The OA – visions of afterlives, glimpses into a multiverse

Netflix’s The OA, created by Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij, is an intriguing, engrossing fantasy show centred around Prairie (played by Brit), a young vanishing woman who resurfaces 7 years after her bizarre disappearance, to the happiness and bewilderment of her adoptive parents. After her peculiar return, she refers to herself as the OA and focuses on her mission to save other captives. The OA enrols a group of school misfits and their teacher on a mystical mission, meeting them at night in an empty house in a cult-like gathering. The narrative of her unusual life and disappearance unfolds, a fragment per night, through her spellbinding storytelling. Starting from her fairy tale-like description of her Russian roots, her story features near-death experiences, travels within memories, dreams, and across parallel realities, celestial guardians, a scientist with an unrelenting obsession and thirst for knowledge, a group of special people trapped in a glass cage and bound by uncanny experiences, a soulmate connection, and transcendental ritualistic movements that open up invisible portals to different worlds.

The show takes us on an enchanting journey with striking surreal visuals, endearing characters, and evocative meditations on life, connection, identity, fear, entrapment, and freedom. Supernatural motifs are interlaced with sci-fi theories of parallel worlds, as the show stimulates our minds to contemplate the concept of multiple realities whilst grasping the design and nature of the complex OA world in rapture and being immersed into fantasy. The OA, born Nina Azarova, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, spends the first years of her childhood with her father in a lonely mansion on Russian land, where she is often plagued by vivid nightmares- some of which turn out to be premonitions. One of her foreshadowing dreams is that of being submerged in a huge aquarium, where her senses are heightened and she is drowning, unable to get out. In order to help get her rid of the nightmare, her father teaches her a lesson about bravery, taking her to a frozen lake where she submerges her body into the ice-cold water, to conquer her fear. Water is an evocative element in the story, connected to memories, dreams, and visions; it’s also a way through which parallel worlds echo each other. It evokes the fluidity of passing through worlds, through selves. Water also symbolises duality – creation and apocalypse, death and rebirth. This is relevant to the series- there are many striking scenes in which water is associated with the sinister, with something beautiful, as well as with the uncanny. Nina’s underwater dream prepares her for the traumatic turning point in her life, her near-death experience, that propels her into a celestial plane of existence. She awakens in a surreal diaphanous setting, where she meets the archetypal wise old woman for the first time- the one associated with choices, sacrifice, and cryptic discourses about the OA’s life trajectory. Nina wakes up blind and a series of events quickly follows- she is relocated to America, her father dies, she is adopted by the elderly couple. Many years later, unconvinced that her biological father is dead, Nina, now known as Prairie, spends her days playing the beautifully transfixing violin song from her childhood in a place where she thinks he might hear it, in hopes of a reunion. “The biggest mistake I made was thinking that if I cast a beautiful net I’d catch only beautiful things.”, she says. Instead of her father, another man is lured by her tune- her captor, Hap, whom she initially views as a father figure, as being “strong, smart, uncompromised”, following him blindly right into his trap. This marks the beginning of the experience that was going to re-shape her life.

Hap (Jason Isaacs), the mad scientist of the series, is initially obsessed with studying near-death experiences, seeking to revolutionise science- to pierce the deeper truth by examining paradigm-shifting phenomena through inhumane experiments. At first he exhibits a conscience and feelings of guilt, remorse, and attachment, as well as making rather hollow claims that he thinks of his captives as collaborators; however, his already faint moral compass dissipates by the end. He remains fond of the OA throughout the whole series, hoping that in the next world she will forget his horrible acts, but his nature never changes. As the OA repeatedly points out, his gruesome secret inevitably projects him into a life of loneliness, his version of power being built upon violence, imprisonment, and dread. He has one other scientist “friend” he can bring up the subject of his experiments to and, during their talk, Hap turns out to be more human compared to his cold-blooded conversation partner. The latter is psychopathically at peace with his ruthless macabre ways, saying “Here’s the terrible, beautiful truth. No one cares. There is no line between good and evil. There is only what a man can stand.” Their motivations also diverge: whereas his rival is driven by financial greed, Hap wants to figure out the truth for himself more than anything, “God, I want to taste the truth. I just wanna walk out of the dark.” In the second season, Hap’s interests evolve- he finds a grotesque method to build a map of the multiverse as a way to break limits and pick the destination of his future inter-dimensional travels rather than making risky leaps into the unknown.

The soul connection between the OA and her fellow inmate Homer is the most touching aspect of the series, holding the story together. They have been through a traumatic experience together for 7 years, confined within a glass prison with only some plants and a stream to touch and frequent encounters with death. When the OA/ Prairie arrives there, she is blind. He helps her acclimate, survive, and stay sane. When she describes her strange inter-dimensional excursions and unfathomable escape plan, giving him seemingly absurd instructions, he believes in her. They share their travels in death, their discoveries, and the arcane knowledge they gather from other dimensions. Both persevere in their mission and lift each other’s spirit. They dream of moving to another realm where they can finally be free and live together. Hap tries to pull them apart, by planting seeds of doubt about Homer and their plans- “You’ll always be the girl willing to risk everything for the chance to achieve something extraordinary. I know you, Prairie. He will never understand that about you.” Prairie remains unwavering in her beliefs and feelings. In the second season, however, their connection is challenged as Homer’s consciousness appears to be absent in the new world. His initial self has seemingly got lost somewhere along the way; actually, his consciousness is dormant within the mind of his alter ego, namely a psychiatry resident who became a big fan of “Hap” (Known as Dr Percy in the second world) after reading his book, “Quantum Psychotic”. The OA / Nina Azarova, now his patient, tries to reawaken his memories of their previous life together, whereas he sees her through a psychiatric lens, as a delusional individual with dissociative identity disorder. Eventually there are a couple of moments and gestures that act as a catalyst to revive Homer’s consciousness. Another inter-dimensional traveller that the OA crosses paths with, Elodie, mentions that Homer and the OA have a powerful bond that transcends multiple dimensions, but that their paths are doomed to be closely interlinked with Hap’s. Elodie suggests that a part of the OA- probably an unconscious part- wants to travel with Hap too. Hap might mirror a part of her shadow self, perhaps a thirst for knowledge and hunger for the extraordinary, or it might simply be that he is a reflection of her parallel life trauma. An attempt to escape the echo of this cosmic family would shatter their identities and the OA’s connection with Homer, as it increases the risk of amnesia after their jump. “You could find yourself inside a life completely unrecognisable to you. Not to mention you and Homer might not even know yourselves in a dimension outside an echo.” In fact, the second season gets wrapped up by a glimpse into a metafictional third dimension where everything seems different and they are far away from the initial versions of themselves, thanks to Hap who somehow holds the reins of the jump for both of them. Knowing this, the OA urges Homer to come and find her in their new life and resurrect her memories, her “true self”.

The first season injects the idea of the unreliable delusional narrator towards the end, leaving us on a note of ambiguity, as there are no glimpses into another dimension beyond Prairie’s subjective recollections -contrary to our expectations throughout the show. The ending of this season might thus be perceived as anti-climactic. Although the journey is slow-paced, it works well as the OA (Original Angel) keeps you hypnotised like a modern ethereal Scheherazade. The second season- whilst still introducing the element of shared psychosis as it places the captives in a psychiatric clinic- is clearer about the nature of reality and the way it interprets the concept of multiverse in its world design. The second season is also more dynamic and dizzying, adding new layers of meaning, astral planes, and a variety of fantasy and sci-fi motifs to the story: the dream factory, where dreams are being recorded in order to detect patterns and collect premonitions, the haunted horror house re-interpreted within a sci-fi context, as a dangerous wormhole into parallel universes and timelines, the psychic, the mirror apparition, the spiritualist method of summoning someone from another dimension, the telepathic octopus, and the animist depiction of trees.

“Nina saw the whole world. But I saw underneath it.”

The second dimension is an alternative timeline in which Nina made a different choice during a key moment in her life, which propelled her to a completely different life path. She never got on the bus that crashed into water, which erased her previous thread of existence as she never went blind and regained her vision, never had a near-death experience; her other life being replaced with experiences that created another version of herself. This version has lived a luxurious, decadent, hedonistic existence with an abundance of privileges, money, drinks, earthly possessions, and boyfriends, away from hardship, and hasn’t acquired empirical experience of other worlds. She is a wealthy Russian heiress whose former partner runs a dream factory and created a VR game / puzzle for unethical crowdsourcing purposes, leading teenagers to a dangerous place in search of explanations for a peculiar phenomenon. When she finds out about what his project involves, they fight. Although the personalities and lives of Nina and Prairie are entirely different, they both gravitated towards the supernatural and the esoteric, to an enigmatic phenomenon, as parallel worlds leave echoes in others. When the OA enters her life, the discrepancy between the two of them is transparent; and the OA/Prairie doesn’t have access to Nina’s consciousness at first. When people travel to another world and inhabit a new body (with the same appearance), it seems they tend to either suppress the consciousness of their host (as most of the inter-dimensional travellers in the show do) or remain dormant if the consciousness of the body they entered does not seem to integrate the new consciousness. It’s not very clear why this happens – why Homer didn’t awaken from the beginning as his initial self and why the others did. The OA eventually frees Nina’s consciousness by facing her trauma- the moment that caused the split between the two parallel realities, generating the alternative timeline. It is implied that this process makes her integrate the consciousness of the other Nina and they merge into one.

Stream-of-consciousness:

There are a few questions that come to mind. The rules of inter-dimensional travels in the show are somewhat elusive and shifting. At first we are led to believe the characters have to become unconscious in order to travel somewhere else, but in the second season that doesn’t always seem to be necessary. How does that work and how does Elodie re-appear in the same timeline? What happened to her vessel? How does Hap compel the OA to jump with him at the end, and why did the OA tell Homer to stay alive in that dimension to be able to jump?

On another note, when does Nina / Prairie (from the first dimension) become the OA? Has the OA been a dormant spirit within her; has it always been her fate? An entity/self, that she needed to unlock? In that case why has the other Nina not turned into the OA – as in another version of the OA at any point? Is it simply because she didn’t have a near-death experience, that would trigger that in her? Does the OA originate from that particular reality of season one, being exclusive to those specific circumstances, or are there other versions of the “birth” or awakening of the OA?

What would a process of merging consciousness be like? It’s an intricate, unfathomable concept. If you are like me and you’ve ever spent way too much time wondering what it would be like to expand beyond the limits of consciousness and see the world ‘through someone else’s eyes’ (mind), feel it through someone else’s senses, you probably contemplate the mechanism behind this merging and what it would entail, and realise it is problematic.

When the OA travels to the next dimension, does she take Nina’s consciousness with her, since it is implied that by integrating with Nina she becomes, in some way, whole? That would mean that after a few trips into other dimensions, she would contain a collection of different layers of consciousness. Could she live in harmony under those conditions, reconciling the needs, feelings, and wishes of other versions of herself?

[…to be continued / re-edited – the symbolism of the rose window, the house]

Some inspiring, evocative quotes giving a taste of the poetic discourse of the series:

“Captivity is a mentality. It’s a thing you carry with you.”

Your book showed an openness to liminal thinking. To certain metaphysical secrets that could be glimpsed inside the pain of madness.”

“The process can sometimes help people to heal. Storytelling is cleansing. But I also wanna make sure that you control the narrative. And that you profit from it. The process of telling the story can somehow exorcise it.”

“I can tell you everything that I did wrong. I didn’t eat when I was hungry. Didn’t sleep when I was tired. Didn’t get warm when I was cold. It made me weak. But the biggest mistake I made was thinking that if I cast a beautiful net I’d catch only beautiful things.”

The first time you fall asleep in prison, you forget. You wake up a free woman. And then you remember that you’re not. You lost your freedom many times before you finally believe it. Night slipped into day. Day into night. We were like the living dead. There’s nothing more isolating than not being able to feel time. To not feel the distance between hours, days.

I couldn’t feel pain. I couldn’t sense time. I couldn’t understand where I was. But I could see. The sudden rush of loss made me realise that for the second time in my life…I was dead.

“You don’t wanna go there until your invisible self is more developed anyway. You know, your longings, the desires you don’t tell anyone about. You spend a lot of time on the visible you. It’s impressive. But she probably thinks the invisible you is missing.”

“I knew from the moment I woke up, that life was no longer the same. Khatun had fed me a mystery. I couldn’t understand it, but I could feel it inside me. A clue, a bomb, a Hail Mary. Oh, we’ve been going about this all wrong. We’ve been trying to get out. We have to try to get in. [into ourselves]”

“I’m telling you, when I swallowed that bird, I felt the whole thing flash through me in an instant. Like, a way to move through the world, through worlds. And if I don’t think about it, I know it. A self, like a…a me in there that doesn’t even belong to me and it wants to come out, it wants me to call it by name. But it’s…I feel like it’s waiting…To hear it in you, too. I don’t know, when I say it out loud, it all falls apart.”

“Are you a feminist?”
“I like symmetry. “

“I thought I was losing my mind.”
“You’re not. You’re just finding new rooms inside it. You’re just having trouble navigating the line between what’s real and what isn’t. Because you empathise so deeply with others. It’s your greatest strength…and your greatest weakness”

“There are all these dimensions, worlds, alternate realities, and they’re all right on top of each other. Every time you make a choice, a decision, it forks off into a new possibility. They’re all right here, but inaccessible. The NDEs were like a way to travel through them, but temporarily. We wanted choices, chances. The movements would allow us to travel to a dimension permanently. A new life…in a new world. To us, that was freedom.”

“What will it look like when we open the tunnel to the other dimensions?”
“All I know is that it would be invisible. The person leaving this dimension would experience a great acceleration of events, but no break in time-space. It’s like jumping into an invisible current that just carries you away to another realm, but we had to have all five movements and we had to do them with perfect feeling.

“It’s not a game, it’s a puzzle. The designer wants the player to figure it out. It’s not a war…it’s a mystery. Ultimately, a puzzle is a conversation between the player and the maker. The puzzle maker is teaching you a new language. How to escape the limits of your own thinking and see things you didn’t know were there.”

“Cultures that have survived more loss, like harsh weather or earthquakes…they have more totems. Objects carry meaning in difficult times.”

“Well it’s not really a measure of mental health to be well-adjusted in a society that’s very sick. This dimension is crumbling to violence and pettiness and greed, and Steve is sensitive enough to feel it and he’s angry.”

Quarantine film recommendation: I Am Mother

I Am Mother (2019), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film directed by Grant Sputore, starts off at a slow pace, revealing the eerie routine and mother-daughter bond between an android and a human inside an enclosed, clinical ‘repopulation facility’ resembling a spaceship. Besides them, from the first shots we find out that the site contains thousands of human embryos, as Mother promises the family will extend when she is ready to raise more children. Whilst Daughter receives advanced education in various fields ranging from medicine to philosophy, everything is surrounded by an aura of mystery as the film offers little explanation for the circumstances of the “extinction event” and whatever is happening outside the facility beyond the warnings of Mother about the toxicity of the external environment. When a visitor is surreptitiously granted access to their sanctuary thanks to the rebellious and inquisitive nature of Daughter, the pace and atmosphere of the film change, and we are oscillating between the clashing words, convictions, and insidious influences of Mother and of the newcomer. The evocative performances, touching cinematography, beautiful intimacy, and the maternal bonding established in the first part of the film are powerful elements facilitating the process of empathising with the robot and being invested in their connection, which gets saddening and complicated when conflicts arise between them, when reality outside the protective bubble that Daughter has been raised in is gradually unveiled.

Sakura season

The world was sick – physically, mentally,
we were part of the minority left uncontaminated.
My calcified shell unravelled
down by the river
among sentient trees,
shimmering shrines,
underneath celestial splendour,
next to your magnetic presence;
Bonded by the common revulsion at
destructive forces, we were here for the art
of letting go, unburdening the heart,
re-emerging from ourselves,
this arcane ritual, this sacred moment,
this hallowed place-
I let it permeate me with light.
Enraptured by hanami,
I shed my outer skin
and drank in the beauty of the instant
until I was intoxicated;
I let myself feel instead of thinking
because life was safe here-
I felt tingles that were going to reverberate
throughout decades.
For the first time, I believed in something
other than myself:
you, the radiance of the moment,
the glimpse of eternity
in a landscape filled with
reminders of mortality.
I had witnessed too many shared delusions
to fall for them,
but this wasn’t a fall
it felt like ascending,
like a slice of life that’s borrowed from heaven-
a strange view coming from a secular soul.
Your wisdom was gonna stick to me
and I would wear it like armour
in times of hardship;
I could tell you shared what you believed in
and felt religiously-
you exuded your truth
through all your pores
and it resonated with the murmur
of my soul,
of the river, of the petals,
now every time I find myself
at the crossroads, this mantra
is loud and clear in the midst of chaos
“Look, we are what we believe
and nothing else truly matters
except that your heart is invested
in the right thing. See how that light
travels across the river?”
I will always see the light.

Excerpts from my Interview with Analogue Fine Art Photographer and storyteller Brittany Markert (via The Uncanny Archive)

Brittany Markert’s daring introspective artwork resurrects the intimate, haptic process of analogue photography to create expressive, conceptual portraits encapsulating the spirit undergoing metamorphoses in photographic form, whilst at the same time freeing it and exorcising inner demons through cathartic expression. Rooted in Jungian psychoanalytic concepts, her visual narrative explores the repression of fears, repulsion and desires, the figure of the double, the polarities of the psyche, whilst everything is shown through a complex female gaze. Brittany’s art is of an unsettling yet alluring nature, as her visceral depictions of intense states of mind have the power of both enticing and terrifying the viewer. Her project, “In rooms” is a symbolic mnemonic device, a place carrying echoes of her psychological journey, a way of fulfilling the process of shadow work, and ultimately, a mirror in which each viewer sees whatever resonates with them the most.

DM: Your captivating visual diary is constructed from conceptual portraits and self-portraits, exploring sexuality, identity, mortality, and emotional states. Would you like to walk us through your emotional or psychological journey and the intimate meaning of the symbolism so evocatively and artistically portrayed in your photographs?

BM: In the back of my books are the words “For all the words I could never write, the camera became my pen”. Each year that passes by deeper layers of the unconscious are unraveled and frozen in a glass display for all to dissect, question and process. To walk through my emotional and psychological journey with my photographs is to view my books, Volume I, II and beyond. I have laid out my work over four years chronologically, in the spirit of a personal diary. It’s up to each viewer to find meaning, to find their own psychological journey between these pages.

DM: The doubling and the multiple exposure effects frequently appear in your visual narrative. In one of your photographs, this aspect embodies a nightmarish trait, and appears to evoke an emotional metamorphosis, an embodiment of anguish. The elusive double seems to be linked with visceral agony and suicide in several instances. We also see multiple versions of the same woman, watching herself, whilst another photographic setting is reminiscent of Victorian spirit photography. What were your thoughts behind the dissociative nature of your stories and would you link it to a state of psychological disintegration?

BM: To recognize the polarities within ourselves and not accept either as the truth is to be free. This Jungian concept, the tension of the opposites, appears in my double exposures, at first unintentionally, and now with more awareness. Psychologically, Jung considers this the divine drama, we are always at battle with two distinct oppositions. Becoming aware of these polarities is the first step in the path to healing and enlightenment. My piece ‘Ode to Depression’ , a double exposed print of a woman asleep while another version of herself stands upright with a noose, is a familiar polarity capturing a part of my own and society’s battle with depression and mental health. Recognizing the innocent bystander asleep in my mind while the other begs to leave this world has saved my life. I’ve never been interested in documenting the reality of the outside world, I’m taking a microscope to the inside of the mind, the collective unconscious. The ghost like world of double and triple exposures mirrors this experience.

DM: Has your photographic diary enhanced the intimacy and connection you already shared with the other models represented?

BM: To be seen deeply, and loved for the spirit you possess on the inside is a beautiful rare connection. The subjects in my work are typically lovers, close friends or kindred spirits. Sometimes this is the result of working together, or in most of the cases the work is a result of our close relationship. There is something incredibly intense and cathartic about creating the work In Rooms. Speaking from my recent 16mm endeavors, the subjects I have worked with have a type of familial connection. The exchange of creating the work this intentionally and intensely somehow bonded us by spirit, or at least me to them, but as close as this connection can be there is an equal and opposing force that also happens when I create my work. Some people are terrified of being seen deeply, so raw and vulnerably. I have experienced both the euphoria of life long relationships that feel like chosen family and the extreme sadness of connections that end abruptly because of the process of my work.

DM: You mentioned Anaïs Nin, iconic writer of erotica, as a source of inspiration on your website. What do you like the most about her work?

BM: The mention of Anais Nin in my artist statement refers to her personal diaries. She published Volumes of her life in chronological work and in the same manner I am publishing surreal diaries, in numbered volumes, in chronological order. There was a period, from 2012-2014 in which her writing became a mirror to my emotions and fed into my deep desires. The palpable lust and madness I felt reading her work revealed itself into my photography work, as have many other artists and writers over the years.

DM: What words would you use to best capture the emotions at the core of In Rooms? Are these emotions significant,-or dominant, in your life and inner world and are they temporary and cathartically released / alleviated once you express them through art?

BM: At its core, In Rooms is a realm that exists in the dark matter of our unconscious. The emotions are heavy, dense, often linked to sadness, pain, internal anguish, torment, unrequited desire and love. There are equal and opposing forces of repulsion and desire, for as much as one is seduced into the image, there is something unsettling pushing you back out. Although I live in a colorful house full of beauty and I see beauty everywhere around me, I’ve never been interested in making art about shallow or ephemeral feelings. The spirit of In Rooms is much like the gasp of air one takes before they plunge into the dark depths of waters unknown. It’s not that these feelings dominate my life, surely at times they do, but they are the ones that need to be released cathartically In Rooms.

DM: Your photographic stories unfold as intimate moments depicting human beings who beautifully connect with their vulnerabilities. In what ways did you tap into your vulnerability and the vulnerabilities of your subjects in order to fulfil your creative vision?

BM: The mind and the psychological landscapes that determine behaviors, reactions and emotions drive much of my curiosity. When I am in front of the camera, I show up with complete awareness and intention to the moment and I can only create meaningful work with others that I understand as deeply or that understand the decisive moment of creating as deeply. This takes time and what I call ‘perfect alignment’. A lot of the work involving mental health is created with close friends in which a part of our connection is to speak candidly about our mental health and suicidal ideation. The work I create about eroticism is with friends that speak candidly about their own dreams, fantasies and aspirations. I can not create work that doesn’t exist. If I attempt to force ideas or concepts onto people that don’t connect than it doesn’t work, the results will feel fake. There is fake art and photography everywhere, it’s exhausting as a highly sensitive person. I wanted to create a space for people to run to when they need to feel things vulnerably, when they wanted to be seen for who they are, not for what people think they are on the outside.

DM: At the same time, although in your work, the subjects’ nude bodies are on display- an act which is often seen as a way of relinquishing all inhibitions and fully ‘revealing’ your raw self, they are still sort of wrapped in or protected by an aura of mystery, by the unknown and so many things that are left unrevealed. Photography generally both reveals and conceals. Your photographs, however, seem to reveal a lot more whilst also concealing. The nudity is shown in artistic context, and the context is quite dreamlike, rooted in the unconscious mind. In contemporary society, it seems that posing naked is far from being the most daring form of uninhibited behaviour; revealing your true self emotionally and psychologically, unapologetically, and stripping off the layers of social disguise and conditioning is much rarer these days. As someone who is open to both ways of self-expression, is it challenging to reveal your self, to face your unconscious, to explore the darker impulses and desires of humanity, and to live a life of authenticity? Have you faced any unwarranted criticism for this?

BM: To enter the unconscious blindly, without information, is dangerous. One needs the protection of the ego and information to start the process of shadow work, of shining a light on personal and societal demons. Many of my mentors died by suicide. I went in blindly and spent years dictated by my suicidal ideation, by week long spells of crying, not washing my hair. I killed myself over and over again in my work, but that meant that I was still here in real life. I don’t wish anyone else this torment or pain, but my photographs and the process of making them saved my life. After this time I spent a lot of time researching jungian principles, psychotherapy treatments, memoirs by others with mental health disorders. This gave me protection and the ability to understand my work and actions on a deeper level. In becoming self aware I am over the hill of being blind to my unconscious and fear. The pull of suicidal ideation no longer wanes on me. It’s a miracle.

I’m lucky to not receive unwarranted criticism of my work, the people that don’t see the light in my work stay away and it seems hold their tongues. I would say, however, that I’m misunderstood frequently and judged, but this is a part of projection and entering a realm of shadows. My work becomes a mirror to many others’ suffering, pain and vulnerability and it’s unfortunate to be seen as the face in the mirror instead of their own.

When you’re coming into life and adulthood in your early twenties there is a thrill of being naked. This act of rebellion is less interesting now, but I am still pulled by the power and beauty of the human form. The most daring progressive thing you can do is to become self aware, create vulnerably and follow a path of enlightenment.

DM: Roland Barthes said “The photograph represents that subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death: I am truly becoming a spectre” (from Camera Lucida). When you are photographed, you get to see yourself as “other”, as something external, and you recognise yourself in and identify with this likeness, this photographic imitation- a specific, fragmented image in time, which is less than you. On the other hand, through self-portraits the lines between self and other, between subject and object, become blurred, as you become both. This artistic reconstruction of the self can induce a re-connection with and sense of control over your image, whereas in other contexts, seeing yourself as “other” or being externally objectified could potentially have the effect of destabilisation or alienation. Do you feel that your self-portraits have any effect on your self-image and identity, and do you ever internalise this way of seeing yourself – i.e. objectifying yourself – in your life?

BM: The camera has a way of revealing that which I cannot see clearly in real life, sometimes it slaps me in the face with its revelations. It is quite dull when I look in the mirror, but the world through my camera, In Rooms, has changed the way I know myself and others forever. At first, when I blindly dove into my unconscious and came out as distinct archetypes they had a way of seeping into my real life, of confusing my actions and relationships, at times even inducing a state of psychosis or depression. It can be immensely difficult to stay strong and centered when I confront my work, which is why I create so rarely. Of course the characters and the body are me, and reveal parts of my mind, but I am not the characters. This took a lot of work and healing to safely navigate how to create my work but not let the results and image of myself be my own detriment or fate. Sometimes I feel I am boxed in by In Rooms, that my image, my body or energy is supposed to align with the work but lately I’m learning to walk away from this, to exist outside and be at peace knowing the work is just a part of me, a truth but not the truth.

DM: A photograph can be a mnemonic device and an extension of identity, but it can also have the effect of erasing the past and replacing it with an image or making your memory revolve around a particular moment or representation. There is an element of absence in any photograph: what comes before the shot, what comes after, the thoughts of the subjects, identities, and perhaps the emotions that bind people together are potentially “erased” or disguised. Your photographic project, especially since it partly features people you love, can also constitute a recording of the past. The way you represent it is symbolic, stylised, at times surreal, with an oneiric quality. To what extent do you feel your visual diary has protected memories and to what extent has it disguised or distorted your memory or your autobiographic narrative?

BM: To the extent that my work is autobiographical, it is my hope that the work is equally documenting a collective psychological experience so that when people view my work, they feel and experience their own story. I never see my photographs for what they are, as you mentioned, I see the time in my life they were created, I feel my emotional journey leading up to that point, I see the people in my life that time. The work becomes a mirror to our current times and I forgot how I created it in the first place.
In Rooms is a delicately laced web of my memories, a graveyard of love, of torment, of deep healing. I visit it to feel at peace, to thank it for guiding me to a more honest place. It protects me from the boredom and pain of reality, and presents the essence of life that is constantly changing. In Rooms is a riddle that even I can never figure out and I can only hope it continues to inspire and heal myself and others.

Read and view more here: https://uncannyarchive.com/interview-with-analogue-photographer-and-storyteller-brittany-markert/

Delving into the psychology and mythology of The Lighthouse (2019) *spoilers*

The Lighthouse is a symbol, an enigma, & a transcendental mood in which an occult phenomenon seems to occur. It almost appears to be alive, in an obscure way. The Lighthouse is a portal to a world of mythology- we don’t really get to see through it clearly, everything is merely suggested, partly fictive. We are all in limbo, drenched in the otherworldly light within the lantern room. The light is sacred. The light is obscene. The light is madness; it is forbidden arcane knowledge, leading to madness. The haunting sound of the foghorn penetrates your spirit. We’re inside the tower. As the camera makes its way upstairs, we hear the metallic clinking, the mechanical ticking and clicking of the clockwork mechanisms. We reach Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) in the lantern room. The eerie spiral-shaped lamp foreshadows the downward spiral into madness. Thomas Wake appears to be in a hallucinatory trance, enveloped by the ethereal veil of light; the atmosphere is enhanced by mystical uncanny sounds. Meanwhile, drenched in the dark, Ephraim Winslow/ Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) makes his way towards the sea. The sounds become increasingly alien. Seduced by the image of the sea, of the reflection of the lighthouse on the surface of the still sea, Ephraim’s silhouette treads lightly towards it, as if hyponotised. Horrified, he sees a dead body floating in the water. Getting closer and closer, he sinks and we hear the high-pitched screeching of a siren, who is ominously swimming towards him. Ephraim is woken up by water dripping on his face, in bed.

The mermaid is a sinister presence showing up briefly but memorably in supernatural & perverse images throughout the film. As the mental state of the new isolated lighthouse keeper becomes more and more unhinged, disturbing visions involving mythological apparitions haunt the protagonist. Despite his scepticism about folk tales and superstitions, supernatural elements seem to challenge his sanity. As a figurine/ an effigy, the mermaid is a sex object Ephraim masturbates to, resurrecting a mental image of the supernatural encounter. As an elusive, living presence (inhabiting the dark landscape of the psyche), the mermaid is portrayed as malicious, as a powerful, nightmarish sea creature Ephraim wants to dominate, but is also frightened by and can’t control. Ego-led and hot-tempered, Ephraim/Thomas Howard’s driving forces are power and control, and it seems the fight is mostly within himself- against his own demons. Ultimately he needs power over his mind, to no longer be plagued by mad thoughts. At times, his anger is hard to contain and all-encompassing. He has repressed emotions and traumatic memories of his dark, murderous past, as well as a high libido that is hard to fulfil, leading to aggressive testosterone-fuelled manifestations. His disturbing fantasy in a scene of self-gratification involves having sex with the mermaid (as opposed to many popular representations, this version features mermaid genitals), however, his mind can’t focus on her image, as it’s often replaced by intrusive memories of his haunting past. Associating the concept of woman with an ominous, dehumanised, screeching (albeit beautiful) sea creature hints at a slightly repressed fear of women.

Initially, what we see on screen – namely two solitary men within the bleak, foggy, turbulent coastal landscape…of toxic masculinity- seems to be found within the parameters of reality. Still, the mystery of the lantern room separates them. From the beginning, Thomas Wake, the old lighthouse keeper, is possessive when it comes to the mysterious light, protective of his role of tending the light. Ephraim expresses his wish to go to the lantern room, but Thomas Wake bosses him around, emphasising he should stick to his own duties (that he assigns to him). The young lighthouse keeper pays clandestine visits to the lighthouse at night, snooping in on Thomas Wake in the lantern room he forbids him entrance to. Ephraim hears moans, whispers, squelching, and then …frightening, inhuman, aquatic alien sounds, followed by a movement of tentacles. Whilst we are not shown what Thomas Wake sees within the light, it is implied that in his eyes, the light evokes feminine beauty. The next day, Ephraim gets murderously angry at a seagull (that Wake previously told him not to mess with as it’s a bad omen). Naturally, in a fit of anger, he butchers it. Bad luck to kill a sea bird. They are vessels for the souls of dead sailors, or so we learn.

Wake digs into Ephraim’s past to find out what led him to becoming a wickie. We find out he has been a drifter. Ephraim is slightly defensive about this, as he is about many things, saying there’s nothing wrong with starting afresh. Thomas Wake progressively reveals aspects of his own history too, but the details don’t add up; there are inconsistencies in his narrative. Similarly, in a drunken state, Ephraim Winslow discloses his real name- “Thomas. Tom. Tommy Howard” and wants to unload his guilty conscience, revealing the identity of Winslow, and how he couldn’t stand his insufferable, bossy treatment, reiterating his resentment for authority figures. During the same night, the two lighthouse keepers get drunk together, ending up singing and intimately dancing together. Thomas Howard (I will call him Tom for clarification) hugs Thomas Wake tightly as they dance, and, in a brief homoerotic moment of tension, Tom snaps out of his drunkenness, ashamed or repulsed (of his own feelings or the occurrence), forcefully pushing Wake away, starting to hit him instead. There are a few signs and suggestions in the story that Tom might repress some homosexual undertones in his thoughts during their isolation.

The power dynamics between the two lighthouse keepers are displayed through the unleashing of forces linked to mythology, acts of violence, strange alcohol-fuelled discourses, and curses. The unreliable psychological states of the characters maintain the ambiguity of the suspenseful narrative delivered through entrancing (Oscar nominated) cinematography. In some moments, Thomas Wake appears to gaslight Ephraim/Tom Howard by denying and recreating his reality. Since the identity of the old lighthouse keeper is a mystery as most of his stories turn out to be made up and the two of them have several things in common, the viewer might wonder how far Tom Howard’s delusions go, and whether the old lighthouse keeper is a figment of his imagination. If Thomas Wake is a part of Thomas Howard’s psyche, then he is a part that he has not yet integrated, hence the fights, the dance, the rejected intimacy, and the power struggle. Thomas Wake reflects Tom’s id, the unconscious energy, urges, desires: he is a bad-tempered, often openly angry alcoholic, indulging in his vices, talking about his love for women in his life before his isolation. He has access to the light, associated with forbidden acts, with the occult, and esoteric knowledge. At other times, Thomas Wake also assumes the critical role of a father figure, scolding Tom for his personality, his attitude, his work discipline, his supposed sense of entitlement. Meanwhile, Tom initially tries to refrain from drinking and is not as assertive, he embodies a more composed masculinity, but we get a sense of anger boiling under the surface, of an unexpressed rage and darkness consuming him, behind his quiet, collected persona. He also struggles with the dominant side of his sexuality, which he represses. The prospect of finding a sort of salvation and answers in the light, as well as his natural curiosity and boredom, lead to him being unsurprisingly attracted to, enchanted by, and thus often gravitating towards the mystery of the light.

After Tom confesses about Winslow, things turn even more nightmarish: the disembodied voice of Thomas Wake echoes in the house and in the lighthouse. Tom Howard sees a body collapsed on the ground. He turns the man around: it is himself. The boundary between reality and delusion becomes imperceptible. Then someone does the same gesture, Tom turns his head, and sees Thomas Wake standing above him. The next shot is a memorable cinematic tableau vivant, inspired by Sascha Schneider’s painting, Hypnosis, 1904.

Whilst Tom’s symbolic association with the mythological figure of Prometheus is more transparently implied because of his fate and his sinister, torturous death, Robert Eggers, the director and writer of the film, points out that Thomas Wake is an embodiment of Proteus, the sea god. In retrospect, this makes sense, when we think of Thomas Wake’s prophetic and protean nature in the film, his divine curses and discourses, the knowledge he is reluctant to share, and the way he goes through metamorphoses and sometimes poses and is framed and portrayed as a god in shots resembling Symbolist paintings. Tom Howard as Prometheus is punished for his transgression by being feasted upon by sea birds. Tom Howard constantly wants to reach the mystical light, he is bewitched by it. When Willem Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake talks about the previous lighthouse keeper, he also mentions that “He notioned that St. Elmo had cast his very fire into it [the light]. Salvation, said he.” The theft of fire is the central element of the Promethean myth, which has often been culturally interpreted as going on a forbidden quest for knowledge. In an interview with Vox, Eggers also associated the lamp from the lighthouse with the Cosmic egg hatching the primordial god in ancient mythology.

Both Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake also embody many aspects that are not based on the aforementioned myths. We don’t really know Tom’s backstory, only scraps of it, based on his brief confessions, hallucinations, and fragmented, flashing images of murder from his memory. We are also not shown what the light reveals for Tom, as the camera is fixated on his reaction during his transcendental experience. The emotions that can be read in his response shift from bewilderment, to climactic delight, shock, horror, and terrifying agony. Why did his experience differ so much from Wake’s encounters with the light? Was it his unstable mind, his demons, his trauma, his guilty conscience? If Wake is a part of Tom, then the vague impressions we got of Wake’s experience of the light would reflect Tom’s expectations and hopes. Perhaps Thomas Howard is not ready to face his trauma, perhaps the design of his mind and its fragmentation is his curse, which is exacerbated rather than healed by the light. Or his hubris (defying the will of the gods and antagonising the dead soul of a sailor) and murderous acts inevitably ruined him. The wound of his corrupt spirit can’t be stitched by some sacred thread. Maybe what he sees within the light towards the end is an episode unfolding in hell. Alternatively, it could be an image of the moment of his torturous death, which ironically leads to the fulfilment of this prophecy. In addition to repeating the fate dictated by the Promethean myth, there could be an explanation anchored in his past and the layers of his mind. This ambiguity is part of the enchantment of the film, as it tends to be, when it comes to psychological horror.

The Lighthouse is thoroughly researched, incorporating mythological motifs and Jungian symbols, as well as drawing from art history, especially the Symbolist movement, as Eggers reveals, plus elements from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and the concept described in Mircea Eliade’s essay on “Spirit, Light, and Seed” from “Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions”.

In “Spirit, Light, and Seed”, Mircea Eliade describes different experiences and connotations of “mystical light” in various cultures and religions. He touches upon the duality between the profane universe of the uninitiated and the transcendent and holy dimension a man can unlock access to through a sacred light-experience, a moment of inner light and personal discovery, in which he enters the realm of the Spirit.

The experience of Light radically changes the ontological condition of the subject by opening him to the world of the Spirit. In the course of human history there have been a thousand different ways of conceiving or valorising the world of the Spirit. That is evident. How could it have been otherwise? For all conceptualisation is irremediably linked with language, and consequently with culture and history. One can say that the meaning of the supernatural Light is directly conveyed to the soul of the man who experiences it-and yet this meaning can only come fully to his consciousness clothed in a preexistent ideology. Here lies the paradox: the meaning of the Light is, on the one hand, ultimately a personal discovery; and, on the other hand, each man discovers what he was spiritually and culturally prepared to discover. Yet there remains this fact which seems to us fundamental: whatever will be the subsequent ideological integration, a meeting with the Light produces a break in the subject’s existence, revealing to him or making clearer than before-the world of the Spirit, of holiness and of freedom; in brief, existence as a divine creation,[…]

Eliade also reveals the religious belief depicting a cosmic episode unfolding in primordial times when “a portion of the divine light is captured by the power of darkness”. This is another relevant connection to the symbolism and meaning behind The Lighthouse.

He [the Father of Greatness] “evokes,” that is, emanates, the Mother of Light, who, in her turn, projects a new hypostasis, the Primeval Man. Together with his five sons-who are, in fact, his own being, an armor consisting of five lights-the Primeval Man descends to the frontier; but he is conquered by Darkness, and his sons are devoured by the Demons. This defeat is the beginning of the cosmic “mixture,” but it is also the guarantee of God’s (Light’s) final triumph. For now Darkness (Matter) possesses particles of Light, and the Father of Greatness, preparing their release, prepares at the same time the definitive victory over Darkness. In a second creation, the Father “evokes” the Living Spirit, who, proceeding to the boundary of Darkness, grasps the hand of the Primeval Man and raises him to the Paradise of Light, his celestial home. Vanquishing the demonic Archons, the Living Spirit makes the skies from their skins and the earth from their flesh. He also carries out a first liberation of Light, creating the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars from those parts which had not suffered too much as a consequence of their contact with Darkness.

Finally, in order to rescue the still-captive particles of Light, the Father emanates the Third Messenger.[…] Consequently, the Third Messenger shows himself to the male Archons in the shape of a radiant, beautiful, naked virgin, while to the female Archons he appears as a nude, shining youth. […] Indeed, sexual intercourse and, especially, procreation are evil, for they prolong the captivity of light in the body of the descendant. For a Manichaean, the perfect life means an uninterrupted series of purifications, that is to say, separations of spirit (light) from matter. The redemption corresponds to the definitive separation of light from matter, in the last analysis, to the end of the world.[…]”

And finally, he writes about solar theologies and religious systems revolving around the luminous nature of the soul, around light experiences, photisms, and ritualistic hallucinations, as well as associations between spiritual and sexual communions, emphasising“the connaturality of light, spirit, and semen”.

The goal of the yage ceremony is to strengthen religious belief; indeed, the participant can see that the tribal theogony and cosmogony are true. Besides, the visions permit a personal encounter with the supernatural beings, an encounter which is interpreted in sexual terms. A native who was educated by the missionaries explains: “Taking yage is a spiritual coitus; is the spiritual communion, as the priests say.” On the other hand, it is also said that the one who takes yage “dies,”  because the return to the cosmic womb is equivalent to death. […] If everything which exists, lives, and procreates is an emanation of Sun, and if “spirituality” (intelligence, wisdom, clairvoyance, etc .) partakes of the nature of solar light, it follows that every religious act has, at the same time, a “seminal” and a “visionary” meaning. The sexual connotations of light experiences and hallucinatory visions appear to be the logical consequence of a coherent solar theology.

– “Spirit, Light, and Seed” in “Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions”, by Mircea Eliade: [https://monoskop.org/images/f/f1/Eliade_Mircea_Occultism_Witchcraft_and_Cultural_Fashions_1978.pdf]

The ark

I dream of emerald grass,
sapphire waves,
idle legs shimmering on marble,
crystalline laughter
I miss this-
Do I miss myself-
this self?
let’s enjoy it while it lasts
before the tide of darkness floods
our frail world
I want a fresh view:
we unfold – the tides unfold
we walk on water
we get to the ark-
how do we lift the anchor?
it’s so heavy, heavy, reflecting
the heaviness of the hearts
the veil over the ark protects
the sanctuary, meanwhile
our dreams function as fuel
to get us there
What about the iceberg?
beware of the iceberg,
the way it shines, the way
the part submerged in the dark
knows more than you and I
combined
ever will,
it’s a point of reference
shrouded in an aura of mystery
which seems to whisper:
abandon all hope
before you penetrate the mind
obliterate preconceptions
sometimes we are water,
sometimes we are stone.

Francesca Woodman- haunting self-portraits

Photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), influential American photographer.

Francesca Woodman’s iconic oeuvre includes staged artful self-portraits exploring the relationship between body and space and aspects of identity, featuring her often nude or semi-nude body either in motion, fragmented, collapsed or disguised, like a ghostly, elusive presence in a seemingly abandoned domestic space. The uncanny mise-en-scene includes disintegrating decor and collapsing structures, contributing to the atmosphere of alienation and desolation. The haunting cinematic portraits evoke a sense of remoteness, but also timelessness, whilst alluding to the fluidity of self-image, sexuality, the subject-object dichotomy, and the ambiguity of existence and identity- also emphasised by the blur effect achieved by slow shutter speed. The choice of black and white photographs and a fashion style characteristic of previous eras further emphasises the uncanny atemporality. Whilst her photographs reveal a tendency towards and concern with neuroticism and self-dramatisation, her parents emphasise that art critics tend to infuse her work with underlying political and feminist themes whilst missing her playfulness, humour, and irony- perhaps more transparent in other less-known photographs. The mythologisation of her artistic identity might partially be influenced by her tragic suicide at the age of 22, at the end of a depressive episode.

Corey Keller, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, mentions: “Art students are drawn to the conviction she brought to her work and, in contrast to the cool slickness of the digital, it embraces tactility and decay in a very sensual and seductive way.”

A poem: Velvet glove

An iron hand
in a velvet glove,
soft veils over roots
unwavering- your core,
honey-mouthed- your discourse,
your silence.

 

Within,
there is the hibernating
alpha-serpent,
awaiting resurrections-
you bathe in the light of
her uttered incantations.

 

You spot the red flags
of the dark triad,
you never wave white flags,
for there’s no fire in your soul-
not the red type that burns,
and destroys the self, no,
only blue flames that glow,
soothe, and create the selves.

 

What about the heart-
underneath the layers- is it
iron laced with velvet or
all velvet beneath armour;
is it slippery?
What about the flesh?
the snow melting under the skin
until it gleams?

The Uncanny & London Exhibitions January – March 2020

Introduction: Reflections on the Uncanny

“The uncanny” is a bemusing, unsettling, strangely familiar phenomenon characterised by a feeling of disruptive eeriness and unreality piercing through the fabric of the mundane; it generates a particular type of response in one’s psyche and evokes an ineffable feeling. The uncanny generally teeters on the blurred lines between reality and illusion, self and other, life and death, the natural and the unnatural. It is a subjective experience, to which some people are more susceptible than others; and ultimately, it’s an elusive feeling, which varies from person to person, both in the source that stimulates it and in the particularities of the response it elicits. There is a notable distinction to be made between the cultural view of the uncanny – as represented through pieces of art, film, or other media, and the psychoanalytic one, as introduced by Freud in his influential essay on aesthetics, Das Unheimliche

uncanny-collage
Art by Feebrile

In fiction, the uncanny has often been associated with recurrent themes such as the double/doppelgänger figure, reflections, mirroring, strangely familiar apparitions, haunted homes, horror, & the symbolic return of the repressed in the form of ghosts, monsters, or other Gothic figures. In art, objects such as wax masks, automata, and lifelike dolls tend to be described as uncanny. This refers to what is known as the Uncanny Valley, emphasising the unsettling, repulsive effect of things of an ambiguous lifelike nature, objects that appear to be human and alive, but upon closer examination reveal themselves to be flawed human replicas. However, in psychoanalytic terms used to describe real-life phenomena, the uncanny diverges from the cultural perspective.

Nell-Dorr-Estate-Collection-Double-exposure portrait-of-elderly-Lillian-Gish-in-field-with-flowing-white-dress-Nell-Dorr-c. 1950s-60s

“[…]According to theological principles, these seemingly natural, living, moving figures are spectral, mere images, uncanny because illusory. Such images or effigies consequently appear to supplant reality or take over from it when no prior referent remains in existence (the Seven Deadly Sins are allegories, Helen is long gone). The uncanny is an effect of reflection without referent, or of creation ex nihilo. In other words, it rises from a false impression that soul, in all its imprecision and mystery, is breathing into something; but these intimations of soul presence begin to stir only to be withheld. Living likenesses strive to guarantee and perpetuate presence, but ultimately underline the vanished and absent subject; creepily, they resemble someone or something who is not there, as in a mirror reflection with no subject.” -Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century 

Psychoanalytic discourse emphasises the subjectivity of the phenomenon, shifting the focus from the objects themselves (which are not inherently endowed with uncanniness) to how we, the observers, experience certain objects, settings, situations, and, as I would suggest, also art shows and artworks, in a way that perceptually challenges or disrupts our sense of reality, making us aware of the unfamiliar present in the familiar, and resurrecting phantom elements or modes of perception from our past, particularly from early childhood. Within these intimate moments, our being has an inner dialogue whilst a haunting sense of unreality temporarily permeates the fibres of our existence. In this light, the uncanny encompasses experiences such as a human subject unconsciously or seemingly accidentally returning to the same spot several times (as if compelled or pushed by an external force), the feeling of deja-vu, a peculiar sense of being watched, potentially by something supernatural, finding objects that you thought were lost forever, or stepping into an empty place that is normally filled with people. When it comes to the aesthetic experience, Derrida’s concept of hauntology applied to art (the extended definition of art) refers to how hauntological aesthetics can induce an otherworldly nostalgia by invoking phantoms of the past that are neither present nor absent, as well as a sense of a lost future.

In one of his inspiring talks held at the Freud Museum, British psychoanalyst Darian Leader linked the uncanny response with elements of anxiety, fear, and shock. Meanwhile, I have previously experienced the uncanny as a dream state, a combination of weightlessness, derealisation, lightheadedness, a sense of a distant, diffuse past merging with the present, of time being suspended or dissipated, of another world permeating current reality. I would describe it as a spiritual occurrence which can be resurrected by a scent, a melody, a film, an atmosphere, or an object, making me see the world through another lens, belonging to a much younger version of myself, who used to process the world in a more mystical way. This impression, this world pouring through another world, this repetition of a way of seeing is ambiguous, as it’s filtered through memories, which can morph as time goes by and “re-shape” the past. Such memories can summon echoes of seemingly insignificant, disjointed aspects and sensory moments that our minds may have considered fascinating. They are often distorted, or disguised. Unlocking the meaning behind a childhood memory is like drawing the latent image from the manifest dream. The uncanny response is sensory, emotional, and intellectual at the same time. Darian Leader also mentioned how a change in the subject’s self-image can appear in such moments, a self-perception as an object of the gaze of a higher external force, a perception of the self as ‘the other’, a fleeting sense of alienation from one’s own constructed identity, desires, sense of the world, or from reality. Darian Leader also emphasised the dimension of conscious or unconscious desire that is relevant in this context, and how the cancellation of the gap of that desire, so the moment of its fulfilment (i.e. the desire to find something or to recreate an old narrative or scenario) stimulates an uncanny response.

Freud’s essay starts with an in-depth analysis of the ambiguous meanings behind ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’, exemplifying the multiple uses of the German words, and how they are not always antonyms. Link to Freud’s essay on the uncanny: Das Unheimliche.

London Exhibitions – Last chance to see:

The Uncanny: A Centenary

Through The Uncanny exhibition, The Freud Museum celebrates 100 years since Freud defined and explored the concept of the uncanny in his well-known, pioneering essay on aesthetics entitled “Das Unhemliche”. The Uncanny programme held at the Freud Museum has included inspiring talks by Freudian psychoanalysts, artists, and academics on the topics of the uncanny in art, the uncanny in film, and the uncanny as a real life experience.

the-uncanny-the-sandman-freud-museum-art

Immerse yourself in the evocative artworks exhibition and the haunting installation inspired by T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman at the Freud Museum. The exhibition features etchings by German surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer, as well as disturbing recent works by Elizabeth Dearnley, Lili Spain, Martha Todd and Karolina Urbaniak & Martin Bladh. Moreover, you can see Freud’s death couch, as well as trying the Sandman App, through which you can have an unsettling audio tour of the museum, with the Sandman installation as the memorable epilogue.

Death-Mask-of-Sergei-Pankejeff-the-Wolf-Man-Collection-of-the-Freud-Museum-London

Besides the immersive exhibition, which is open for two more weeks, you can also attend two upcoming uncanny events, which can be found on the official website. One of the events is focused on Freud’s essay and links between psychoanalysis and literature, led by literature teacher Forbes Morlock, and the other, “Funerary Masks and Death Masks” is a talk by Nick Reynolds, British sculptor and creator of death masks.

Exhibition at Freud Museum until 9 February 2020.


Dora Maar

Surrealist photographs by Dora Maar, influential, nonconformist French photographic artist and one of the few female artists from within the famous group of the 1920s-1930s surrealists.
The uncanny artworks of Dora Maar include double exposures, photograms, and photomontages, often imbued with a sense of melancholy and tenebrosity, depicting scenes ranging from the poetic solitude and ambiguity of Parisian boulevards and urban life, to unconventional representations of fashion, erotica, symbolic self-portraits, and figures and silhouettes viewed from strange perspectives, as well as ghastly creatures. One of her most iconic images, the delicate hand crawling out of the shell on a desolate beach surrounded by an ominous skyscape with apocalyptic clouds, is filled with grace, vulnerable elegance, frailty, doom, nostalgia, as well as a strange erotic quality. The juxtaposition of elements creates a surreal dreamlike narrative. In addition to her surreal art, the artist also approached and represented the world realistically, through natural photographic captures of simple, seemingly unplanned moments, visual vernacular, and candid narratives within the urban space.
Dora Maar has been known as the model, muse, and lover of Picasso, whose dark portrayal of her in his work-particularly in “The Weeping Woman” as a suffering, tortured, yet monstrously threatening figure- she vehemently rejected, declaring that all his depictions of her are deceptions with no link to her character.

dora-maar-by-lee-miller
Dora Maar photographed by Lee Miller in her Paris home cca 1956. Featuring a Picasso portrait of her on the mantelpiece.

Captivated by her beauteous transfixing appearance and intellectual and artistic brilliance, Picasso developed an obsession with painting her in a multitude of ways, albeit distorted, stylised ways, blending various personal themes with his subject. Dora Maar often painted portraits of Picasso and other members of the surrealist circle. She was also photographed and influenced by renowned surrealist photographer Man Ray. Brassai described her saying that she had “bright eyes and an attentive gaze, a disturbing stare at times”, whilst James Lord poetically painted her inner and outer beauty in words, also starting with the windows of the soul: “Her gaze possessed remarkable radiance but could also be very hard. I observed that she was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and the more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths” (J. Lord, Picasso and Dora, New York, 1993). After parting ways with Picasso, she was treated by French psychoanalyst Lacan and eventually decided to embrace the path of solitude and mysticism, whilst still expressing herself through various forms of art.

The exhibition provides an amazing opportunity to explore the complex, bewitching, enigmatic inner world of the woman whose distinguished work and artistic identity have often been eclipsed by her legendary association with the famous cubist artist.

Dora Maar’s work is exhibited at Tate Modern until 15 March 2020.


William Blake

Mesmerising, mystical, soul-stirring artworks from the allegorical universe of William Blake. Born in Soho, London, Blake was a fascinating artist whose work was misunderstood and deemed to be a sign of madness by his contemporaries, being far ahead of its time due to its expressively dark, sacrilegious nature and the sometimes grotesque creatures depicted. His work received merit and recognition mostly posthumously, as he is now one of the most highly revered English poets and visual artists. The artist’s work was fuelled by the otherworldly visions he started experiencing from a young age. His iconic, symbolic imagery features faeries, devils and angels, fictional deities invented by him- embodiments of philosophical concepts governing his universe, other religious and celestial themes, suffering, sexual violence, scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Miltonic and Shakespearean characters. As it can be observed in the images above, there is a mixture between the ethereal & the sinister in his depictions of angelic beings and blissful scenes and dark, hellish ones with titles such as “The Number of the Beast is 666” and “The Agony in the Garden”.

The Times exhibition review: “Find yourself transported into strange, enraptured realms.”

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”– William Blake

William Blake’s oeuvre is now on exhibition at Tate Museum until 2 February 2020


Katie Eleanor: “The Sialia Marbles”

Katie Eleanor is a London-based contemporary fine art photographer and Photographic Arts Graduate from the University of Westminster. Inspired by marble sculptures, the sculptural nature of Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s artworks, as well as scenes and characters from myths and from the artist’s fictional world, artistic memory, or, as she evocatively refers to it, the museum of her mind, “The Sialia Marbles” exhibition features hand-coloured photographic prints depicting ethereal beings frozen in time, marble-like, sometimes angelic-looking, other times ghostly. The uncanny dimension of her artworks stems from the dichotomous interplay between liveliness and death, between the ephemeral and the immortal qualities of her art; the rigidity and physical longevity of marble statues and the fluidity and ephemerality of the human performer; the deathlike stillness and the implication of physical and emotional movement. The beings depicted are also characterised by the archetypal (sentient-inanimate) ambiguity belonging to the Uncanny Valley.

The tableaux of Katie Eleanor allude to religious iconography and mythology art, with some subjects appearing to be solemn, others dramatic, involved in intense narratives. The veiled, white, diaphanous subjects portrayed are reminiscent of spirit photography, which amplifies the uncanny effect. It’s as if we are waiting for the motionless inhabitants of these unknown worlds to transcend the parameters of their existence within art; waiting for them to move towards the edge of the frame or fade away, for their veils to slip and reveal a change in expression, for their eyes to meet ours or glow. At the same time, the resemblance with statues (thus with something inanimate) makes this expectation perplexing.

The process behind the images includes the ritual of painting the models, performing a scene, the post-production process of hand colouring and enhancing the texture of the black and white analogue photographs. “Sialia” is the scientific name for bluebird – which Katie mentions is her alter ego, and the choice to include the word ‘marbles’ in the series title is congruent with her museum without walls parallel- a collection of uncanny human statues from her imaginary museum. The use of analogue photography and old film techniques brings uniqueness to the artworks; the physical, haptic quality of her work makes it more memorable and evocative, taking us on a mental trip through photographic art practices and through history, bringing back cultural artefacts and the sensory, magical properties of photography belonging to the pre-digital age. In more ways than one, Katie Eleanour’s photographs transcend temporality, having a hauntological dimension.

“I love tableaux vivants and creating intense, ambiguous scenarios with my performers. Angels are found in so much religious and historical visual culture, so they are familiar. They also symbolise protection, particularly when the series is viewed as a whole. I am not a particularly religious person, but I believe in sanctuary. My brain and my imagination are my sanctuary, and that is something I associate with these solemn spaces. It’s all creating a sanctuary for the viewer to inhabit, a sense of stillness and introspection.” – Katie Eleanor, Image Journal interview, 2019

karie-eleanor-st-lucy
Saint Lucy by Katie Eleanor

Among the figures depicted in her work, you can find Saint Lucy and Daphne. After seeing a painting of Saint Lucy by Francesco Del Cossa, displayed at the National Gallery, the artist reveals:

“I was struck by the contrast between the brutality of her story and this ornate, delicate, almost whimsical rendering. In my version, the bandages over her eyes are significant, as I find the eyes of sculptures particularly haunting and vacant. This piece is a kind of homage to an amazing character in history.” – Katie Eleanor, Image Journal interview, 2019

“The Sialia Marbles” collection is on show at MMX Gallery until 15 February 2020


Other exhibitions:

Tim Walker – Victoria and Albert Museum until 22 March 2020

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh- Saatchi Gallery until 3 May 2020

Analysis: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): a spiralling lucid nightmare, Maya Deren, & A dialogue with the Unconscious

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a memorable, experimental, surreal short film directed and written by Maya Deren. Referred to as poetic psychodrama, the film was ahead of its time with its focus on depicting fragments of the unconscious mind, externalising disjointed mental processes, dreams, and potential drama through poetic cinematic re-enactments brought to life by uncanny doppelganger figures. The enigmatic protagonist, played by Deren herself, enters a dream world in which she finds herself returning to the same spots and actions in and around her house, chasing a strange mirror-faced figure in a nightmarish, entangling, spiralling narrative. Whilst she ritualistically goes through nearly identical motions, with some slight changes, within a domestic space that is imbued with dread and a sense of doom, unreality, and foreignness – we also witness glimpses of multiple versions of herself, watching herself. The camera shifts from subjective to objective angles as the self-representation of the protagonist alternates between the dichotomous concepts of the self and the “other”. The domestic space revolves around certain recurrent symbolic objects. The film conjures up the uncanniness of dissociation or, more specifically, depersonalisation; self-obsession, a woman’s dual inner/outer life and subjective experience of the world, all congruous with Deren’s interest in self-transformation, interior states, surpassing the confines of personality and self-construct, as well as the self-transcending rituals of Haitian Vodou. The dream story, culminating in death, symbolically alludes to the -sometimes strange and terrifying- initial, non-rational stage of the Jungian process of the “transcendent function” (the symbolic confrontation with the unconscious) leading to the separation of awareness from unconscious thought patterns and the liberating reconciliation between the two opposites: ego and the unconscious, which also has the effect of integrating neurotic dissociations.

Continuity is absent in the disjointed dream narrative of the film. The woman goes up the stairs inside the house and unpredictably emerges from the window in a haunting shot, wrapped in and caressed by soft, semi-transparent curtains. After catching her distorted reflection in the polished knife, the camera follows her fluid bending movements as she is crawling on the staircase, whilst being strangely blown away by the wind in various directions within a claustrophobic space, levitating, trying to hang onto things, and eventually hanging in a crucified position against the wall. With her bat-like presence casting a larger-than-life shadow behind her, she gazes at her sleeping body on the couch through a point-of-view shot from the ceiling. This moment vividly evokes the concept of an out-of-body experience. She then watches a previous version of herself through the window, following the flower-holding, black cloaked figure outside. Unable to catch up, she enters the house, and the subjective camera movement switches to this version of her, whilst she catches a glimpse of the funereally dark, cloaked apparition walking up the stairs.

The elusive mirror-faced character is compelling and symbolically evocative. Nun, Grim Reaper, or mourner? The hooded black cloak and the ritual of bringing a flower to someone’s bed are immediately reminiscent of death, of mourning, and associations between bed/tomb and sleep/death. As the face of the obscure ghost-like manifestation is actually a mirror showing the reflection of the watcher, the scenario conjures up the idea of mourning one’s own death. After leaving the flower on the bed, the character disappears and the image of the woman also disappears and re-materialises several times, back and forth on the staircase.  She then heads towards her own sleeping body whilst holding a knife, proceeding to try to stab herself before she awakens and sees a man holding a flower in front of her.

The phantom steps of the hooded dream character are traced and re-traced by the man and the woman in what appears to be reality but turns out to be a dream within a dream. The man carries the flower upstairs, leaving it on the bed, a gesture that echoes the dream act but is seen in a different context- of intimacy rather than a religious or funereal act. The flower, a symbol of femininity, is therefore connected with death and sexuality, respectively. After a shot of the reflection of the man in the mirror next to the bed, we watch her lying down through the male gaze. The camera switches to the predatory look on his face, and, as he is about to touch her, she grabs the knife and tries to stab his face. At this point, the knife breaks a mirror instead, and the face of the man disintegrates into shards (another connection between the man and the dream figure), revealing an image -perhaps a memory- of waves and the beach. The man comes inside the house again to find the dead body of the woman on the couch- she committed suicide by cutting herself with a mirror.

Deren poetically described the moment of the intertwining worlds as “a crack letting the light of another world gleam through.” [Deren, “A Letter”, in Essential Deren]

The uncanny dimension of the film lies in the transformation of the familiar environment into something mystifying, the dream-reality ambiguity, the repetition compulsion, the doubling (tripling and quadrupling), the distortions in spatial and temporal awareness, as well as the repetitive use of familiar images such as household objects that seemingly gain unknown symbolic connotations, whilst functioning as mnemonic devices. The juxtaposition of objects also contributes to the sense of dread and paranoia- the off-the-hook phone, the silent record player, the flower left behind by the enigmatic figure, the knife, the falling key. We can associate the off-the-hook phone with loss of communication, the knife -phallic form, therefore masculinity, besides the surface level connection with danger and death, the flower, as mentioned, having a contrasting effect-femininity, but also, death in this context; the key represents confinement, repression, and feeling entrapped, but also the possibility to escape. When the woman pulls out the key from her mouth, perhaps she had “the key” to find the way out all along, and then, as the regurgitated key turns into a knife, there is a connection between escape and (psychic) suicide. The mirror stands for introspection, and the death by mirror cut might allegorically refer to the disintegration of the identity construct, linked to liberation. When a version of the woman picks up the knife, she is re-claiming her agency, wielding phallic power.

It is worth mentioning that the director strongly opposed and discouraged psychoanalytic interpretations of her film and of the symbolic significance of the objects the film revolves around, instead encouraging the viewer to only interpret them in the context of the film narrative as a whole to avoid going beyond conscious intent in art. This brings me back to an inner debate on the topic of film analysis, its limitations and the question whether there is such a thing as going “too deep” into conscious and unconscious meaning behind film. The “risk” of going too deep is ingrained in the nature of the work of any film scholar or critic, especially when it comes to cine-psychoanalysis. However, when it comes to surreal films in particular, the intentions are blurred and open to interpretation, and clearly Deren’s art is lyrical in its symbolic nature, created by association of poetic images, and influenced by her interest in psychology. Before turning to cinematography, Maya Deren expressed herself through poetry, but she found it too limiting to convey the images in her mind through words.

To respect the wishes of the creator, let’s also look at her own statements related to the film, as well as her general preoccupations and beliefs, which are transparently relevant to the film.
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.” —Maya Deren on Meshes of the Afternoon, from DVD release Maya Deren: Experimental Films 1943–58.

The multiplying of the character is connected to dissociation, alienation, emotional fragmentation, and potentially reintegration towards the end. The multiple incarnations of the woman evoke an internal schizoid narrative breathing life into alternative versions of herself- challenging her self-construct. Some of her personas are passively observing her more powerful, key-holding, knife-wielding persona. The suicide is symbolic, despite the fact that, in the final scene, it appears as if the layers of the dream world are peeled off and we have access to the real world. I believe the death symbolism is derived from Jungian psychology- i.e. the death and resurrection of consciousness. In light of this thought, the film can represent a visual representation of Jung’s Transcendent Function. What unfolds on screen is the process through which a person gains awareness of and confronts unconscious material driving their life in order to unite and re-channel the opposing energies of the ego and the unconscious into a third state of being, of wholeness. This would also have an integral effect that will merge the embodiments of the character’s dissociations. According to Jung, the process involves a challenging, unnerving unleashing of fantasies, dreams, and instincts. The sense of dread and panic evoked by the film matches this idea. The process is also associated with the notion of ego death in Eastern philosophies.

To further delve into Deren’s psyche and establish other links, let’s remember that she was fascinated by the rituals of Haitian Vodou and religious possession. She later participated in Vodou ceremonies and documented the rituals. Together with her love of dance (and later, her experience with recreational drugs) her immersion in and fascination with rituals were also a result of seeking to drift away from self-centredness, to go beyond self-construct and personality, and merge with something greater. This is again related to the Buddhist concept of ego death – a transcendent, life-turning mental state with self-revelatory consequences. We know that Deren has a preoccupation with the transformation of the self and reaching higher spiritual states of awareness. In this excerpt from An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film (1946), she makes insightful comments about ritual:

The ritualistic form treats the human being not as the source of the dramatic action, but as a somewhat depersonalised element in a dramatic whole. The intent of such depersonalisation is not the destruction of the individual; on the contrary, it enlarges him beyond the personal dimension and frees him from the specialisations and confines of personality. He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning.”

I am glad she mentions depersonalisation and associates it with a form of spiritual awakening, as this coincides with my beliefs on depersonalisation and derealisation. The two often go hand in hand. Both experiences (note I’m not referring to them as ‘disorders’) involve a feeling of detachment – from one’s thoughts and from reality, as well as an awareness of this detachment (which distinguishes it from psychosis: there are no delusions or psychotic elements involved). Derealisation involves experiencing the world as if you are living in a dream or a film, and depersonalisation is the feeling of unreality of the self, which has been introduced as a psychiatric disorder of the dissociative type in 1930 and has been updated and re-interpreted several times in various psychiatric diagnosis manuals. Other common features mentioned in the DSM-IV are an uncanny distortion in visual and temporal perception, a feeling that other people, places, or events appear unfamiliar, unreal, or mechanical and lacking emotional depth. An individual experiencing this might feel like an outside observer of his or her own mental processes. All of this also applies to Meshes of the Afternoon where the protagonist is in a perpetual, adrift state of trance as she navigates the dream web and observes herself from an external perspective, whilst familiar objects appear foreign, strange, or ‘tainted’.

Here is an excerpt from Feeling Unreal, one of the few books tackling the elusive topic of  DPD- written by Daphne Simeon, MD and Jeffrey Abugel. The description matches the insight and feeling revealed by Deren regarding the state of depersonalisation in ritual:

“No longer grounded by familiar sensations or surroundings, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality. But unlike people with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia, they are not going insane at all. They are, if anything, suddenly overly aware of reality and existence and of the ways in which their own experience is a distortion of a ‘normal’ sense of a real self. Depersonalisation, in fact, resembles a sort of altered ‘awareness’ or ‘awakening’ that in some cultures is thought to be a level of spiritual growth.”

It is worth watching both existing versions of the film: Your viewing experience might change depending on whether you watch the early silent version or the 1959 version accompanied by the official sombre, atmospheric soundtrack created by ‎Teiji Ito, Maya’s second husband. You may also realise that the dreamlike atmosphere and narrative of Meshes was a source of inspiration for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001).