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  • Writer's pictureLaliana

Mike Kelly's The Uncanny Essay

In 1993 and 2004 Mike Kelley curated an exhibition titled The Uncanny, consisting of sculptures, objects and images that he considered  ‘uncanny’. In The Uncanny, Kelley explores memory, recollection, horror and anxiety through the juxtaposition of a highly personal collection of objects.

The theme of the exhibition comes from Freud's 1919 essay on the uncanny, which draws on Ernst Jentsch’s The Psychology of the Uncanny (1906), in which the uncanny is exemplified by “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate”.Freud described the uncanny as "a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it"

As a complement to the exhibition Kelly presented a series of films like Frankenstein, Freaks, Eraserhead and Dead Ringers.

In the exhibition he created a small room called The Harem; the title is a term taken from classic psychological literature, where it is used to describe the fetishistic activity of the collector. In this room Kelly showed his personal collection of his own personal collections, these consist of sixteen groups of object types accumulated by the artist throughout his lifetime, from childhood to the present, ranging from marbles and squeeze toys to hundreds of bubble gum cards, postcards, record covers, magazines and found church banners. The work is ongoing as Kelley continues to add items to various of the object groups.  Kelley explained that "When you grow up in America, you're surrounded by things like this"

Artists represented were John de Andrea, Hans Bellmer, Judy Fox, Robert Gober, Duane Hanson, Damien Hirst, Edward Kienholz, Jeff Koons, Tony Matelli, Paul McCarthy, Ron Mueck, Tony Oursler.

It is important to me, first of all, that the objects displayed maintain their physical presence, that they hold their own power in relation to the viewer. I decided, therefore, to exclude miniatures–smaller than life-size statues, dolls, toys, figurines, and the like–from the exhibition. Generally, I believe that small figurative objects invite the viewer to project onto them. By this, I mean that the viewer gets lost in these objects, and that in the process of projecting mental scenarios onto them they lose sense of themselves physically. The experience of playing with dolls is a case in point. The doll becomes simply an object to provoke daydreams, and its objecthood fades into the background. Once the fantasy is operating, it could be replaced by any other object. On the other hand, I am interested in objects with which the viewer empathizes in a human way–though only as long as the viewer, and the object viewed, maintain their sense of being there physically.” (p. 75)

Hans Bellmer, Doll, 1936 (cast in 1965)

The disposability of the venerated substitute has modern correlatives [...] Then there are whole classes of figures designed specifically to be destroyed in use: car-crash dummies, the effigies of hated political figures hung and burned at demonstrations, the mannequins that people the perimeters of nuclear test sites, and the electrified human decoys recently used in India to shock man-eating tigers into losing their taste for human flesh. In a way, all these figures ask to be mistreated. The iconoclast, the one who feels compelled to destroy images, knows: statues invite violence. Like the vampire, they desire a violent death to relieve them of the viewer-projected pathos of their pseudo-life.” (p. 90)

The uncanny is the weird, the strange, the mysterious, a mingling of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The Uncanny (German, das Unheimliche—literally, "un-home-ly", but idiomatically, "scary", "creepy") is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time.

Louise Bourgeois, Janus fleuri, 1968

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.” (p.73)

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.


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