UNDER THE SKIN
The Other Between Intrusion and Creative Presence
Written by: Maria Yassa
Something uncanny lurks in Meta Isaeus-Berlin´s installations. They are neither frightening nor offensive, but precisely uncanny. They have the uncanny´s insidious and double-edged way of seizing the attention and thoughts of the viewer, its inherent ability to contain radical opposites.
The experience of the uncanny is of course the subject of Sigmund Freud´s article “The Uncanny” (German, “Das Unheimliche,” 1919). As his point of departure he takes the adjective heimlich (cosy, homely, domestic, etc.), whose meaning sometimes can shift into its opposite, un-heimlich: secret, clandestine, eerie, sinister. Freud claims that the ambiguity of the term reflects the inner logic of the uncanny. According to him, the uncanny is everything that reminds the subject of wishes, ideas and convictions that once were conscious parts of the subject´s inner world, but which later were exiled into the unconscious through repression. Such reminders bring to life something that was once familiar, heimlich, but which repression has now veiled and is therefore unheimlich. In other words, these are aspects of every human being´s unique subjectivity.
In Isaeus-Berlin´s production, however, the uncanny includes something that surpasses the inner world of the separate subject; there is a kind of pressing riddle. One of the themes that pervades her production is spatiality. Space is by its nature ambiguous: it arises in the tension between an inside and an outside; there cannot be an inner space without external boundaries. Inside and the outside may appear radically different from one another: the walls of an enclosed space can be perceived as either sheltering or confining. In the works between 1993 and 1995, Isaeus-Berlin takes the body – the first and most intimate physical space and its processes as the point of departure for the creation of a field of tensions.
“Container” (silicon, polyether and oil, 1994) and “Way Up” (jelly dinosaurs and steel wire, 1994) both suggest distinct associations to corporeality. They have a sensuous quality that invites the viewer to feel, smell and taste – but almost immediately and inexplicably the attraction changes into nausea, as when the inner organs of the body are exposed or the protective covering and limits of the body burst, letting the inside seep out and the external world leak in (“Container”). “Way Up,” with its seemingly harmless material, whose color and form are suggestive of sweets, tempts to childish greed. I would like to put these figures in my mouth, at least smell them, until I realize that they represent internal organs. Immediately the attraction turns into revulsion. Here the nature of corporeality is problematised by exposing its double nature: the body as a natural, unreflected part of subjective experience and simultaneously an alien, autonomous object that co-exists with another, an Other. Consequently we here find the opposites inside-outside, familiar-strange, attraction-revulsion, enchantment-disgust, but above all, as an overall theme for these, the duality subject-object.
The installations from 1996 to 2001 represent interiors, apparently everyday home interiors. Space has been extended from the body to the home. And in these environments something remarkable takes place: the objects, the furniture, are all familiar, ordinary, recognizable, but as in a dream – or a nightmare – things become animate, living, and a story unfolds; Apart from the commonplace, what is properly one´s own, here we also find the Other, even more obvious than in the early works – where it was implicit – since it here has discrete, materially tangible existence. The radically Other, the unconscious, the body, the other human being, creates a tension in relation to the artistic subject. In these homely interiors it is uncannily present and seems to convey an enigma (see Laplanche, 1997 and 1999).
In an installation from 1996, the subject announces, “I Am Not at Home.” She is not the absolute mistress of her home, of her self. In what ways will space transform in her absence? What changes will the velvety, skin-like dough undergo? -It will probably dry and crack as such doughs do. How is subjective space, the self, affected by this inner presence, by these transformations?
“Chair Beside Bed” (1996) conveys a treacherous feeling of calm and repose to the viewer, produced by the disposition of the furniture in the room, the careful, old-fashioned bed-making. A bed for a mermaid? -What dreams and/ or nightmares, wild and untamed, of infinite lack, could not be dreamt in the precipice of this bed? The silicon in the back of the chair imparts a feeling of instability, flexibility, transformability. Here it is impossible to withdraw into congealed, sealed thoughts.
“Almost as Usual” (1997) and “She Leaves the Light On, and Forgets the Room”(1998) also open up to the unexpectedly enigmatic and Other in what is properly one´s own, but from the reverse point of view. In one case, the room is mirrored in the glassy, smooth, warmly lit surface of a table. It might be the opening to another world, beyond the looking-glass, to be entered with a pounding heart. Perhaps this is an opening to the inner world of another human being: her heartbeats can be heard from the cupboard close by. The other room, a forgotten bathroom in the middle of the forest, can be viewed from above. It is filled with water and seems to float, weightless, a privy in an underwater world. Almost as usual, although reversed, although from above: from another perspective, through the eyes of the Other.
The problematisation of the Other is carried one step further in “The Seven Dwarfs”(1998) and “The Abandoned Dwarfs” (1999). In the story of Snow White, the relationship with and tension regarding the Other are depicted in the opposites man-woman, child-adult, good-evil. The tale is also the story of a young girl´s, a child´s waiting for something unknown, which only later is disclosed, in the form of the prince, as being sexual. Whereas the narrative structure of the fairy tale leads the reader´s attention forward in time and produces expectations of an ideal dénouement, in “The Seven Dwarfs” Isaeus-Berlin remains in the narrative now of the tale, in the drama of Snow White´s chaste relationship to the dwarfs. When the expectation of the ideal dénouement is put within parentheses, and the tale is deprived of its temporal axis, something of the unbearable in Snow White´s predicament as a subject is revealed: the idea of an endless wait for something unknown. Here the young girl´s encounter with feminine sexuality is presented as premature, necessarily traumatic, since she is a child and therefore partly ignorant of the sexual Other. Traumatic also since she is forced to the waiting, abstinence and frustration of the child. This is represented in a room that is narrow, cramped, neat and chaste. The relative positions of the small beds and the old-fashioned patterns of the bedspreads give a sense of almost compulsive symmetry and tidiness, as if there is a need to ward off every sensual desire, every bodily impulse. The room is confined by innocent white walls, whose transparency makes every sexual act impossible, and thereby the room is paradoxically sealed. The sexual immaturity of childhood is represented by the dwarfs´ small beds, and the smallness of the dwarfs might represent Snow White´s own smallness in face of burgeoning sexual desire.
In “The Abandoned Dwarfs” (1999) the seven dwarfs are reinstated as subjects: the installation bears their name, their room is presented, and their story is provided space for next to Snow White´s. It is as if the installation opens a perspective on this hitherto overlooked subjectivity, and the question is asked: Who, then, are the dwarfs? What are their dreams? The sarcophagus-like little beds bear witness to bottomless grief, the catastrophic loss that once took place. What happened in their meeting with Snow White? What did they lose? The fairytale revolves around a confusion of generations: the dwarfs, sexually mature men, become children when meeting Snow White´s paradoxical, simultaneously maternal and virginal femininity. An inversion has transformed Snow White, the child, into a grown-up virgin mother and the dwarfs into children. When Snow White leaves the story the dwarfs lose both manliness as well as childhood. It is as if every supporting identity is lost and what remains is formless, unfathomable and endless sorrow.
Common to all these works is Isaeus-Berlin´s refreshing way of shunning conventions in her choice and mixture of materials, whose instability (silicon, water, jelly, dough) and limited life span indicate an artistic as well as human attitude toward definitive and closed interpretations of the world. It is as if a question was formulated and reformulated: What does the world want from me? What is its constantly changing message?
“What Memory Selects” (2ooo) is the last of these works. It appears to hold a possible place of rest, a place where the themes from the earlier works converge and synthesize, and the questions “What does the world want from me? Who am I in relation to the world?” are tentatively answered. Home is sawn in two, and the world is split. Perhaps as a consequence of the necessity to understand it, to deconstruct it and make it one´s own. A necessary and painful act of violence has been committed, as an unavoidable part of the process of becoming a subject with a unique point of view, of the making of a story and a starting point. The choice of memory is not a process of mechanical registration of the past; its mobility, condensations, sudden omissions and revelations often painfully escape every attempted objectification. A large part of every piece of furniture, of every fragment of memory is missing, and the point of outlook is marked for the viewer. It is as if the artist had reached a point of rest, where she says, “This is my point of outlook, my story” without abandoning the belief in the necessary limitation and instability of this point. A place has been recovered, a necessary balance between permanence and change, between the actual and the potential, from which questions can be asked but have to remain partly unanswered, the riddle unresolved.
To insist on the riddle is finally a decision, an artistic manifesto in favor of the enigmatic nature of the world. It is as if Isaeus-Berlin is formulating herself on a higher level, Where not the answer to the enigma but its existence is essential – that questions arise, are asked and reformulated rather than answered.
Maria Yassa is a psychoanalyst.