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.”
“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.
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.
“[…]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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Tim Walker – Victoria and Albert Museum until 22 March 2020
Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh- Saatchi Gallery until 3 May 2020
New York-based contemporary multimedia artist Signe Pierce self-identifies as a reality artist, exploring the blurred lines between art and technology, between art and life, and the concept of heightened reality through her neon urban signature photographic style characterised by a glamorous, saccharine aesthetic. The vibrant colour palette she uses is dominated by bright pink and purple hues, adding a different dimension to mundane urban landscapes. The chromatic excess emphasises artificiality, as the artist provides a visual commentary on the nature of reality in the digital world.
Signe Pierce embraces the idea of ‘unreality’ and takes it to extremes in her lurid, holographic paradise. The viewer entering her world is mesmerised, distracted, trapped in hyperreality. Beautifully influenced by her environment and the chaos of New York, her work provides a glimpse into an augmented version of the famous city for the outsider to be virtually immersed into. Since her art is of a meta-referential nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that it self-consciously depicts the ubiquity of commercial ads and photography, phone screens, screens in general, which, instead of piercing into her world, are rather being harmoniously incorporated in it.
The almost aggressive, consistent use of pink and light purple tones reveals a feminist preoccupation with what is considered stereotypically girly- being subverted by the themes depicted, such as consumerism, surveillance, hyper-reality, and assertive hyper-femininity. The artist not only plays with visual perceptions by depicting fluid forms and using distorted liquefied shapes in some of her pictures, she also challenges perceptions of femininity, by blurring the line between the objectifier and the objectified and portraying the female figure as provocative and strong.
The slick fashion commercial aesthetic of the photographs is reminiscent of surreal fashion horror films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and the urban vividness of cyberpunk cinematography. At the same time, her frequently updated Instagram feed includes cinematic photographs depicting a constantly wired, overstimulated world. Some elements often featured in her universe are mirrors, eyes, technological devices, shiny, holographic pieces of clothing, reflecting lights, rainy cityscapes, strip malls, and a lush, stunningly illuminated mise-en-scene. In addition to emphasising the inherent ‘simulacrum’ nature of the urban experience in New York, Signe Pierce’s hyperreal sensory spectacle merges perceptions of reality and simulation to make the viewer question the nature of truth and reality in contemporary society.
Gregory Crewdson’s dark, atmospheric, cinematic photographs capture perfectly framed frozen moments incorporating disconnected figures which seem to reflect the domestic and natural landscapes they inhabit; the mundane landscapes are often characterised by an eerie solitude and transformed into something otherworldly, haunting, and compelling. His photographs seem to both reveal and conceal something, creating ambiguous narratives – they are both stills of life and embodiments of the uncanny. The boundaries between life and art, between intimacy and isolation, between strange and familiar environments are blurred.
“My pictures are about everyday life combined with theatrical effect. I want them to feel outside of time, to take something routine and make it irrational. I’m always looking for a small moment that is a revelation.” – Gregory Crewdson
The cinematic nature of his work is also reflected in the complex process of creating and staging his images: there is a large crew involved in various aspects of production; props, casting, storyboards, and the natural world is heightened by the use of artificial Hollywood-style lighting and effects such as artificial rain and ice.
“My pictures are about a search for a moment—a perfect moment. To me the most powerful moment in the whole process is when everything comes together and there is that perfect, beautiful, still moment. And for that instant, my life makes sense.” – Gregory Crewdson
In his interviews, GC emphasises the importance of the visual balance between the figure, the interior space, and the exterior space; the feeling of transience and the sense of in-between-ness evoked by his images, the enigmatic moments between other unknown moments, the visual commentary on the human condition, the portrayal of flesh, nudity, aging, vulnerability, and mortality.
Crewdson’s aesthetic incorporates American suburban surrealism, and the mise-en-scène usually features windows, mirrors, bleak settings shown in a mysterious, ghostly light. His photographs are windows into the intimacy of a world filled with hidden unsettling desires.
“I’m interested in using the iconography of nature and the American landscape as surrogates or metaphors for psychological anxiety, fear or desire.”- Gregory Crewdson
The characters created often seem alienated, immersed in deep thought, in cosmic loneliness, internal conflict, or a longing for something ineffable. Their expressions are pensive, focused on something beyond the world depicted, at times introspective. The feelings evoked are anticipation – frozen in time, subconscious disquiet, and estrangement.
“I really love that dynamic between beauty and sadness…there’s always these moments of quiet alienation, the sense of disconnect, but also, these moments of possibility.”- Gregory Crewdson
Crewdson’s photography reminds us of the suspense, sadness, and solitude of Edward Hopper’s paintings, of Diane Arbus’ bizarre and psychologically intense photographic portraits of people on the margins of society, of William Eggleston’s saturated depictions of seemingly normal, mundane settings behind which something disturbing seems to lurk; as well as the surreal quality of the films of David Lynch.
Crewdson’s series include Cathedral of Pines, Twilight, and Beneath the Roses.
John Santerineross, considered a neo-symbolist photographer, creates dark, sinister, erotic imagery whilst focusing on conveying moods and evoking states of mind, an approach favoured by the symbolists in art in general. Neosymbolism explores mystical, emotional, spiritual, as well as sensual themes, the unconscious mind and dreams, metamorphoses of good and evil, the connection between image and soul, employing private and universal symbols. Santerineross’ inspiration springs from world religions & mythology, and his controversial profane tendency to combine sexuality- particularly alternative erotic imagery with religious iconography has attracted both admiration and criticism. Whilst in some photography magazines he has been called “the world leading Neo-symbolist artist“, Catholic League President William A. Donohue describes Santerineross’ as a nihilist and one of the “artistic assassins and moral anarchists who want to artistically assassinate Christianity, especially Catholicism“. Santerineross does not confirm or deny any statements or interpretations due to his belief that art should appeal to each viewer on a personal level; that they should define his art for themselves rather than being limited by an explanation, another view also held by the early symbolists.
The Symbolist manifesto (1886, by Jean Moréas) emphasises: Truth in subjective experience. Truth in apparent chaos and insanity. Truth in excess and extravagance. The risk of what was once rebellious to become conformist.
John Santerineross’ collections feature unsettling erotic imagery, dream symbolism, and the nightmarish aspects of the human psyche, as he delves into the dark recesses of the mind where sado-masochistic fantasies and decadent narratives are generated. Psychoanalytically informed, he has the awareness that many of our repressions and fears are rooted in childhood trauma, which draws the obscure map of our unconscious mind and desires. The uncanny is linked to repressed ideas which are alienated and sometimes return to us through strangely familiar moments, through a sentence, a word, or a piece of art that can pierce through the state of repression and bring back certain feelings, wishes, and thoughts originating in childhood. It seems that his photographs allegorically reflect and encapsulate the dimension of desire and repression.
A selection of artworks from the stunning, eerie underwater photography collection by Bulgarian visual artist and fine art photographer Mira Nedyalkova.
Mira’s work depicts the beautiful facets of pain and sadness in fluid forms, whilst linking water with sensuality and exploring erotic and emotional themes.
Water symbolism always makes us think of regeneration, purification, and catharsis – a reflection of the beginning and the end. Mira emphasises the dual dimension of water, symbolising sin and purity, as well as pleasure and innocence. The aquatic element has both generative and destructive powers; it can be life-giving and apocalyptic. Her models are depicted as otherworldly beings, seemingly frail, yet also dark and enigmatic. Water is also the essential element contributing to the surreal aesthetic of the pictures, since it changes the light, colour, and shapes captured in unexpected ways.
Mira Nedyalkova is not interested in pure photography – as opposed to many photographers who praise raw analogue photographs for capturing unaltered moments, she recognises the creative and transformative power of post-processing and digital editing as a way of enriching photography, of creating something new, conveying an emotion, and telling a story. As a former painter, she now sees digital editing as a way of getting closer to painting again.
Like many artists, Mira believes emotion is an essential part of a remarkable piece of art. Her view is epitomised in her stunning, memorable photographs, often depicting expressive, intense characters found in captivity. Other recurring characteristics of her artistic vision are a preference for nudity, the eerie beauty of nature, enigmatic, fragile-looking animals, and subtle sexuality.
Polish self-taught fine art photographer Kamila Kansy, known as Laura Makabresku, draws inspiration from her deep, intimate connection to her native land – which she perceives as a mysterious realm of sinister fairy tales, in order to design a tragic world revolving around death, obscure eroticism, suffering, and human frailty. The suggestive name of her artistic identity conjures up the darkness portrayed in her haunting photographs which seem to reflect the Freudian uncanny through their eerie and strangely familiar quality.
Stepping away from digital cameras, she embraces the analogue practice with a soft painterly style with dark undertones. To create a gloomy, glacial, and morbid atmosphere, the colours used are often desaturated dark blue and green and the photographs are intentionally underexposed. Some photographs adopt the technique of superimposition to achieve a ghostly aesthetic and induce the impression that there is always something morbid looming within the frame – a dormant presence about to be unleashed.
The distinctive imagery depicting Laura Makabresku’s artistic world can be compared to a dream: it has multiple layers, inviting the observer to begin an internal exploration. Her pictures should not only be admired aesthetically, but also felt from within. The shots are like collections of impulses, raw emotions, objects filled with hidden symbolism displayed in a beautifully chaotic, surreal manner which often involves strikingly unexpected combinations of elements such as dead animals, naked bodies, blood, knives, ants amplified in size, ravens pictured indoors, and human bodies with animal masks. The uncanny is ever present in this artistic realm: from dead birds coming out of the mouth of a woman collapsed on the autumnal earth, a naked body covered in moss, guarded by a mysterious fox, a sorrowful girl’s languid body enveloped by a goat’s hide, a pensive woman touching a bowl filled with blood, upon which a little bird rests, a touching portrait of a girl embracing a fox in a glass coffin, eyes covered by pressed flowers or positioned dangerously close to a raven. All of her entrancing visual creations are filled with lyricism. In addition to these transparent motifs and compositions, the uncanny also lies in the homely atmosphere of the photographs, as well as the strange aesthetic quality reminiscent of macabre fairy tales.
Influenced by Francesca Woodman, her black and white portraits of the naked female body convey a duality between the calm, beautiful, graceful vulnerability and simplicity of the nude body sight and the undertones of death, darkness, emptiness, isolation, and dark sexuality. Through self-portraits, she embraces her fears and anguish and explores themes like autopsy, witchcraft, love, and a deep connection with animals, mortality, and the evil that lurks within her. The universe she creates makes the viewers look within and be inspired to embrace their own dark instincts and fantasies.
Fascinated by the mysterious quality of the colour photographs of William Eggleston, a 20 year-old Alex Prager decided to buy a professional camera and dark room equipment in order to express herself creatively through images, in her quest for existential meaning. 18 years later, currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the Silver Lake Drive exhibition represents a mid-career examination of her distinctive photographic and filmic work.
The internationally-acclaimed images of crowds, staged by the artist, portray a sense of emptiness and disconnection underneath the polished façade of active, compact crowds. It can be seen as a subtle commentary on the continuous, superficial interconnectedness that disguises individual alienation: everyone is self-preoccupied and follows their own narrative. There is an intertwining line between the public and the private- groups of people finding themselves in the same space, unaware of or uninterested in the silent stories hidden in the others’ eyes and in their conflicting facial expressions.
Often shot from above, from voyeuristic angles, Alex Prager’s still photographs always have a cinematic quality: they seem to be frozen film stills, presenting a fragment of a greater narrative; which is the main reason the self-taught artist decided to create short films conveying the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ moments surrounding the photographs. Through the cinematic perfection of her still images, the ordinary situations depicted become compelling: the staged details in deep focus, the strange lighting, the highly stylised and saturated aesthetic, all render the reality of her world in a glamourous and glossy way. However, despite the hyper-real and sometimes eerily perfect nature of the pictures, the essence of this world lies in the portrayal of a disturbing emotion, hence there is always a sense of authenticity beyond the artificial fictive layer.
The focus on emotion has been acknowledged by the artist and made particularly obvious in her short film, Despair. This early piece adopts characteristics of her general cinematic sources of inspiration, including Hollywood melodrama, silent movies, film noir, art house cinema, as well as Hitchcock and Lynch. The atmosphere dictating her work is ominous, as if tragedy always lurks around the corner – an idea reinforced by the recurrent theme of the vanishing woman, which can also be found in her more recent film shot in Paris, La Grande Sortie.