The first thing that strikes you about ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ is the beauty of the vast landscapes that hang along the walls of Parasol unit’s ground floor gallery. Devoid of human presence and of any sense of scale, the photographs are so large and aesthetically powerful that they instantly encompass you and pull you in.
Yet under closer inspection some of them are not quite right. Julie Monaco’s work echoes Ansel Adams’s towering mountains. Look closely and you will realise that her landscapes are actually digitally generated images, made using fractal algorithms, of scenes that never existed. Similarly, Jörg Sasse has created apparently realistic sweeping vistas entirely using computer technology. False readings and interpretations prove intriguing – they remind us how easily photography can lie. But is there an element of the ‘uncanny’ in these otherwise sublime images as the exhibition title suggests?
In his 1919 seminal essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud explores two short stories written by E.T. A. Hoffman. In both texts, Freud detects, as only he would, the fear of castration, but he also suggests that a feeling of dread is evoked because something that was once homely and familiar has been made strange and unfamiliar. That we feel tricked and confused while discovering the true origins of Monaco and Sasse’s work can be in little doubt, but the view that their technology is unfamiliar to us would take almost no account of the digital age we live in. Our awareness of image manipulation is not the only thing, however, that distances their work from the notion of the uncanny, for any feeling of uncertainty caused by the puzzle of the unreal-looking photographs, evaporates after the mystery of their creation is solved.
Sonja Braas’ work on display also fits this description, although instead of working digitally, she photographs constructed sets that resemble the natural world. Her ‘Firestorm’ (2008) however, is an exception: it introduces an element of threat and calamity by depicting a cityscape on a calm unclouded night being approached by a blazing fire from behind. This unsettling feeling that something tumultuous is simmering beneath the serenity of the image is equally sensed in Elger Esser’s photographs on the opposite wall. Despite the lyricism of his ‘Italian’ landscapes, or perhaps because of it, there is something eerie about his images as if they have successfully captured the strange lull before the storm.
The show’s overall effect moves away from dramatic to more quiet and quotidian as one approaches the upstairs rooms and the works of Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore. Both artists are known for documenting the American vernacular landscape using an expressionless approach, warm tones and a compositional framing which allows them to take surreal photographs that appear simultaneously commonplace and arresting, banal and grandiose. When Rosalind Krauss studies surrealism - and in particular Hans Bellmer’s disturbing photographs of dolls - through Freud’s lens, she is underscoring the fact that a haunting end result is a necessary ingredient in triggering that metaphysical shudder of the uncanny. Yet the ruptures of contemporary life in Shore and Sternfeld’s work are less about discomfort and more about quirky humour and playfulness. That Sternfeld chose to capture a group of fire-fighters extinguishing a blaze while one of them is ironically shopping for pumpkins speaks volumes about his mischievous spirit, and yet makes the lack of uncanniness further apparent.
If such works may be accused of sabotaging the exhibition’s own intent, arguably it is the last room that saves the day. In it, a 10-minute video by David Claerbout plays on a loop bringing Elvis Presley back from the grave. Using a snapshot of Elvis taken before he hit the big time, Claerbout has recreated Elvis’ body in a video in which the camera rotates around him at an incredible close-up scale. The extreme awkwardness experienced by viewing Elvis’ bare skin, soft hair and sweat is triggered by the invitation to scrutinise in such intimacy a figure famously surrounded by mystery. It is also kindled by the eerie way a dead person appears so alive, calling to mind the importance of waxworks, automata and dolls in Freud’s examination of the uncanny. ‘KING’ (2015-16), which is neither reality nor imaginative invention, neither animation nor in-animation, hits the spot of the paradoxical nature of the uncanny: the familiar and the unfamiliar at once.
It would take another show to thoroughly map photography’s relationship to the body and the uncanny. For now, ‘Magical Surfaces’ predominantly explores the notion’s expression through landscapes. By what criteria the works might be deemed uncanny is anyone’s guess, but uncertainty, confusion and dilemma are indeed synonymous with that niggling feeling of discomfort.