"The Isle of Dead"

The Uncanny

In recent years, one of the central themes of my art has been the investigation of my inner self beyond the confines of social norms and how one ought to fit into society. This quest, in a way, may possibly be seen as a search for my Freudian Id, an untamed childlike self or uncivilized and unrestrained savage desires.

For some people, the act of searching for one’s Id would conjure up the image of the biblical tale of Genesis, in which Adam eats the fruit of knowledge after being lured by a serpent. As a result, Adam, together with Eve, was removed by God from the Garden of Eden, the paradise. Consequently, they, that is to say, we, have been forced to live by means of agriculture ever since. Despite the apparent message embedded in this tale, which represents human folly pertaining to unwarranted curiosity and barbaric human desires, these qualities are nonetheless what makes us human, with the repressed memory of the lost paradise.

This self-reflective journey has been motivated by my aspiration to discover the uniqueness of my individuality, which may have been buried in the layers of social conventions and collective consciousness that are prone to groupthink. Having explored various themes found in the terrain of psychology through my art practice, such as fetish, dream, childhood memory, eroticism, and death drive, a realisation has come to me recently that all the subjects pertinent to psychology, which my art has hitherto dealt with, are, in many ways, relevant to the word ‘uncanny.’

The uncanny has a history as a discourse. A German Psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch was the first writer to recognize the state of the uncanny, which is captured in his publication On the Psychology of the Uncanny. In it, the German doctor refers to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sand-Man”, which features a life-like doll called Olympia. Subsequently, Sigmund Freud elaborated on the concept of the uncanny in his essay literally titled Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny). The fact that those writers and psychoanalysts have dealt with this subject self-evidently illustrates the fact that the word has been an area of fascination for many theorists alike in the realm of psychology and increasingly cultural studies in recent years as well.

This is presumably due to the semantically confusing and obscure nature of the word. The Freudian concept of the uncanny shows that if a situation is familiar yet foreign at the same time, this dichotomy results in the feeling of being uneasy or unsettling. As the uncanny pertains to the feeling of being familiar yet partly foreign at the same time, it often causes cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject. It is precisely due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to but repulsed by an object at the same time, which causes the palpably contrasting yet profound sensation, like the one experienced when one is trapped in a toxic love relationship that supplies abundant sexual pleasure and lustful fantasies.

The uncanny can be felt in many different ways. The uncanny involves the feeling of uncertainty, in particular, regarding an ungraspable reality of who is and what is being experienced. It is the peculiar combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, which could perhaps be experienced, when, for example, a form of something familiar unexpectedly appears in a strange and unfamiliar context, or conversely, something strange and unfamiliar emerges unexpectedly within a familiar context, reminiscent of something akin to deja vu. Or, the uncanny can be experienced in response to dolls and other lifelike objects, which may conjure up our childhood memories of being convinced that dolls are alive. It pertains to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Sand-Man” or the fact that children cannot quite distinguish the real and the unreal, hence they often believe, and sometimes absolutely, that his or her favourite teddy bear is alive. Uncanny matters can be even something as gruesome and sinister as death, corpses, cannibalism, live burial, the return of the dead, and so on. Simultaneously, however, it can also be a matter of something peculiarly beautiful, bordering on ecstasy and eerie matters simultaneously. The image of Ophelia depicted by John Everett Millais may come to the minds of some readers. Ophelia is a character in Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet; a potential wife of Prince Hamlet, a young beautiful woman of the Danish nobility that drowns in a brook after being grief-stricken over her father’s death brought by her lover Hamlet. John Everett Millais rendered the somewhat ethereal image of the pale women whose beautiful porcelain face floats in the water. Her slightly opened mouth gives an impression that her Geist(spirit) has just left her body.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Image: John Everett Millais. (1851-2).Ophelia. Tate Gallery, London.

At some level, the feeling of the uncanny may be bound up with the most extreme nostalgia. This can be seen quintessentially, for instance, in the film Blue Velvet directed by David Lynch. In one scene where the character played by Denis Hopper pulls out an inhaler in front of a prostitute, and as he inhales and his breath deepens while covering his mouth with the inhaler, he becomes aroused and starts murmuring “mammy, mammy.” However, as the woman puts a handkerchief into his mouth, the cloth rapidly calms him down. Supposedly, the smell of the handkerchief reminds him of his childhood and brings him from the obnoxious state of arousal back to the muted state of sanity.

Another aspect of the uncanny is that the state of being uncanny is never far from something comical. Humour, irony and laughter all have somewhat a deceptive role in thinking about this topic. For instance, one may ask, “can beauty be found in a palpably abject situation or in the state of absurdity?” The question as such is, in a way, utterly deplorable in that the enquiry is tautologically nonsensical. And yet, with a slight sense of humour, at once, it turns into something tolerable, and even a genuine enquiry of a serious aesthetic matter.

Such perplexing connotations of the word ‘uncanny’ perhaps remain as the source of inspiration for many artists and filmmakers. In my case too, the visible trace of exploring and grappling with the theme embodies the aesthetic energy that my work may perhaps emanate. The mystery of the word could bring an artist a frightening realisation that the pursuit of own sense of aesthetics might possibly diverge from the pursuit of, for example, Plato’s idealized beauty, to something else, morphing into that which is latent in the bewildering feelings of the uncanny. For instance, such words as, grotesque, queer, and supernatural are often associated with the dissonant aura of the uncanny, which may be identifiable in some of my paintings. Yet my challenge is to create ecstatically beautiful and seductive painterly images that both repulse and gravitate viewers concurrently.

Moreover, this appears to be one type of the aesthetic experience that has been explored and revisited time and time again in the context of contemporary art, and probably not only in fine art, but also the areas of literature, music and cinematography. This frightening beauty: a twisted sense of aesthetics, as it were, is a unique characteristic of art often favourably received by audiences in modern and contemporary art, and perhaps a manifestation of our repressed craving for the unknown, mystical and paradisiacal, rooted in the long forgotten memory of the paradise lost.



Freud, Sigmund. (1919). Das Unheimliche
Hoffmann, E.T.A. (1817). The Sand-Man
Jentsch, Ernst. (1906). On the Psychology of the Uncanny
Millais, John Everett. (1851-2). Ophelia. Tate Gallery, London.
Milton, John. (1674). Paradise Lost.
The Old Testament. Genesis 2:4-3:24.

To see my artwork, please visit www.masakiyada.org

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