Essays:

> Steffi Klenz : Caster

Douglas Murphy / Steffi Klenz : Caster

December 2011

In Steffi Klenz’ recent series ‘Caster’ she presents to us a comprehensive vision of the psychological concept of the uncanny. Each image in the series is a view of a domestic interior from various perspectives, the light inverted, oppressively dark, and with the contorted remains of a carpet ‘posed’ in various places in an otherwise empty room. From such limited means Klenz conjures up a number of fascinating allusions.

The first thing we ought to note here is that the German word for the uncanny is ‘unheimlich’. As Freud famously pointed out a century ago, ‘heimlich’, which literally translates as ‘homely’, means two separate things; both familiar and safe, but also secret and concealed. Freud suggests that the logic of the word heimlich develops along its own path until it begins to coincide with unheimlich, allowing him to argue for a proper psychological description of the uncanny as the trauma of the unfamiliar appearing from within the familiar. In Freud’s case this leads him onto the discussion of doubles, phantoms and severed body parts, but it retains the architectural hints of its etymology.

So we might now begin by reading Klenz’ images as visual analogies of this sensation – at the simplest level the forms of the image are easily recognisable and yet in their negative light they are estranged, twisted, unfamiliar. Let us consider the setting, a domestic interior: here the metaphors abound. We already note that the uncanny is related to the home, but of course both uncanniness and the home are the conditions of and for haunting, and Klenz’ images play substantially with this language of ghostliness. On the most basic representational level, the folded carpet that occupies the spaces of the image cannot help but remind us of the archetypal caricature of the ghost – the floating, draped sheet. This is heightened by the manner in which the shadows in the recesses and folds of the fabric are inverted into glowing whiteness, suggesting the translucency so common to images of phantoms. Furthermore, the darkened tone of the images is similar to the visual language of 19th century spirit photography, all gloom and eeriness, and of course let us not forget that ectoplasm, the ghostly emission, was a gauze-like fabric expelled from the orifices of the channelling medium. 

The notion of ghostliness should be treated a little more seriously, however. Without having to take ghosts literally one has to accept that the idea comes from somewhere; perhaps like deities, the notion of ghostliness arises automatically to fill an absence in being. The inescapable tension between the veridical finitude of being and its phenomenological endlessness allows for a condition whereby when we make marks we transfer a fragment of our being into the realm of the dead. The folk notion that photograph steals the soul is a naïve way of describing the genuinely uncanny effect of having a likeness frozen onto material in time, a strange hint of our own paradoxical ghostliness.

Which brings us back to the images, and the crumpled fabric; for this also leads us to the image of the shroud, the deathly cloth; as in a baroque marble by Bernini there almost seems to be a body lost within the folds, as if we had a petrified presence in the room. The images begin to seem like portraits, it is as if the carpet/ghost were both coiled in motion and also carved from stone; its solidity is entirely unconvincing. But then at the same time we see that the carpet retains the traces of the floor to which it was previously attached – and in this case suddenly we see the ghostly form as growing out of the house itself, as the straight white lines of the floorboards suddenly rear up into a maelstrom of folds.

‘Caster’ encompasses a number of different concepts that Klenz frequently explores in her work. It is compositional, nearly abstract, and in this sense is of a piece with her more recent work, such as the lurid, decayed, psychedelic ‘Hewitt’s Heap’. On the other hand, the focus on spaces and their potential to create an eerie sense of discomfort is similar in focus to her unsettling studies of Prince Charles’ model village Poundbury in ‘Nonsuch’, or the repetitive images of swathes of boarded up housing, ‘Nummianus’. The images in ‘Caster’, while aphoristic and simple, are at the same time a most refined study on the main themes in her work.