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Distorted Perceptions: The Avant-garde Silent Landscape of “A Page of Madness”

A Page of Madness (1926), dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa, is a mesmerising Japanese psychological avant-garde masterpiece exploring the oscillation between reality and fantasy through a distinctive, unsettling cinematic approach. The film was part of a broader context of Japanese avant-garde works created during Japan’s interwar period (1918-1941), when Japanese artistic expressions, as exemplified through poetry and other art forms, were influenced by European modernist and avant-garde art, exploring themes such as political repression, technology, and censorship through a mix of erotic, grotesque, and nonsensical depictions.

Set within the confining walls of a mental institution in Japan, the narrative primarily centres on a janitor haunted by the guilt of his past and struggling with acceptance whilst working to care for his institutionalised wife and grappling with his own emerging fantasies. Through a mixture of striking visuals, dream sequences, and silent storytelling, Kinugasa creates an unsettling cinematic experience that delves into themes of guilt, mental illness, and the fragility of human mind.

The film was also closely linked with the modernist literary group, shinkankakuha (New Perception school), as the screenplay was derived from consultations with several members of this group. One of the founders of the group, Riichi Yokomitsu, wrote “The phenomenon of perception for Shinkankakuha is, to put it briefly, the direct, intuitive sensation of a subjectivity that peels away the naturalised exterior aspects and leaps into the thing itself.”

Both Kinugasa’s films and the shinkankakuha focus on the concept of sense perception: A Page of Madness is characterised by its distinctive use of narrative and visual techniques, such as rapid montage sequences, multiple exposures, and lens distortions, as well as eerie painted sets and stylised lighting reminiscent of German Expressionism, to delve into the abnormal sensory experiences and perceptions of inmates in the asylum. The portrayal of mental illness reflects a tendency to transcend traditional, naturalistic depictions, in a way that also raised deep questions about societal perceptions of mental illness during the time.

Strangely Familiar Visual Narratives: An Exploration of the Interplay between Reality and Unreality in Contemporary Collage Art

Collage constitutes a dynamic medium where elements of the familiar are unsettlingly displaced into unfamiliar territories, offering a visceral exploration of the uncanny. Teetering between the comfort of recognition and the chilling thrill of the unexpected, the realm of contemporary collage art opens up a world of paradoxes, where the mundane is rendemasred extraordinary and the predictable unexpectedly disrupted. Among the artists shaping the narratives in this sphere in the virtual space, Angelica Paez, Colette Saint Yves, Sato Masahiro, Sara Shakeel, and Robin Isely each stand out with a distinct approach to this medium, employing their unique artistic vernacular to translate the ethereal, the uncanny, and the nostalgic into tangible, visual experiences. As we shall see, these contemporary collage artists, albeit divergent in their techniques and thematic focal points, share a predilection for the provocative interplay of reality and unreality.

Angelica Paez‘s surreal monochrome collages engage our perception in a ludic, nostalgia-infused dialogue of complex, dreamlike contradictions through the depiction of hypnotic scenes created by cutting out old papers, catalogues, and magazines collected from second hand markets. The eerie atmosphere of her work is achieved by incorporating familiar objects in strange ways in intimate settings, unveiling images embedded in the unconscious. These enigmatic scenes, often characterised by a cleverly conceived atmospheric eeriness, artfully compel the viewer in a way that simultaneously challenges and delights.

Paez’s strikingly enticing works echo her early love for collage-making, a practice she developed from a tender age with safety scissors and her mother’s discarded magazines. Today, her notable artistic skills, manifested in her ability to conjure complex, layered narratives, reveal a sophisticated metamorphosis of her childhood pastime, though her affinity for the tangible, tactile process remains undiminished. Her intricate compositions, often bearing the inscription “Houston, Texas”, hint at the subtle interplay between the origin of her eclectic materials and their ultimate reincarnation within her art, further accentuating the intimate dialogue between the past and the present, the mundane and the extraordinary that permeates her nostalgic oeuvre.

Colette Saint Yves is a photographer and collector of evocative imagery featuring film stars with enigmatic gazes, mysterious apparitions, celestial settings, and melancholic monochrome nature shot in analogue. The artist creates haunting, surreal collage art by interweaving a range of elements from photographs, films, and books to create dreamlike, at times unsettling scenes that intrigue. Her work also acts as a bridge that connects modern audiences to the vintage aesthetics and poignant emotiveness of silent cinema. Saint Yves’s distinctive methodology involves the meticulous collection and curation of varied visual artifacts – abandoned photographs, vintage postcards, enigmatic screencaps, and illustrations from time-worn, antiquated books. These become the eclectic building blocks of her captivating collages, providing a rich, layered, and textured backdrop for her surreal, dreamlike compositions.

Her evocative works usually exude a deep sense of melancholy, offset by the mysterious, irresistible allure of the subjects she artfully depicts, often incorporating elements from celestial bodies and the untamed natural world. The striking monochromatic tones frequently featured in her intriguing collages heighten the overall enigma and ethereal, otherworldly nature of her mesmerising compositions. Each intricate piece is an exploration into the depths of the subconscious, where evocative nostalgia and vivid fantasy intertwine, eliciting a memorable sense of intrigue and a poignant longing for an elusive era irrevocably lost to time.

Sato Masahiro, operating under the creative pseudonym Q-TA, is a distinguished collage artist residing in Tokyo. Q-TA’s works consist of an innovative fusion of ephemera from antiquated encyclopedias, exploiting both digital manipulation and traditional techniques. The blend of old and new characterises his strikingly surreal artistic style. Masterfully employing both digital and analog techniques, he invites the viewer into compellingly strange and aesthetically rich landscapes through a juxtaposition of elements into an improbable assembly generating dreamlike, surreal compositions. The ability to render the absurd into harmonious continuity forms the distinctive appeal of his body of work.

In one if his interviews, Q-TA mentioned his hopes for audiences to experience a mix of feelings reminiscent of childhood book reading—surprise, delight, and a nostalgic yearning. This child-centric approach is not merely aesthetic; it underscores his aspiration to convey an innovative perspective by bestowing upon his audience a glimpse into a child’s world, whilst situating children in these distinctive, surreal environments. Even though his works don’t carry explicit messages, they are embedded with fragmented keywords, adding layers of subtle commentary and sparking curiosity.

Imbued with a profound understanding of the interplay between human form and animalistic instinct, San Francisco-based digital artist Robin Isely eerily bridges diverse historical and aesthetic influences in his haunting, compelling collage work. His compositions, marked by an uncanny fusion of the sublime and the unsettling, draw from a broad palette of eras and stylistic movements – the grandeur of classical mythology, the intricate mysticism of the Gothic period, the allure of French New Wave cinema, and the visceral expressiveness of the tumultuous sixties.

Isely’s intriguing, surreal collage art, resonating with a dreamy and sometimes disconcerting quality, crafts immersive, eerie yet aesthetically pleasing visual narratives. Through a creative blend of vintage photographs, his work constructs uncanny, richly textured scenes that immerse spectators into a universe where reality and fantasy seamlessly intersect. The effect is an enchanting, eerie tableau that invites a journey into the labyrinth of the subconscious, stirring up nostalgia and discomfort in equal measure.

Recognised for her distinctive combination of traditional craft techniques and experimental practices, Jana Sojka is a self-taught mixed media artist creating haunting, evocative art which often features natural motifs, fragmented words, vintage textures, and self-portraits. Born in Poland and now based in Bristol, Sojka’s varied yet recognisable body of work reflects her life journey and her intimate connection with the world around her. Having begun her artistic journey through a fascination with photography, Sojka soon started to explore various mediums, incorporating collage, animation, and journaling into her creative process. The result is a distinctive, multifaceted oeuvre that bridges the gap between introspection and universal resonance, personal memories and shared narratives. One of the signature elements of Sojka’s work is her dedication to using traditional craft-based techniques and materials. Sourced from her family home, old ephemera play a central role in her collages and prints, grounding her creations in a tangible sense of history and continuity. She imbues these pieces with a nostalgic resonance that is both deeply personal and universally relatable.

Sojka’s work also displays a profound connection with nature, a theme that is often manifested in the presence of floral motifs and her exploration of natural light and shadows. Her nighttime escapades, as she calls them, led to a fascination with the interplay of darkness and light, an element she beautifully translates into her photographs and animations. Her artistic practice is guided by intuition and emotion, evident in her ‘always experimental’ approach. She believes in the importance of surrendering to creative impulses and the process of making art as an act of liberation. This philosophy permeates Sojka’s work, resulting in pieces that encapsulate the raw and authentic beauty of life. Within her oeuvre, Jana Sojka’s journals hold a special place. They are collections of thoughts, images, and ephemera, each telling a different story. They constitute both a documentation of her life and a channel for processing feelings, an intimate reflection of her journey that she occasionally shares with the world.

Sara Shakeel, the original crystal artist and a former dentist from Pakistan who found her artistic calling in the gleam and glitter of crystals, creates scintillating, bedazzled collage artworks. Through her striking, glamorous art, various aspects of the world are imbued with her signature magic. The magic is created by adding layers of crystals and glitter to subjects ranging from pop culture and artists, classical paintings and religious iconography, urban aesthetics, luxury brands, fashion, as well as tears and stretch marks promoting body positivity. Her artworks blend a sense of healing, empowerment, and joy with a unique aesthetic that draws the viewer into a universe studded with shimmering details. Shakeel uses her art as a medium of personal therapy, each creation reflecting a therapeutic journey that resonates with viewers and triggers a sense of shared healing.

Despite not having any formal training, Shakeel’s rise to fame, courtesy of social media platforms, has seen her distinct aesthetic reach over a million followers. Her first body of work, notably known as #glitterstretchmarks, challenges societal norms regarding body image. It reflects her stance towards body positivity, as she embellishes images of stretch marks with gold glitter and crystals, transmuting perceived imperfections into vibrant art. This theme, along with the artist’s penchant for incorporating celestial galaxies into her work, underscores her talent for finding and creating beauty and strength in the most unexpected places. What sets Shakeel’s work apart is not just her stunning technique but also the emotional depth and vivid storytelling that unfolds in each creation. Drawing inspiration from her surroundings, memories, and personal desires, she uses her pieces to communicate complex emotions through dazzlingly bright and captivating crystals.

The mythology of Archive 81

Based on the eponymous supernatural horror podcast, Archive 81 unveils a world blending occult, mythological, familiar, parapsychological, and Lovecraftian elements, all revolving around the archival process of restoring video tapes to reconstruct an enigmatic story from the past. An archivist with a tragic history that binds him to the case unearths secrets involving cults, demons, summoning rituals, sacrifices, a place with obscure patterns of mold with seemingly hallucinatory properties (referred to as stardust or the body and blood of the god), and glimpses into a temporally disorienting Otherworld – by replaying unseen footage which ends up gradually unravelling a spell between two worlds. During the video restoration process, he is plagued by a ghostly apparition of the same god/demon worshipped by cults of the past, trying to cross over from another realm via technology.

Kaelego is an entity that can be invited into the world through a bloody ritual that requires the presence of a victim, a demonic statue, a “Baldung” witch, obscure chanting and humming, and has to be synchronised with the passing of Comet Kharon (referring to the ferryman of Hades in Greek mythology) over Earth. The arrival of the demonic god – both healing and destructive – is associated with the end of the world as it is; one of the worshippers thinks that it would lead to a purge, to the salvation of humanity from ‘itself’, from war and sickness, and that Kaelego could grant people eternity, whilst the Baldung see the being as a spirit of destruction.

The show has its own fictional mythology that doesn’t fully allude to any particular real-life myths or organisations. The cosmic religious component is reminiscent of the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate, whose members synchronised ritual suicides with the approach of a comet, holding the belief that a spacecraft was connected to the cosmic body and their consciousness would be transferred onto it and ascend to another plane of existence. The cult members also recorded farewell messages on videotapes. The occult snuff film and The Circle, as referred to in the show, as well as the Visser are entirely fictional. “Baldung” witches are not based on real witches – the term is a reference to artist Hans Baldung known for his depictions of witchcraft in paintings.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)

Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, Häxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) constitutes a mix of documentary style storytelling, essay film aspects, and gothic horror. Blurring the lines between real historical facts and fabricated narratives, Häxan provides an intriguing, partly fictionalised and dramatised depiction of witchcraft through history. Concerned with socio-cultural, ideological, political, medical, and religious frameworks, the film supports the idea that the mass hysteria associated with witch hunts and Satanic possession during the medieval era can be attributed to misconceptions regarding mental disorders. An exploration of myth and religion at the crossroads between the hallucinatory and the real, the film features macabre images of torture, sacrifice, and satanic rituals.  “Chronologically specific and anachronistically out-of-joint” (Doty and Ingham 2014), Häxan provides modernised re-enactments of the medieval phenomenon of witch hunts, whilst conflating different time periods in its unique approach. The witches include “unhinged” nuns, widows, and temptresses. In some cultures, pregnancy and menstruation were associated with witchcraft and magical powers, reinforcing the process of viewing femininity as the ‘other’. These mystical powers were thought to have a dual nature, with the capacity of being both nurturing and destructive. The underlying film commentary regarding religion is compatible with the medical discourses focusing on the reasons why certain individuals are drawn towards mysticism and the occult or experience the presence of unknown forces. The sequences including the figure of the stereotypical broomstick-riding witch and the portrayal of grotesque devils, demonic orgies, and other hellish motifs, reveal a glimpse into the irrational mindset of those influenced by fear-instilling, religious superstitions.

Dead Ringers (1988): The Uncanny Double – Narcissistic Symbiosis

Let’s celebrate David Cronenberg’s birthday by immersing ourselves in the uncanny, gruesome, and occasionally dreamlike psychological horror universe of Dead Ringers (1988). As the master of the Body Horror genre, Cronenberg always intertwines physical collapse with psychological disintegration in a way that unsettles the psyche. All of this is simultaneous with the unfolding of his characteristic fascination with the human body and the ghastly ways in which it can be corrupted for the purpose of symbolically exploring themes of alienation, repressed fears, and the mind-body duality.

The uncanny theme of the double is hypnotically crystallised through the dual role of Jeremy Irons, who plays Beverly and Elliot, twins with the same profession and sources of distress, as well as substantial character differences and taste. Irons manages to breathe life into two striking gynaecologists with an unusual bond, offering an impressive, complex portrayal of each character’s dynamic inner and outer self as they eventually spiral down into psychological disintegration and insanity. It is even more impressive taking into account the psychopathology of the twins, who exhibit tendencies compatible with narcissism and covert narcissism. The actor’s brilliance is essential: Whilst to other characters the twins have to sometimes appear indistinguishable from each other (making it possible for them to present themselves as the other in some situations), as a viewer, you have to perceive their separate external traits and mannerisms – and you often do, even if they can be very subtle at times, reflected in slight gestures.

“Pain creates character distortion.” Bev is a tortured, anxious, neurotic, research-obsessed spirit who does all the behind-the-scenes work, whilst Elliot is the sociable, arrogant, emotionally detached twin who takes care of their public image. Elliot has a polished, outwardly narcissistic persona beneath which one can find both pity and fascination for Bev’s raw self, who is consumed by his addictions. At the same time, there are mutual signs of human feelings of jealousy within their transcendental, paradoxically narcissistic love for each other. Their psychological configuration can be linked with trauma-induced hysteria, their underlying motivation being the challenging pursuit of wholeness, of single unity. There is a duality in terms of their desire for symbiosis which clashes with their desire for detachment from the other. Their mutual interest Claire’s body becomes the maternal body, the third uncanny “other” which houses the twins in Beverly’s Siamese nightmare – a scene revealing his anxiety at the haunting thought of separation from his brother, but also from the womb. The ‘abnormal’ nature of the womb, which represents a fascinating and tantalising pull for the gynaecologists, also becomes a source of unease, due to Bev’s displacement of his dread of separation and symbolic castration onto the female body.

Bev’s disturbing uncanny dream reflects the uncanny, intimate connection of the twins – which is sometimes attributed mystical connotations. There is a mutual understanding and undefined fear between them, which reflects the fear of the unknown, of the other. Elliot strangely adds that “Whatever’s in his bloodstream goes directly into mine. […] Beverly and I just have to get synchronised. Once we’re synchronised, it’ll be easy.” Everything feels safe as long as their connection is predictable. In the end, in a way that aligns with tendencies in narcissistic relating, their personality morphs into the other, and inner chaos is unleashed, which leads to annihilation of the Other – as well as a symbolic self-annihilation. Bev seems to have absorbed Elliot’s personality- destroying him can be interpreted as an act of possession and of both self-love and self-loathing. The subtext of the narrative revolves around the integration of the other, as a solution following the rejection of the identification with the reflection of inner parts that have been alienated.

By embracing the grotesque through his characteristic film genre, Cronenberg reaches beyond the flesh towards a corruption of the spirit in a traumatic process of unravelling. Although the cold, clinical approach of the film can be alienating for some viewers, its unsettling subject matter, medical setting, and provocative narrative are effective in producing strong responses, whilst allowing space for fascination.

A glimpse into the mind of Louise Bourgeois: art and psychoanalysis

Louise Bourgeois viewed art as an alternative form of psychoanalysis, an unravelling of the psyche, as it is based on exploring unconscious associations. Currently on display at Hayward Gallery, in London, The Woven Child exhibition features sculptures that explore ambivalent mental states, past selves, ghostly memories, and physical and emotional pain, as well as art installations incorporating textiles, old fabrics, needles, and spiders – which she views as protective repairers, rather than frightening figures. The spider motif is associated with motherhood, whilst the process of weaving is also a metaphor for mending family relations.

Delving into her work can be an unsettling process. In “Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter”, a book that also features rare excerpts from Bourgeois’ notebooks and diaries, Juliet Mitchell hints at the uncanny effect of her work, mentioning the ambivalence of the emotions felt due to the way her art taps into past and present mental states. She also emphasises that Bourgeois’ wish was for the viewer to focus on their own (unconscious) response to her work, rather than wondering about her own free associations. This aligns with the discourse on the uncanny, which inherently relies on the subjective experience of the viewer. Objects are usually not thought of as inherently ‘uncanny’. Unconscious responses to her work (and art in general) can be similar, consistent, despite the fluctuations in our psychological configuration and in the psychic, repressed material that triggers the response.

Although this is an oversimplification of the themes she depicted, her innovative work is in part fuelled by a resentment towards her father and an admiration for her mother. According to Mitchell, Bourgeois was obsessively fascinated with her own childhood and afraid of her own capacity for aggression (a trait that is particularly condemned in women). She also sublimated sadistic, vengeful drives through her art. In her therapy sessions, she tried to question the “nice girl” tendencies, resurrecting the buried self. She allowed herself to express rage and criticism towards Freud, Lacan, and her own psychoanalyst, Lowenfeld, whilst appreciating Freud’s “opponents”, Jung and Klein.

Despite being engaged in Freudian psychoanalysis for a significant period of her life, Bourgeois wrote an essay titled “Freud’s Toys”, in which she expressed the view that Freud’s method wasn’t helpful for artists. There tends to be an ambivalence in her statements regarding both the function of art and the links between the creative and the psychoanalytical process: whilst she acknowledged they are both forms of psyche excavation, metamorphosis, and resurrection, her reinforcement of the image of the suffering, tormented artist appears to be incompatible with the ‘talking cure’.

She pointed out that “To be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure”.

At the same time, she stated: “The connections that I make in my work are connections that I cannot face. They are really unconscious connections. The artist has the privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious, and this is really a gift. It is the definition of sanity. It is the definition of self-realization.”

Signe Pierce: a vibrant, hyperreal, holographic spectacle with vaporwave vibes

New York-based contemporary multimedia artist Signe Pierce self-identifies as a reality artist, exploring the blurred lines between art and technology, between art and life, and the concept of heightened reality through her neon urban signature photographic style characterised by a glamorous, saccharine aesthetic. The vibrant colour palette she uses is dominated by bright pink and purple hues, adding a different dimension to mundane urban landscapes. The chromatic excess emphasises artificiality, as the artist provides a visual commentary on the nature of reality in the digital world.

Signe Pierce embraces the idea of ‘unreality’ and takes it to extremes in her lurid, holographic paradise. The viewer entering her world is mesmerised, distracted, trapped in hyperreality. Beautifully influenced by her environment and the chaos of New York, her work provides a glimpse into an augmented version of the famous city for the outsider to be virtually immersed into. Since her art is of a meta-referential nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that it self-consciously depicts the ubiquity of commercial ads and photography, phone screens, screens in general, which, instead of piercing into her world, are rather being harmoniously incorporated in it.

The almost aggressive, consistent use of pink and light purple tones reveals a feminist preoccupation with what is considered stereotypically girly- being subverted by the themes depicted, such as consumerism, surveillance, hyper-reality, and assertive hyper-femininity. The artist not only plays with visual perceptions by depicting fluid forms and using distorted liquefied shapes in some of her pictures, she also challenges perceptions of femininity, by blurring the line between the objectifier and the objectified and portraying the female figure as provocative and strong.

The slick fashion commercial aesthetic of the photographs is reminiscent of surreal fashion horror films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon and the urban vividness of cyberpunk cinematography. At the same time, her frequently updated Instagram feed includes cinematic photographs depicting a constantly wired, overstimulated world. Some elements often featured in her universe are mirrors, eyes, technological devices, shiny, holographic pieces of clothing, reflecting lights, rainy cityscapes, strip malls, and a lush, stunningly illuminated mise-en-scene. In addition to emphasising the inherent ‘simulacrum’ nature of the urban experience in New York, Signe Pierce’s hyperreal sensory spectacle merges perceptions of reality and simulation to make the viewer question the nature of truth and reality in contemporary society.

Alex Prager’s uncanny film stills: vivid, glamorous depictions of alienation

Fascinated by the mysterious quality of the colour photographs of William Eggleston, a 20 year-old Alex Prager decided to buy a professional camera and dark room equipment in order to express herself creatively through images, in her quest for existential meaning. 18 years later, on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, the Silver Lake Drive exhibition represented a mid-career examination of her distinctive photographic and filmic work.

The internationally-acclaimed images of crowds, staged by the artist, portray a sense of emptiness and disconnection underneath the polished façade of active, compact crowds. It can be seen as a subtle commentary on the continuous, superficial interconnectedness that disguises individual alienation: everyone is self-preoccupied and follows their own narrative. There is an intertwining line between the public and the private- groups of people finding themselves in the same space, unaware of or uninterested in the silent stories hidden in the others’ eyes and in their conflicting facial expressions.

Often shot from above, from voyeuristic angles, Alex Prager’s still photographs always have a cinematic quality: they seem to be frozen film stills, presenting a fragment of a greater narrative; which is the main reason the self-taught artist decided to create short films conveying the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ moments surrounding the photographs. Through the cinematic perfection of her still images, the ordinary situations depicted become compelling: the staged details in deep focus, the strange lighting, the highly stylised and saturated aesthetic, all render the reality of her world in a glamourous and glossy way. However, despite the hyper-real and sometimes eerily perfect nature of the pictures, the essence of this world lies in the portrayal of a disturbing emotion, hence there is always a sense of authenticity beyond the artificial fictive layer.

The focus on emotion has been acknowledged by the artist and made particularly obvious in her short film, “Despair”. This early piece adopts characteristics of her general cinematic sources of inspiration, including Hollywood melodrama, silent movies, film noir, art house cinema, as well as Hitchcock and Lynch. The atmosphere dictating her work is ominous, as if tragedy always lurks around the corner – an idea reinforced by the recurrent theme of the vanishing woman, which can also be found in her more recent film shot in Paris, La Grande Sortie.

Gregory Crewdson’s uncanny cinematic photography

Gregory Crewdson’s dark, atmospheric, cinematic photographs capture perfectly framed frozen moments incorporating disconnected figures which seem to reflect the domestic and natural landscapes they inhabit; the mundane landscapes are often characterised by an eerie solitude and transformed into something otherworldly, haunting, and compelling. His photographs seem to both reveal and conceal something, creating ambiguous narratives – they are both stills of life and embodiments of the uncanny. The boundaries between life and art, between intimacy and isolation, between strange and familiar environments are blurred.

The cinematic nature of his work is also reflected in the complex process of creating and staging his images: there is a large crew involved in various aspects of production; props, casting, storyboards, and the natural world is heightened by the use of artificial Hollywood-style lighting and effects such as artificial rain and ice.

In his interviews, Gregory Crewdson emphasises the importance of the visual balance between the figure, the interior space, and the exterior space; the feeling of transience and the sense of in-between-ness evoked by his images, the enigmatic moments between other unknown moments, the visual commentary on the human condition, the portrayal of flesh, nudity, aging, vulnerability, and mortality.

Crewdson’s aesthetic incorporates American suburban surrealism, and the mise-en-scène usually features windows, mirrors, bleak settings shown in a mysterious, ghostly light. His photographs are windows into the intimacy of a world filled with hidden unsettling desires.

The characters created often seem alienated, immersed in deep thought, in cosmic loneliness, internal conflict, or a longing for something ineffable. Their expressions are pensive, focused on something beyond the world depicted, at times introspective. The feelings evoked are anticipation – frozen in time, subconscious disquiet, and estrangement.

Crewdson’s photography reminds us of the suspense, sadness, and solitude of Edward Hopper’s paintings, of Diane Arbus’ bizarre and psychologically intense photographic portraits of people on the margins of society, of William Eggleston’s saturated depictions of seemingly normal, mundane settings behind which something disturbing seems to lurk; as well as the surreal quality of the films of David Lynch.

Crewdson’s series include Cathedral of Pines, Twilight, and Beneath the Roses.

A glimpse of Annihilation (2018): The Uncanny Within

After the success of his intense directorial debut, Ex Machina, Alex Garland creates a cinematic adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book from the Southern Reach TrilogyAnnihilation. The sci-fi thriller turns out to be a visually stunning exploration into the unknown, which in this case borrows the form of the enigmatic ‘Shimmer’, a disquieting yet alluring foreign veil encompassing a part of the Earth, Area X – ceaselessly expanding and threatening to swallow the whole world.

The film opening reveals Lena, the protagonist, a biologist portrayed by the enigmatic, detached Natalie Portman who appears disoriented while being interrogated about the expedition and its survivors. The next scene introduces us for a brief moment to the desolate landscape surrounding the lighthouse, which is mysteriously related to the powerful alien presence the film revolves around. The lighthouse becomes a symbol, the connection with another world, with something uncanny, just like the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The eerie and toxic beauty of the scenery from Area X echoes the dystopian “Zone” depicted in the well-known sci-fi, Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Similarly, just as the Zone proves to be a philosophical journey, the Area X expedition also symbolises an exploration inwards, and eventually, a disintegration of identity – an idea poetically alluded to through the words uttered by the psychologist in a crucial intense scene towards the end: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”, quoting Samuel Beckett.

There are many alluring elements contributing to the immersive nature of the film and its fascinating uncanniness: The alien presence of an ambiguous nature, strange, nightmarish mutations, a symbiotic connection and the fear of being assimilated into something terrifying, blurred lines between self and other, the process of doubling, the tension, the eerie, magnetic atmosphere, gripping narrative, philosophical, introspective discourse, and compelling body horror imagery consisting in familiar elements depicted in a sinister, macabre way.

A geomorphologist, a paramedic, a physicist, a biologist, and a psychologist enter the Shimmer seeking answers and, whilst they encounter biological anomalies, beauty and decay, and a lot of unanswerable questions, we are encouraged to wonder what really lies beyond their (and our) human drive to enter the unknown, as well as how the uncanny encountered outwards echoes the uncanny within each of them.

Here are a few haunting excerpts from the eponymous book by Jeff VanderMeer. Among other thematic concerns, the book is also focused on environmental themes and metaphors for the conflict between nature and culture. VanderMeer alludes to the relationship between human beings and planet Earth, which can also be viewed through a lens of contamination. He emphasises the idea that nature should be treated as a part of us, just as we are part of nature; for if we dismiss it, we become alienated from a part of ourselves, of our humanness.

The following excerpts are amazingly reflective of the concept of the uncanny:

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonise you.”

“I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.

“A day that had the clarity of dream, of something strange yet familiar – familiar routine but strange calmness.”

“And what had manifested? What do I believe manifested? Think of it as a thorn, perhaps, a long, thick thorn so large it is buried deep in the side of the world. Injecting itself into the world. Emanating from this giant thorn is an endless, perhaps automatic, need to assimilate and to mimic. Assimilator and assimilated interact through the catalyst of a script of words, which powers the engine of transformation. Perhaps it is a creature living in perfect symbiosis with a host of other creatures. Perhaps it is “merely” a machine. But in either instance, if it has intelligence, that intelligence is far different from our own. It creates out of our ecosystem a new world, whose processes and aims are utterly alien—one that works through supreme acts of mirroring, and by remaining hidden in so many other ways, all without surrendering the foundations of its otherness as it becomes what it encounters.”

“[…] Imagine these expeditions, and then recognise that they all still exist in Area X in some form, even the ones that came back, especially the ones that came back: layered over one another, communicating in whatever way is left to them. Imagine that this communication sometimes lends a sense of the uncanny to the landscape because of the narcissism of our human gaze, but that it is just part of the natural world here. I may never know what triggered the creation of the doppelgangers, but it may not matter.”

“The strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of it all, the sense of waiting, brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy.”

― Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”