The Abject, the Grotesque and the Uncanny; an excerpt

A continuation from my previous post, The Gothic House.

This was all so strange and uncanny that a dreadful fear came upon me.”
— The character of Jonathan Harker from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.

Any analysis of the term ‘gothic’ will inevitably conjure its related terminologies: the ‘abject’, the ‘grotesque’, and the ‘uncanny’. By its very nature, the Gothic contains elements of each of these terms, although it maintains a separate and very distinct character. All three of these terms find a varying degree of expression within my Disobedient Dollhouse. The first term ‘the abject’ was coined by the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her seminal essay entitled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Abjection is primarily concerned with societal taboos surrounding the materiality of the body, and the horror that arises from exposure to bodily excretions such as blood, pus and feces. For example, the horror associated with blood is a central theme to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the classic Victorian Gothic novel in which the legend of the vampire is powerfully invoked. In Powers of Horror, Kristeva classifies the corpse as representing the utmost in abjection: “[The corpse] is death infecting life. […] Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.” When confronted with a corpse, we are forced to address our own mortality and the inevitable corruption of our own bodies.

Fig. #5 - Lithograph from "The Disobedient Dollhouse", Jennifer Linton, mixed media installation, 2009-10.

The abject is clearly present within my Disobedient Dollhouse. A group of dead mice hang by their tails inside a kitchen cabinet, presumably providing a food source for the other inhabitants of the Dollhouse. A sinister bird-headed woman stands before the cabinet, clutching the tiny, skeletal remains of a rodent-like creature (fig. #5) While this scene does not contain any signs of blood or viscera, these small rodent corpses offer the presence of violent death, thus contributing to an atmosphere of abject horror within this Victorian-style dollhouse kitchen. Although animal and not human, these tiny corpses nevertheless serve as potent reminders of our own eventual demise.

While elements of abjection are undeniable within my Dollhouse, the second terminology related to the Gothic – the term ‘grotesque’ – has played a significantly greater role in the development of my imagery for this project. The term ‘grotesque’ originated in the ancient Roman period and relates to fanciful, decorative flourishes in art and architecture. Grotesque art involves the fantastic, ugly and bizarre, and its subjects are frequently mythological creatures and other strange, physically malformed monsters. The bizarre, anthropomorphic creatures that populate Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a primary example of ‘the grotesque’ in literature. Carroll’s novel has also proved a valuable source of inspiration for the fantastic hybrid creatures that inhabit my Disobedient Dollhouse. In fact, the only human figure that appears in my Dollhouse is a character loosely based on Carroll’s Alice. This character – ostensibly a self-portrait as I served as the model – appears twice, once as the beleaguered ‘nanny’ in the nursery, and again as the ‘cook’ in the kitchen. The ‘nanny’, gazing down with quiet stoicism at the squawking bird-infant cradled in her arms, was based upon a

Fig. #6. John Tenniel. Illustration for Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland", 1865, wood engraving.

19th century illustration for Carroll’s novel by John Tenniel depicting Alice holding a bonneted baby pig (fig. #6). The monstrous brood housed inside my nursery – heads tilted up with beaks wide open, their arms thrust outwards in a gesture of relentless, constant need – represent every parent’s nightmare of unending responsibility. The parental anxiety symbolized by this scene has been tempered, however, by an element of the absurd. Much like the ridiculously grotesque image of the bonneted pig held by Alice, my bird-headed children are designed to elicit equal measures of pathos, humour and horror. My nursery most assuredly conveys parental anxiety, but it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Grotesque art revels in the absurd, championing a fantasy world of the irrational over the rigid strictures of realism. One tactic employed by Lewis Carroll to create the ‘grotesque’ in Alice was his effective play with scale, a scheme that underscored the absurdity of his Wonderland. Alice experiences a succession of physical transformations when, enticed by the label on a mysterious bottle that reads ‘DRINK ME’, she consumes its contents only to magically shrink in size:

“It was all very well to say ‘Drink me,’ but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. ‘No, I’ll look first,’ she said, ‘and see whether it’s marked “poison” or not’… […] However, this bottle was not marked ‘poison,’ so Alice ventured to taste it, and […] she very soon finished it off. ‘What a curious feeling!’ said Alice; ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope.’ And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden.”

After her initial transformation, Alice consumes a cake labeled ‘EAT ME’ and shoots upwards in the opposite direction, growing large so suddenly that she becomes trapped within the house.

As the sudden alteration of a person’s size is impossible without the intervention of magic, this change in scale is both fantastic and absurd in nature. Alice’s transformation from miniature to gigantic in Carroll’s novel provides clear evidence of the absurd, even comical, possibilities of this play with scale. This does not, however, necessarily apply to an object. The miniature furniture contained within a dollhouse, for instance, does not appear absurd or grotesque due to its strict adherence to a standard scale. In fact, the adherence to scale is one of the most fundamental principles of any dollhouse. Any object within this miniature world that deviates from the standard scale appears strangely incongruous in relation to its surroundings. Susan Stewart, in her analysis of the dollhouse, quotes the author Arthur Benson from his introduction to The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House:

“The scale of one inch to one foot being precisely maintained throughout…thus there is nothing of the grotesque absurdity of a scene that does not resemble life and has only the interest of caricature.”

The accuracy of scale within a dollhouse creates a sense of realism. Hence, when a deviation from scale occurs, the illusion of reality is severely comprised.
Similar to Carroll, I have adopted elements of ‘the grotesque’ in my Disobedient Dollhouse by playing with the scale of objects. In fact, several deviations in scale exist.  In the kitchen, in the guise of the household cook, I attempt to wield a gigantic eggbeater that stands as tall as my miniature self (fig. #7).  The exaggerated difference in size – plus the fact that, undaunted, I continue to struggle with the giant kitchen utensil – heightens the grotesque absurdity of this scene.

Fig. #7 - Lithograph from "The Disobedient Dollhouse", Jennifer Linton, mixed media installation, 2009-10.

One creature that appears repeatedly throughout my Dollhouse is the insect. Changing the size of the insect, as well as the context in which the insect is received, is a simple gesture that invokes ‘the grotesque’. Initially, I drew these insects to actual scale from specimens found in a local museum. When placed on the walls of my Dollhouse, however, these same insects suddenly appear gigantic in relation to the miniature scale therein. This change of context – from a normal sized insect in our world to a gigantic one in the miniature world – alters the perception of these creatures from ordinary to grotesque. When these same insects are scaled up, appearing as giants that loom over the viewer within the gallery space, this encounter with the grotesque is further intensified. As the contents of the Disobedient Dollhouse emerge into the surrounding exhibition space, the viewer becomes immersed in its fantastic world – no longer a mere observer but a full participant in its alternate reality.

The repetition of the insects and change of their scale harkens back to my earlier analogy of the Russian matryoshka nesting doll – a doll within a doll, each one a slightly smaller version of the larger doll that contains it – an analogy suggestive of an almost endless replication. By playing with scale, I allude to the infinity of repeated space, an infinity that is only truly attainable in my ‘house of dreams.’

An encounter with giant insects on a gallery wall – insects made strange by the fact of their surprising scale – can be classified as an encounter with ‘the uncanny’, the third and final of the terminologies related to ‘the Gothic.’ Our present day understanding of the term ‘the uncanny’ has been largely shaped by the psychoanalytic viewpoint of Sigmund Freud’s 1919 seminal essay entitled “The Uncanny”. In his essay, Freud defines the uncanny experience as: “that class of the frightening which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” To experience something as ‘foreign, and yet familiar’ may result in feelings of discomfort and alienation. In this regard, the concept of ‘the uncanny’ is closely related to Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection – in which the human corpse can be simultaneously experienced as alien (the abject) but also felt to be strangely familiar (an individual, now deceased). Freud situated ‘the uncanny’ in the realm of the repressed: “[The uncanny] is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old – established in the mind and become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” According to the Freudian psychoanalytic model, the process of repression involves the rejection and subsequent suppression of troubling impulses and desires. The concept of repression closely relates to the suppressed ‘family secret’ frequently found within the Gothic narrative. Whereas the Gothic ‘family secret’ manifests in the guise of a vengeful ghost, repressed desire assumes the form of the uncanny person or object.

In his essay “The Uncanny,” Freud analyzes the etymology of ‘unheimlich,’ the German word for ‘uncanny.’ His analysis proposes a strong linkage of ‘the uncanny’ to the domestic setting of the home. The German term das Heimlich signifies that which feels homely, comfortable and familiar. The inversion of this term, das Unheimlich, negates this feeling of comfort and suggests an estrangement or feeling ‘not at home,’ literally ‘unhomely.’ Through the process of repression, the safe haven of the home becomes ‘self-haunted’ by ghosts of the unconscious, a phenomenon that transforms the otherwise comfortable and familiar setting into a place that feels inexorably strange.

In his catalogue essay for the exhibition Gothic mounted at the ICA Boston in 1997, curator Christoph Grunenberg reflects on the nature of the uncanny:

“The invasion of the private and secure sphere of the home by some unknown evil force exemplifies the conflict between interior and exterior world, between individual and society, and between the intra- and intersubjective. Ultimately, the uncanny describes the return of repressed events, memories, and fantasies – the encounter with one’s own most intimate fears…”

The “private and secure sphere” of the home becomes the site of internal conflict, where the repressed are stowed away in hidden rooms, behind locked doors, in attics, closets and cupboards. Ultimately resisting suppression, the repressed reemerge as the ‘uncanny’ and transform the home into a strange and frightening place.

The ‘uncanny’ appears throughout my Disobedient Dollhouse in the strange and otherworldly transformations. The bed – that most psychologically potent of symbols – literally boils over with desire and sprouts flowers from the elongated bedposts. Snakes emanate from the tousled bed sheet and slither across the floor, penetrating the wooden floorboards and sinking into the room beneath. These uncanny transformations hint at a secret world of sublimated desire, resistant to the forces of repression that are compelled to hide them away. Like the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, they periodically escape imprisonment, only to wreck havoc in the realm of the conscious.

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3 thoughts on “The Abject, the Grotesque and the Uncanny; an excerpt

  1. Pingback: Surrealism, alter-egos and private mythologies; conclusion. « Lady Lazarus: dying is an art

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