It is a Sunday (I think) and I am a child in my parents ’car as we go for a drive. I recall a moment of terrible concern as I glimpse the exterior of houses steadily bob into and then disappear from view. I became preoccupied with the realisation that within each one of these buildings there existed an entire hidden reality of rooms, pictures, televisions, computer games, CDs and CD players, tables, chairs, cutlery, fancy ornaments, cabinets, floorings, mirrors, cereal containers (those extra boxes you transfer the already boxed cereal into), and a whole constellation of other uncountable objects, both banal and odd, that I would never be able to perceive or access. Not that I was especially interested in any of these particular things, but the fact that so much of the world was effectively and permanently out-of-sight, despite being right there in front of me, did cultivate a strange kind of gnawing anxiety. I remember this sensation being heightened when walking through my village. All these familiar buildings whose interiors were inaccessible to experience. Perhaps referring to this memory as a terrible concern is overemphasising its significance, but I dramatise only to highlight that this was a thought which I, periodically, did offer substantial time to.
When I have later (and all-too-briefly) reflected upon this, my understanding of the situation has typically pivoted on the general opposition between familiarity and the unknown, and the more specific relationship between the home and the outside. Whilst theoretically any place can be a home for any one person or group of people, a very important distinguishing feature is that my home doesn’t feel or act like your home, and vice-versa. (Although any setting can become a home for any person, this process is not automatic and requires a period of acclimatisation in order to familiarise oneself with the environment.) In its ideal form the home is supposed to serve as a nest of safety and respite. A place of return that simultaneously exists within the world, but also somehow bracketed off in its own little enclave. This separation dictates that certain actions, events, and utterances that would be forbidden on the outside are permissible within these walls, with this logic engulfing psychological, social, and legislative domains. What resides within the home always remains partially occluded to the outside, and indeed it is this hidden dimensionality — although, of course, these secrets are perfectly visible to the inhabitants — which helps to define it. Accordingly, the unease I felt toward the secretive, or unseeable aspects of those other homes, more than likely finds its root in the uncanny; that sense of strangeness or ambiguity which lodges itself within the familiar.
I open with this unrefined and rambling rumination on the non-familiarity of the home (taken as a general concept), as it is this thematic which immediately strikes the viewer upon entering into the exhibition space of Rachel Daly’s I’ll Be Seeing You. A mixed media work comprising photography, video, and objects, the setting is orchestrated in such a way as to conjure the artifice of a cosy domestic interior. Quite obviously this isn’t a home, and the public space of the art gallery plays by very different rules, but the atmosphere cultivated does encourage us to partake in the facsimile. A centrally-located faux-fur rug promises warmth and stimulates haptic sensibilities, with the dim light illuminated from a wall-lamp (the object serving both an aesthetic and practical purpose) helping to further compress the intimacy of the space. A large photograph, printed on free-hanging fabric, depicting two arms locked within an embrace, amplifies the desire for touch and a longing for familiarity, with a video projection housed atop an altar, the base of which finds itself adorned with flowers, completing the aesthetics of homeliness.
However, after settling for a couple of moments this ostensible warmth recedes, becoming malformed into a welcoming draped in clinical austerity. The invitation to enter is still extended, but at a limit, implicating that as a guest some aspects of this environment will make themselves secret to you. Now I’m thinking is that altar, with artificial flowers, merely a shrine to a home? A totem of remembrance whose ritualistic splendour would hope to ward off the darkness? At the other end of the room, the initial intimacy between the people in the photographs dissolves into ambiguity, as the scenes open up a latent possibility space for those trapped within. Taken by themselves, severed from the installation, the power in these images resides in their decision to voice nothing explicitly; if sinister murmurings lurk these domestic halls, they remain softly spoken. An overhead shot of a man and woman find their inverted pose corrected in the reflection of a window, with the aerial perspective gesturing towards the objectifying eye of surveillance. In another, the woman lays emotionless on the floor, as the male character is cropped to
his knees and socks, facing another window and positioned in the background so that his shadow would cast a domineering vestige over the interior. Yet no emphatic proclamation announces itself through or across these forms, as similar to Daly’s previous photographic work there is a restrained surrealism on display, as anonymous figures enwreathed within nameless scenarios coyly defy identification and meaning.
They would appear as facades whose innards recoil from the surface, with the ardent rhetoric associated with their hidden reality only becoming perceivable once we tune into the narrative voice-over accompanying the video work. Through the spoken poem we learn that it is the all-encompassing property of love which binds these figures. However, this love is not grounded on tenderness, understanding, or a joyful coming together, but is rather a corrupted variant, existing now only as a penance to be endured (“I am one of those who willingly endures your wishes. So long as I can endure”). This is a suffering, or a labour, to be performed until the “real thing” comes along. That is, to endlessly subject oneself to love is to surrender to the abstraction of the real thing whose structure is that of an idealised unity. The concept of love herein ascends from the experience of the particular to the realm of the universal, and in doing so comes to represent a legislative function whose ostensible natural order furnishes the compulsion to remain within the labour, with this sentiment manifested via the repeated utterance of the phrase: “Living for you is easy living. It’s easy to do”.1
So, whilst the narrative message of domestic violence orally elaborated is quite explicit, the accompanying images, both still and moving, remain mired in enough ambiguity so as to inject an uncanny spectre into the synthesis of the audio-visual assemblage. In the video we are treated to fleeting shots of a life portrayed at an objective distance, with this great remove achieved through a hollowing out of the actors, presenting them as faceless (whose actions voided of subjectivity become almost mannequin-like) or in shots that are too-close- for-comfort (distance inversely maintained via the crushing of space). The tyranny of these images are kept hidden through the veil of undercover softness. This juxtaposition between one layer whose orientation
1 It is easy to do, as love is conditioned as that as which is not only normative, but also natural. However, this classification itself is something of a misnomer, as even its most straight-forward calls and associations with a natural order are bound in contradiction; whilst love itself is a purely natural phenomenon, the emotion is often times presented as a property able to transcend natural laws (love as endless, soulmates as predestined, etc…). As sociologist Niklas Luhmann writes, in his systems-theoretical study of the topic, love ascends to this level of paradoxy during the 17th-century, wherein the concept becomes a container for certain forms of mental and moral instability whose vindication was that of passion. To be in love was to succumb to a “state in which one suffered passively”, and so a justification for certain acts, performed under the auspiciousness of passion, becomes a principal provision of concept. See: Niklas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy, Harvard University Press, 1986, 60.
remains discretely perceivable and another which prefers the suggestion of contingency intensifies the spectre of the uncanny, in order to emphasise the ways in which the familiar often disguise within themselves strange or discomfortable ruptures. Indeed, if we follow Sigmund Freud’s reading of the uncanny2 we learn of the semantic relationship of the originary term (heimlich) with homeliness3, as well as the propensity for automata (“waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls”)4 to be closely associated with the antonym (unheimlich) 5 — two thematic and formal elements whose presence is keenly felt across Daly’s work.
Like that feeling of unease that washed over me as a child sat staring at domestic facades whose interiors I perceived as being intangible (and therefore unknowable and fearful), I’ll Be Seeing You summons the uncanny in order to ask us to consider the ways in which meanings can be disfigured, locked away, perceived, or put together when their parts are presented only in a fragmentary manner. For whilst the familiar may breed comfort, the brilliance of the seal often times betray its dark cracks.
2 In German the term is unheimlich, often going untranslated in English. This is due to the fact that although “the nearest semantic equivalents in English are ‘uncanny ’and ‘eerie’’,the etymological root most closely “corresponds to ‘unhomely’”. Ergo, a direct translation eliminates many of the nuances of the original term. See Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), in Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, translated by David McLinktock, Penguin Books, 2003, 124.
3 ”’A careful housewife, who knows how to create a pleasant homeliness (domesticity) with the meagrest of means’”. Ibid, 127. 4 Ibid, 135. 5 Rather interestingly, Freud proposes that the uncanny effect that was often associated with “epilepsy or madness” was due to the way in which these actions were perceived, by lay onlookers, as “automatic — mechanical — process that may lie hidden behind the familiar image of a living person.” (Ibid) This notion of automaticity, of not being directly in control of one’s action, is similar Luhmann’s version of 17th-century love, as a state of passion which is performed or experienced “passively”.