A recurring topic in the psychoanalytic literature, the Uncanny, has long been subject to an irresistible fascination within the art world – thus becoming a “curatorial leitmotif” for museums and galleries worldwide. Despite its cultural centrality and significance, however, the idea has rarely been examined with regard to the photographic medium.
Parasol unit bridges this gap with Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny In Contemporary Photography, a group show that brings together works devised over the past four decades by Sonja Braas, David Claerbout, Elger Esser, Julie Monaco, Jörg Sasse, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. Deriving its title from Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography, in which the Czech author elaborates on the “magical power of images”, the exhibition finds its conceptual and aesthetic premise in Romantic Idealism (German philosopher Friedrich Schelling was among the first to write of ’das Unheimlich’/the Uncanny) and in Freudian psychoanalysis, defining that which is uncanny as something that appears familiar, and yet also oddly unfamiliar, to its beholder.
It is this very ambiguity, this cognitive dissonance, that serves as the common thread binding the twenty-four artworks on display: whether achieved through image manipulation that blurs the line between reality and fantasy, such as in the work of Sonja Braas, Elger Esser, Julie Monaco and Jörg Sasse, through the juxtaposition of contrasting elements giving the composition a dreamlike quality (Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld) or, again, through the assemblage of different timelines, analogue and digital, document and fiction (David Claerbout) – an undeniable sense of unease and dislocation permeates this one-of-a-kind exhibition.
Magical Surfaces is curated by Ziba Ardalan, founder/director of Parasol unit, who kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions
When did you become interested in the “uncanny”?
The “uncanny” is part of life. I was certainly aware of the concept in my adult life, although since the 1980s, its presence has been felt more in life and art.
And how did the exhibition come together?
Although by definition photography incorporates the concept of the uncanny – presenting reality (familiar), and yet manipulating it and thus allowing for the unfamiliar to happen – I do not recall contemporary photography being made the focus of such a show on the subject of the uncanny. Other art forms have been explored within this concept however. I was waiting for an institution devoted to photography to do this exhibition, but finally decided we will do it at Parasol unit. After all, the foundation often does out of the box exhibitions.
What were the inspirations behind the show?
So many..... the book written by Vilem Flusser Towards a philosophy of Photography, which describes the image/surface as magical; Sigmund Freud’s remarkable essay on the Uncanny; the book The Ground of the Image by Jean-Luc Nancy. There is a fascinating array of works out there to be inspired by.
Magical Surfaces brings together seven artists, each with a very distinctive approach to the theme of the exhibition. If we had to divide them into two groups, I would distinguish between a Romantic group, if you like, in whose work the line between reality and fiction is eerily indistinct and the uncanny almost transfigures into the sublime through the use of either digital or analogue manipulation – a group that includes Elger Esser, Sonja Brass, Julie Monaco and Jörg Sasse – and one formed by Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, whose works, in my view, maintain what we may call an unmistakable documentary intent. I am probably oversimplifying, but would you agree with this repartition?
Absolutely, and again the concept of the “sublime” is another special field which has been well investigated, but like the uncanny, it defies to be pinned down. The German artists in the Magical Surfaces exhibition have of course been influenced by the Romantic tradition, because of Caspar David Friedrich, but also much more with Goethe and Beethoven and so many other Romantics.
David Claerbout deserves a specific mention, as, to me, he doesn’t really fit either group; what do you think?
You are correct. However, he is closer to Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. He is indeed unique in the way he creates the sense of the uncanny.
Which of the works on display, if I may ask, has the uncanniest appeal to you?
Wow, I usually never make such statements. But they all have something special, depending on our point of view. We are each affected differently by the nature of the uncanny as well as its intensity.
As a last question, what’s next for Parasol unit?
A solo exhibition of work by Bangladeshi-born, London-based artist Rana Begum, her first major institutional UK show, will open on 29 June 2016 and should be very beautiful. Following that on 1 October 2016, we will present a long awaited exhibition of works from the 80s and 90s by Robert Therrien. Really very few people know of these amazingly intelligent, simple-looking, yet sophisticated works by the American artist.
Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography will be on display until 19th June at Parasol unit, 14 wharf Road, London N1 7RW
Words by Jacopo Nuvolari @jacopo982