Nayland Blake Magic 1990-1991

Nayland Blake
Magic 1990–1
© The Artist/Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

The uncanny is apprehended as a physical sensation, like the one I have always associated with an ‘art’ experience – especially when we interact with an object or a film. This sensation is tied to the act of remembering. I can still recall, as everyone can, certain strong, uncanny, aesthetic experiences I had as a child.

Such past feelings (which recur even now in my recollection of them) seem to have been provoked by disturbing, unrecallable memories. They were provoked by a confrontation between ‘me’ and an ‘it’ that was highly charged, so much so that ‘me’ and ‘it’ become confused.

The uncanny is a somewhat muted sense of horror: horror tinged with confusion. It produces ‘goose bumps’ and is ‘spine tingling’. It also seems related to déjà vu, the feeling of having experienced something before, the particulars of that previous experience being unrecallable, except as an atmosphere that was ‘creepy’ or ‘weird’. But if it was such a loaded situation, so important, why can the experience not be remembered? These feelings seem related to so-called out-of-body experiences, where you become so bodily aware that you have the sense of watching yourself from outside yourself. All of these feelings are provoked by an object, a dead object that has a life of its own, a life that is somehow dependent on you, and is intimately connected in some secret manner to your life.

In his essay The Uncanny (1919), Freud writes about how the uncanny is associated with the bringing to light of what was hidden and secret, distinguishing the uncanny from the simply fearful by defining it as ‘that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar’. In the same essay, Freud cites Ernst Jentsch, who located the uncanny in ‘doubts’ about ‘whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate’.