A discussion on the use of the uncanny in the video piece “Here after” (2004) by Patrick Jolley, Rebecca Trost and Inger Lise Hansen
By Aissa Lopez MFA
In my artistic practice, I have been considering our relationship with the architectural spaces we inhabit, particularly the house/home. I have utilized the uncanny as a method of exploration, as a way to articulate my conceptual concerns and demonstrate how these spaces as the background set of our everyday lives can become loaded with meaning.
An examination of contemporary artists’ use of the domestic space and the uncanny in their work was the subject of my Master’s thesis. One of those artists was Patrick Jolley (b.1964-d.2012).1 I was interested to examine his work further, as there has not been much written on his practice and I felt I could contribute to the understanding/ conversation. Having also come from Ireland there is a shared cultural heritage and understanding of the history of what “home” means in an Irish context, but the strength of Jolley’s pieces mean they work beyond the colloquial. The piece “Here after”2 (2004) was made in collaboration with Rebecca Trost and Inger Lise Hansen (b.1963). The socio-political concerns of this work and the modern anxieties they raise are as relevant as they were fourteen years ago, when the piece was first exhibited.
In this article, the aforementioned domestic space is being considered not just as the actual architectural one, that we see in “Here after”, but also as a conceptual space.3 The domestic as family home, as a site for memory, the mundane background to our everyday lives; where our roles in and relationships with our society can be shaped, where the dynamics of what is public and private can be played out and where memory and the repressed can resurface.
The artists use the familiarity of the domestic space and/or its objects in this work and disrupt them, utilising the uncanny as a meta-form and metaphor in order to expose and problematize contemporary cultural and socio-political norms/mores connected with to the home.
By deciding to write about a piece which utilises the uncanny as a means of communicating its conceptual concerns, one is put in the position of explaining what is meant by the word uncanny. The uncanny has been interpreted and reinterpreted and the various meanings have had differing applications across a number of fields. It is necessary to give somewhat of an explanation on the aspects of the uncanny that are relevant to the reading of “Here after” in order to discuss the work successfully.
Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” (1919)4 has become a seminal work in discussing what the uncanny can be understood to be or described as; it has become almost a requirement that it be mentioned when picking apart an understanding of the uncanny, even in the briefest of fashions. Freud drew on E.T.A Hoffmann’s story “The Sandman” (1816) as way to explain his psychological interpretation of the uncanny. Hoffmann’s unsettling story comes out of gothic literary traditions and that have been positioned in relation to Edmund Burke’s “Terror sublime”.5
Freud spends a significant amount of his essay attempting to form a dictionary-like definition and origin to the term “uncanny” (“The Uncanny” (1919) p.123-124). He takes the German word “heimlich” or homely/ intimate as a counterpoint to “das unheimliche”, though generally translated as uncanny or unhomely the meaning is a little more nuanced, it is not exactly an opposite of homely, but a sense of strangeness or of the unknown contained within the familiar, intimate or homely. In Freud’s effort to explain and understand the uncanny through Hoffmann’s work he moves the “spooky”, unsettling and unexplained from the realm of the supernatural to the psychological.
Ernst Jentsch’s explanation of the uncanny- in his essay – “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906) – rests on the individual’s inability to immediately identify or categorize something they encounter (which we can fit in with our contemporary cultural understandings e.g. ghosts which are the dead and gone/past yet appear in the present, and therefore defy categorisation). Freud theorised that the anxiety or disturbing sense of the uncanny that can come from this cognitive dissonance or an inability to trust one’s own judgement is an aspect, but not all that there is to the uncanny. He recognizes (using the example from Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” of the automaton) that it is unsettlingly when something is similar to another, familiar thing esp. when it is life-like but not alive. He expands this to include the double/doppelgänger, repetition and the return (as connected to desire, the drive and the death drive)>6. The uncanny experience is seen by Freud to come from the triggering of a repressed emotion/trauma that attempts to resurface or primitive beliefs (e.g. superstitions, ghosts and spirits) that reassert themselves albeit temporarily7. Repetition and the repressed returning are aspects of the uncanny, I have found and will demonstrate are exploited by Jolley, Trost and Hansen in their piece “Here After” in order to successfully communicate their conceptual concerns.
The philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s definition of the “unheimlich” fits well with “Here after’s” use of the uncanny. Schelling describes it as such:
“everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”8
Louis Vax’s criticism of Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919) which Anneleen Masschelein discusses in her work “The Unconcept. The Freudian Uncanny in Late Twentieth Century Theory” (2011) connects the uncanny with notions of the fantastic, the strange or the eerie. He describes the strange as “unstable and dynamic” it seduces and repels (ibid. p.60 par.2 & 3) He critiques Freud’s attempts to define and dissect the uncanny experience, he considered the uncanny ambivalent in nature, that the experience of it changes context with the experiencing subject. (ibid p.63, par.2)9 Within the work “Here after” this is a relevant point to emphasise. The uncanny can exist between categories, vacillating between horror, the abject, the strange and the eerie, the spooky and the haunting10. It can be seductive in the curiosity and mystery it raises, it can be alluring in its’ aesthetic quality11. The uncanny changing with the experiencing subject, is something that needs to be addressed, in the piece discussed here, this is tackled by basing the work in domestic space, there is a common ground for interpretation. Jolley, Hansen and Trost use the tropes of the uncanny we can recognise from the studies of it in psychology, critical theory and from popular culture. Though there is a subjective experience to be had in the interaction and reading of the work, by the individual viewer, there is a common cultural code for understanding the work, embedded in the piece.
Ernst’s and Freud’s essays have been debated and discussed within psychology and the arts particularly in literary criticism and the study of horror and science fiction. There is much that can be read and said on the subject.12 But if we parse the uncanny as utilised generally in the visual arts, there is a potential advantage. The artwork does not have to explain the uncanny to the viewer but can show it, the artwork can potentially generate the feeling of “uncanniness” in the viewer, it can refer/elucidate visually to it without literally defining it by (re)-presenting the uncanny allowing room for the viewer to (re)-imagine what the uncanny is for them. Once the art work successfully does this the piece becomes open to a deeper reading, the layers of meaning can be revealed as the viewer asks themselves why is the uncanny being used? Why has the artist chosen to disrupt the norm? What does the piece wish to communicate by doing this?
The Home is haunted.“Here After” (2004)
Irish artist Patrick Jolley’s (b.1964 – d.2012) had a history of dealing with the domestic space and the uncanny in both his photographic and film work. His films “Drowning room” (2000) and “Burn” (2002)13 (see fig.1&2), made in collaboration with American artist Reynold Reynolds (b.1966) both deal with the domestic, surreal, abject and the uncanny.
Here after(2004) is a black & white super 8 & 16mm short film which was made by Jolley in collaboration with Norwegian artist Inger Lise Hansen (b.1963) and German artist Rebecca Trost.14 Rebecca Trost had previously worked with Jolley and Reynolds on “Burn” (2002) as part of the production team and as cinematographer on their film “Sugar” (200515). Hansen shows in her work a similar sensitivity to Jolley for how the places we inhabit are loaded with meaning; and a shared interest in playing with time to build tension and create atmosphere in her pieces, you could say this is true to all film makers, though this is emphasized by Hansen’s use of stop go animation and time lapse which can be seen in the 16mm film piece “Hus” (1998)16 and in “Here after”.
The medium of film, like the photograph, can be said to have an inherent uncanniness to it. The film being a copy, imitation, double or repetition, capturing real, moving, life and replaying it back to us, the apparition of the past appearing in the present, all of which have ties to the concepts of the uncanny I have discussed previously.
This work is an example of the heimlich and unheimlich being utilised to full effect, problematizing the themes of nostalgia, the hauntological and the return. There are references to the imitation and the automaton also of the haunted house, of architecture being a vehicle for the uncanny17 which are seen in both Ernst Jentsch’s and Sigmund Freud’s essays on the uncanny.18 This is demonstrated in Here afteras repeatedly objects of the home seem to gain life and move of their own volition. The work continues to disturb the familiarity of the domestic space portraying its life and decay after being abandoned by the inhabitants. Yet their story and what they can stand for is told in and by their absence. These aspects all lend to the unsettling atmosphere and play with our modern interpretations of the haunted house and the psychological tropes of the uncanny as explored in Freud’s essay.
The work goes further than being a piece solely about the uncanny itself, the uncanny is used as a means to communicate the piece’s conceptual concerns. The site of the work is key to the other readings of the piece. It was made as part of “Breaking Ground” – the Per Cent for Art program for Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. in Dublin, Ireland. This scheme existed between 2002 and 2009 and various art projects ran to mark the impending demolition of Ballymun’s mid 1960’s tower blocks. The work was made in the Shangan tower block, was originally shown in the nearby Eamonn Ceannt Tower. The films were projected onto the walls and other surfaces of the abandoned flats and the sound was piped through the rooms. After the exhibition, the permanent artwork of the twelve-minute film Here afterwas made.
Ballymun was built as a solution to the social housing crisis in Dublin at the time, it was built with all the optimism that other similar projects were constructed around Europe. It quickly transpired to be far from the imagined utopia; as a result of the lack of local facilities, transport links and the city council poorly maintaining the tower blocks. The housing was not a mix of state owned/public and private but purely that of people who could not afford a home otherwise. These small flats were cold, damp and soon mould filled. The area became terribly affected by drug abuse and crime. People living there became trapped, other social housing rarely available and their economic conditions making it almost impossible to move elsewhere. The word Ballymun became synonymous in Irish society with destitution, a place to avoid, a place that if seen on your CV prejudiced people against you as an applicant. There was a long campaign for improvements by the Ballymun community residents, which turned into a campaign for their demolition and new housing to be provided, eventually happening in the early two thousands.19
Here aftershould also be seen in the wider context of the history of house or home in Ireland, which has long been a contested space. During the time of occupation and colonialism where the foreign landlord had to be paid their inflated rents, often ending in eviction, the idea of home was a fragile one. This sense of fragility was carried on to the impoverished tenements found in Irish cities as recently as the 1960s. The Irish’s stereotypical idea of a home is one you own, a house, with a bit of land, this possibly harks back to colonialism or from a traditionally rural farming heritage. Owning your home in Ireland means, perhaps naively, a secure home.20 There is not a tradition of long term renting like some other European countries nor are there the state controls that would make this a viable option. Therefore, the landless rented flats of Ballymun failed to meet the ideal standards in more ways than the obviously inferior construction and poor living conditions.
When we approach a reading of “Here after” it is necessary to keep this context in mind, what Ballymun’s apartment blocks have come to symbolize. Jolley aware of this opens Here afterwith a shot of the towers, derelict and austere, there are quick edits as we look up at them, a grey sky the backdrop (fig.3). The sound (all recorded on site) is of the wind, an eerie atmosphere is built. The opening shot of the interiors is of a long corridor, reminiscent of a haunted gothic ruin, but instead of long flowing curtains we find peeling wallpaper blowing in the wind (fig.4).
The rules do not apply here, the familiar becomes disturbed. Time moves too slow objects falling taking a little longer than they should, then inexplicably too fast, light races across abandoned rooms, shadows like people move in hallways. Invisible forces enact violence on furniture and some pieces seem to age and decay before us. We have entered a space that does not behave as expected, and as the piece progresses it becomes more sinister, inanimate objects seem to gain a life force, they breathe, mattresses plummet through ceilings, doors close by themselves, the building and furniture ooze unknown liquid, the floors open up and carpets seem to be eaten by these sinkholes, pulled into a void below. (fig.5, 6 &7)
The multiple mattresses and furniture that fall through ceilings emphasize the verticality of the spaces. Apartments stacked one over the other, multiple mattresses like multiple people existing literally on top of one another. This is not the ideal detached independent home, the space shared only with your intimate family, just the land underneath you and the sky above you.
Heidi Kaye writes in her essay The Gothic film(2015) about the persistence of gothic tales. That they may seem to be destined to be continually reborn to suit the fears and desires of each new period21 Jolley, Trost and Hansen utilise traditional techniques and aesthetic forms associated with the uncanny, the gothic tale of the haunted house that can be found in literature and horror movies in Here after.22
The nature of film itself can be seen as spectral, the past returned to haunt us, only coming to existence it the ghostly projection, an illusion of light. The artists’ choice to use black and white film adds to the dramatic lighting which helps create the haunting atmosphere. In referring to the history of black and white horror films, there is a doubling up of his use of the unheimlich, they stimulate our memories of previously experiencing horror and the uncanny, while we experience the uncanny again in the film Here after. They leave us doubly unsettled. In this they remind us we should already have been unsettled by Ballymun, in revealing the small living spaces and decrepit interiors they do not let us ignore how we failed a whole community. The work highlights our fears and anxieties about falling into poverty, of losing our homes and becoming one of the ‘abject’ lower classes, they point out the instability of our place in society and the flawed state systems that we are meant to be able to depend on.
The idea of home is haunted by its own fragility and by an ethereal, possibly, impossible ideal. In this piece, the artists problematize cleverly our relationship with the space/place. The camera observes for us, makes us look at this rejected/ abject site. From the generic forms of the tower blocks in the opening shots, each an austere twin of the other, to repeated scenes of decaying small rooms and corridors, the homogenized uniformity, the deindividualization of the living spaces is revealed. The work contains a menacing ambiance, mirroring the stereotypical opinions of the area.
They do not make it so simple though, the traces of people remind us people’s lives and homes were here, posters on a bedroom wall, a well-used couch with a pair of boots sitting nearby, as if the person has just walked out of the room. The artists received permission from the former tenants to use the flats and the objects left in the building; it is the repeated evidence and absence of people that is a pivotal part of the work. The objects are familiar, we can imagine people’s lives there or project ourselves into these now relatable spaces.
We recognize there are families’ memories held here; normally when we leave behind a home it continues, we can imagine others leading out their lives in the same spaces. But these were ill functioning homes, badly designed, perhaps doomed to end in destruction from the start and our witnessing their sped-up decay emphasizes their short life expectancy. The place and the objects now have a death sentence. We cannot have the comfortable nostalgia for a past home, or a beautiful abandoned ruin, these buildings have become symbols in Ireland for a failed state project that made the inhabitants’ lives harder.
There is a wider experience of these failed recent re-interpretations of Le Corbusier’s modernist apartment buildings which makes the work relatable outside of an Irish context.
The use of the unsettling atmosphere, the sense of the uncanny and the well-made aesthetic quality of the work makes the piece captivating and unnerving at times. The domestic space as heimlich and the exploration of it as unheimlich prompts us to consider our phenomenological and psychological relationship with the spaces we live in. Yet as I have explained here Jolley, Hansen and Trost go further, this work has a social and political comment to make. It makes us consider how our place in society determines the spaces we inhabit, our potential relationship with them and how they impact our quality of life and the fears and anxieties around this. The work does not want us to forget, or repress the memory of Ballymun, the buildings may be demolished but they can perpetually return in this film work. A reverent and a reminder of this ill-fated housing project and of the people who lived there.
Evident even on the most cursory of inspections is the fact Jolley, Trost & Hansen take the familiarity of the domestic space and/or its objects and disrupt them, thereby utilizing the uncanny to explore cultural and political norms/mores. As I scrutinized the work further it became clear that their successful use of the uncanny is integral to revealing the depth at which the aforementioned exploration occurs and is necessary for the communication of the conceptual concerns.
The house/ home as a protective world becomes penetrable by outside forces. The notion of domestic as a private space where the individual is hidden from public view, where we are possibly free to be ourselves, is revealed to be potentially an oppressive site, effected by socio-economic issues and political decisions, often beyond the individuals’ control. We are reminded that our position in a society determines the spaces we can inhabit and our potential relationship with them. The space that can be viewed a safe haven, becomes a trap. The idea of the ideal home becomes an un-ideal or imperfect one. Where our fears and anxieties around our ability or the possibility to maintain a home in its fundamental sense, as a dwelling that lends shelter and safety for our family, is examined.
On closer examination, the repeated use of absence and presence is an important aspect of the piece; the first obvious absence, we as viewers are asked to recognise, is the lack of the ideal home, seen in the opening shot of the imperfect abandoned tower block apartments, since demolished. What we do find left (or present) is made strange; with the clearly apparent absences the “missing” can be made present by this negation and there is often “an-other” presence alluded to by uncanny methods.
The disrupted reality created by the artists enables this, an absence/presence can be indicated and in the absence of language the visual artwork can attempt to subvert the symbolic and leave a gap for the repressed to return and potential a space for the Real to enter23.
A notable aspect of “Here after” is the use of repetition, particularly as it relates to the uncanny;24 which is integral to the work and is intelligently utilised by the artists to engage the viewer and structure their ability to problematize and communicate their theoretical issues, surrounding the contemporary domestic space and their larger socio-political concerns. In the repetition, the uncanny is emphasised and the habitual is reflected25. By presenting in the work, the same or similar differentiated repeats, after our initial experience of the piece’s unsettling aspects, we become familiar with the work; how to read it, even what to expect, but just like the uncanny, it is in the familiarity that the unfamiliar (hidden and repressed) is revealed and emphasised. The viewer is made look, to confront the conceptual concerns of the piece – the layers of possible meanings are uncovered and a deeper reading of the work can take place; elevating its ability to give voice to the ignored, repressed and underrepresented.
In “Here after” the artists take the familiar idea and aesthetic of the haunted house and repeat it back to us, changing it to a modern setting where the horrific conditions of this failed social housing are revealed. The motifs reoccur, multiple mattresses fall through spaces, beds and sofas breathe and quickly decay. They ask us to confront the fragility of our ability to maintain/ retain a home, for us to question the boundaries of our social divides and our trust in the governmental institutions that are meant to protect and provide for us. The film acts as a referent and a memento mori, to the buildings and imperfect homes that no longer exist; essentially, it can be played back to us, again and again, lest we forget26 this unsuccessful state project and the devastation it caused for the individuals and families who lived there.
In my discussion of “Here after” I have shown that the uncanny disruption of the domestic space, its objects and our relationship with it/them questions the habitual or the norm, the given, accepted or learned positions we hold in the society we live in. This questioning, this invitation for the viewer to reflect, is as powerful today as when it was first exhibited.
Jolley, Trost and Hansen cleverly use the aesthetic, atmosphere and the psychological tropes of the uncanny to communicate their theoretical interests. The uncanny and its unsettling effects do not have to remain stuck in a self-referential loop, repeatedly making us uncomfortable in familiar ways. These familiar ways, repeated, the signs and signifiers of the doppelganger, the automata, the unintentional return, and the haunted unheimlich house used in the work, can also be read as simulacrum. These simulacrum27, signifiers made empty by their reproduction, were ready to be filled by Jolley, Trost and Hansen with our modern socio-political issues, fears and anxieties; thereby problematizing our position and role in the cultures and ideologies which helped create them.
I chose to discuss “Here after” as the conceptual concerns it raises still resonate today.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the introduction, there has not been a considerable amount written on Jolley’s body or work, I wanted to contribute to the understanding and possible conversations on his practice.
There is an onus on us, the viewers, to give “Here after” and the issues it raises serious consideration. The fact Ballymun was not a sole experiment, if we are to be generous we might say “not the only mistake” (if were attempting accuracy we would say “incompetence and wilful negligence”28). There are other areas in Ireland, in Dublin, Cork and Limerick that were built with similar lack of care, which continue to suffer a now familiar neglect. There are the many issues with housing for Travelers (a native ethic minority in Ireland) such the lack of safe Halting Sites29 and other places, where poverty and the states disregard for its citizens have combined to make basic living conditions and home a precarious possibility. The socio-political concerns and the anxieties surrounding the home, that the piece raises are as relevant today. The Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 tragically shows this governmentally sanctioned socio-economic neglect is not unique to Irish society30.
In the ten years since the economic downturn a succession of Irish governments and politicians have continued to mismanage Ireland’s housing market, both public and private31. It seems the issues that “Here After” raise are ones that we are doomed to be haunted by, a trauma being inflicted once again on another generation of Irish citizens, where the home in the basic sense as roof over your head, a dwelling that lends shelter and protection is not guaranteed by the state, currently being experienced by the 3,646 homeless children in Ireland.32 As the gap widens between the rich and the poor for many owning your own home is an impossibility and trying to keep the one you have is wrought with anxiety, an issue not only Ireland needs to face.33
List of illustrations
A note on the images: Firstly, I would like to thank artist Reynold Reynolds and Art Studio Reynolds not only for permission to use images from “Burn” (2002) but for generously providing me with the two still I have used in the text.
Emails were sent to the contact email from the Patrick Jolley Estate website and to Inger Lise Hansen asking permission to use stills from “Here after” (2004). But Idid not get any reply. (I could not find contact information forRebecca Trost)
I am using the images in good faith, in that I have not received any objections, so I am presuming it is acceptable to proceed. The stills used were taken from the film editor Bobby Good’s Vimeo page, he worked with Patrick Jolley on a number of projects, he has since moved the video to his own webpage where it is still free to view:http://www.bobbygood.de/portfolio/patrick-jolley-hereafter
The Patrick Jolley Estate has videos embedded in their website for the public to view. If I am contacted by the Patrick Jolley Estate, Rebecca Trost or Inger LiseHansen to say they do not want the images used they will be immediately removed.