalent to the English word uncanny) which, “applies to everything that was intended to remain secret, hidden away, and has come into the open.” These categories of the uncanny are things that provoke a suppressed primordial fear within us when we unexpectedly encounter them, resulting in an intellectual uncertainty that causes a great sense of repulsion and distress.

In 2004 artist Mike Kelley curated an exhibition, The Uncanny at the Tate Liverpool which explored, “memory, recollection, horror and anxiety through the juxtaposition of a highly personal collection of objects with realist figurative sculpture.” The works within the show indubitably provoke an uncanny effect within the viewer through the use of scale, materials, and color; they are at the same time distressing and repulsive as they are fascinating and alluring. Below are selected works from the 2004 exhibition, where you can see how each artist has addressed the concept of the uncanny, fabricating an aesthetic experience of it.

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Sarah Lucas, Pauline Bunny, 1997, tights, plywood chair, clamp, kapok stuffing with wire

 

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Herbert List, Operation des Schielens (Surgery for Squint), 1944/46, photograph

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Herbert List, Trepanation, 1944/99, photograph

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Robert Gober, Untitled, 1989-92, wood, wax, leather, cotton, and human hair

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Hans Bellmer, La Bouche, 1935, Photograph

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Hans Bellmer, Adjustable Doll Second Version, 1935

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Paul McCarthy, Garden Dead Men, 1992-4, Latex rubber, foam rubber, wig, clothing and tables

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Edward Kienholz, The Illegal Operation, 1962

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Kristian Burford, 2002-3, mixed media

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Bruce Nauman, Rinde Head/Andrew Head (Plug to Nose) on Wax Base, 1989, wax

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Salvador Dalí, Buste de Femme Rétrospectif 1977 edition of 1933 work, bronze

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Dennis Oppenheim, Attempt to Raise Hell, 1974

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Dean Barrett, Tied Up, 1983, Fiberglass, wood, acrylic, rope, glass eyes, and false teeth

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Ron Mueck, Ghost, 1998, fiberglass, silicon, polyurethane foam, acrylic fiber, and fabric

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Christiana Gildden, Death of a Replicant, 1998, silicon, fabric, foam, wig, beads, sequins, and plastic

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Gavin Turk, Death of Che, 2000, waxwork and mixed media

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Dieter Roth, Portrait of the Artist as Bird-Seed Bust, 1968

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Bruce Nauman, From Hand to Mouth, 1967, wax over cloth

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Marc Quinn, No Visible Means of Escape IV, 1996, rubber

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Keith Edmier, Beverly Edmier 1967, 1998, mixed media

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #261, 1992

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Nayland Blake, Magic, 1990-91, mixed media with puppet and armature

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Paul Thek, Untitled, 1966, wax, bronze, formica, and plexiglass

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Bryan Crockett, Pinky, 2001, cultured marble

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John Issacs, Untitled (Monkey) 1995, wax, hair, glass, metal, and plastic

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Damien Hirst, The Prodigal Son, 1994, steel, glass, calf, and formaldehyde

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2 comments on “The Uncanny: where psychology meets art

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