ABOVE: Found image from the collection of Dr. Jeanne Randolph.
Introduction: Sigrid Dahle's The Gothic Unconscious
So why Gothic now? First, we need to remember that ever since the Enlightenment killed off Satan in the 18th century, the artistic imagination has relished filling the void. The Gothic has never really left; one hell was replaced by another. Still, the present materialization has a sense of timing to it. On September 11 we all witnessed what could be described as a manifestation of the demonic....The best Modern Gothic art is way more than Gothic, and that's what makes it worth looking at and thinking about right now. [Saltz]
Sigrid Dahle's Gothic Unconscious series of exhibitions, events and documentation on Gallery One One One's website was a year-long meditation on the gothic impulse in contemporary art. The emphasis was on Winnipeg, a Canadian prairie city of almost a million people that is rich in culture and dark in sensibility.
The term "gothic unconscious" figures in the both the title of Ros Ballaster's essay "Wild Nights and Buried Letters: The Gothic 'Unconscious' of Feminist Criticism" [Sage]; and in the teaching of the Michel Chaouli of Indiana and Harvard, who has recently offered an undergraduate course called "Germany's America, 1776 - 2003, The Gothic Unconscious." Sigrid Dahle, a long-term resident of Winnipeg, is a feminist of German ancestry, so I venture that she has a personal stake in both Ballaster's feminism and Chaouli's German scholarship. In conversation, however, Dahle talks about a play of words on the title of Rosalind Krauss's book The Optical Unconscious.
Sigmund Freud was the first psychoanalyst to use the phrase "the unconscious," and Freud's concept of the return of the repressed, or the "uncanny" is important to this exhibition. What we deny ourselves one day we can unconsciously display the next as a repetitive or even compulsive reenactment of memories. Freud's concept of the unconscious was itself a late product of the Gothic movement in Romantic art, which is not to deny its scientific validity. [Solms] Dahle herself is partial to the post-Freudian psychoanalytical perspective of her friend and mentor the theorist and psychoanalyst Dr Jeanne Randolph, who favours D.W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein over Freud.
Like Dahle the artist/curator, Freud the writer/psychoanalyst, and Randolph the performer/psychoanalyst, I use the words "gothic," "unconscious," and "the gothic unconscious" a little vaguely.
Winnipeg has produced some gothic (meaning inclined-toward-the-dark-side) artists. Unlike past Winnipeg group shows, for example the eclectic roundups of local talent shown in the Winnipeg Art Gallery's 1999 Sitings or its Contemporary Art from Manitoba exhibition of 1987 or the fabled Winnipeg Shows of yesteryear, The Gothic Unconscious series makes the claim, as I see it, that the best Winnipeg art has a dark heart and a brooding brow.
Gallery One One One's exhibition mailers had the words "Winnipeg: Where the moon is full every night." printed on them for a reason. Winnipeg's summer mosquito infestation spreads the deadly West Nile virus around town; in winter, exposed skin freezes instantly; syphilis has recently toured Winnipeg's bars; a few years ago, before being brought under control, the torching of abandoned houses by young Winnipeg arsonists was a near daily occurrence; Winnipeg's downtown (it is improving) is mostly deserted except for street people, some asleep, others cantankerous; Winnipeg treats its First Nations people horribly, and the consequences of this treatment are felt daily by all Winnipeggers; Winnipeg is the murder and the child poverty capital of Canada. On a sunnier note, Winnipeg's ambition to become Canada's virology centre has local politicians looking to Atlanta's Center for Disease Control as the model of a new Jerusalem.
Dahle's series did not speak directly to gothic trends in contemporary society like the disaffected teenagers who call themselves "Goths" (Winnipeg has them, too, and some are art students), or Halloween (even if this exhibition series did open the night before Halloween in 2003). Too, the black humour of horror movies is alluded to in only some of the art -- Sarah Crawley's haunted houses and Reva Stone's meat molecules come to mind. No horror movies were included in the Gothic Unconscious series (Guy Maddin's The Dead Father and John Paiz' Crime Wave are not horror flicks).
Dahle did not confine her overview strictly within Winnipeg's perimeter highway, even if I tend to. Contemporary culture crosses borders too frequently these days for anyone to claim hard and fast borders, but Winnipeg is isolated enough, despite the internationalism of its artists, to be (pardon the pun) "pegged." Winnipeg's stable population of long-term residents makes for stable epiphenomena like art. Winnipeg is a relatively big city in the middle of a vast prairie, and that lends a rich city/country dichotomy to its gothic culture. Contemporary media's 666 Mockingbird Lanes are mostly at the edges of and not quite outside the city. (Marilyn Manson is not a bluegrass musician.) Even in the countryside, as we know from horror movies, gothic fear afflicts city folk with a special vengeance denied country people, who are quickly dispatched by ghouls, or are the ghouls themselves (I'm thinking of a hundred zombie movies, and Anthony Perkins in Psycho). It is city folk and not country bumpkins who frantically fumble in the dark with their car keys as gothic death looms in the rear-view mirror. The gothic conjures dread, fear, disgust. loathing, self-loathing, and horror of a particular kind in contemporary urban people once the farcical associations with Halloween are dropped. City fears are of communicable illness -- sexual and otherwise -- of hospitals and ambulances and fire trucks and muggers and thieves, all of which Winnipeg supplies gratis and often without special effects, but also of the unknown horrors of nature -- i.e rural -- life. Dahle's intuition seems to be that the artists of "The Gothic Unconscious" are unaware or have never thought of -- i.e. have been unconscious of -- how their art mirrors the reality of daily life in Winnipeg. The suggestion here is that Winnipeg's best artists tend to the gothic because they are, quite unironically, realists.
Director: Gallery One One One
Neal Benezra and Olga M.Viso. Regarding Beauty. [Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1999].
Bruce Grenville, editor. The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. [Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery / Arsenal Pulp press, 2001].
Shirley Madill et al, Sit(e)ings [Winnipeg:Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2000
Carol A. Phillips and Shirley Madill et al. 1987 Contemporary Art in Manitoba. [Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1987]
Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith. Modern Gothic: A Reader. [Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996].
Jerry Saltz. "Modern Gothic." [New York: The Village Voice February 4-10, 2004, online February 18, 2004 http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0405/saltz.php ].
Mark Solms. "Freud Returns." Scientific American, Volume 290, Number 5, May 2004, 82-89.
A CD-ROM publication documents the The Gothic Unconscious investigation and includes material about other Gallery One One One shows. Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605. For information please contact Robert Epp firstname.lastname@example.org