The Weird, The Eerie, and The Gap
Between Whispering Walls (2020) Analysis
By Kleopatra Vorria
It takes about three seconds for the door to close behind you. The room of Marieke Peeters’ art installation Between Whispering Walls is dark, silent. Softly, the wool takes over your senses; it absorbs your movement, your sight, and all sounds. As your eyes adjust to the limited light, you start to understand the simple outlines the space is composed of: a bed, a desk, a chair, a bookcase. A floor lamp and a desk lamp. All comprised of a dark, erratic wool. The space feels vaguely familiar, warm, almost inviting. If you are feeling bold enough, you might sit on the chair and pretend to write on the woollen notebook with the woollen pen, flip through its woollen pages. Suddenly, through the corner of your eye you catch a faint movement. As if it has always been there, yet simultaneously has just appeared out of thin air, stands a figure, itself made of wool, which slowly approaches. You instinctively get off the soundless chair and back away, as the figure sits down after you and flips through the book unbothered, your presence utterly unacknowledged. You take a few steps back, disturbed, yet intrigued to keep on watching. What could this feeling be?
The moment of curiosity arising from this experience can be keyed in on this visceral confrontation between the performer – both as a figure and as an extension of the room/installation – and the audience member: the roles have gotten perverted, as the spectator shifts their position to that of an intruder, the “alien” figure eventually taking up its natural place as part of the space’s ecosystem. This experience garnered from Peeters’ immersive installation is one of an uncanny nature, or perhaps more fittingly relative to the Freudian concept of the unheimlich, and its more contemporary extension into the concepts that Mark Fisher identifies as the weird and the eerie. I am not as much interested in the analysis of Between Whispering Walls through an orthodox understanding of Freud’s relationship to the uncanny, but more in its psychoanalytic potentiality as an aesthetic investigation (Freud et al, 155) of the personification of the child-self as an “other”. By borrowing Fisher’s terms of the weird and the eerie and applying them respectively onto the encounter between audience and performer/figure at the centre of the installation, and the positions they then take on in the landscape of the room itself, the nature of its tension becomes evident, as the spectator is faced with the gap between one’s illusory idea of childhood as an idyllic, innocent space and as a lived experience, and the reality of it.
The room as a landscape functions as a manifestation of the eerie through its evocation of a child’s bedroom (in this case, the artist’s) in a distorted, altered state. According to Fisher the eerie is “constituted by a failure of absence, or by a failure of presence” (Fisher, 61). Surely enough, the dimensions, forms and shapes of furniture and objects are familiar, however nothing feels relative enough to the human understanding of a functional or even cosy bedroom. Yet still, the space remains intimate. This is the first instance of a confrontational contradiction. The room gives cause for speculation: something, anything, seems to be purposefully missing, or has shifted. An everyday parallel example would be revisiting a place that one remembers spending a lot of time on as a child, only to discover that it was a lot less colourful, or much smaller. The disillusionment taking place inside the audience’s head gives way to a feeling of quiet dysphoria.
At first glance, the weird is perfectly encapsulated in the woollen figure at the centre of the artwork: the viewer’s experience of the space gets interrupted by what they first perceive to be part of the room’s woollen landscape, seemingly not belonging in the stillness of the space (61). However, after witnessing the figure interact organically with the world within the four walls, paying little notice to the company in its midst, it does not take long for the audience to question their own position. Are we as an audience the presence that does not belong instead? The subversive position that the viewer takes on in that instant is one that further shifts their perspective to that of the “other” and gives one the chance to engage with the space and figure collectively as a subjective entity.
Delineating the interactions between audience and performer-space (who I would like to suggest can also be read as one entity together) as iterations of the weird and the eerie is crucial to understanding the gap that lies at the core of the tension between the two. The gap encapsulated is that which arises through the experience of the child-self as both a body (in the figure) and a lived space (in the room) that stands on its own subjectivity, that comes into contrast to one’s perception of childhood as a concept, deprived of subjecthood and forced into an illusion of perpetual innocence and superficiality, effectively erased by the repressive adult-self and creates a false dichotomy between the two.
To understand this dichotomy further it is needed to acknowledge that many people’s experience with the installation are not the one described above necessarily, where the spectator is open to engaging with the body-room entity they encounter, as many fail to experience the space as something reminiscent or familiar at all, who are only able to understand the space as alien, and react to it with aversion, quickly exiting, spooked by the figure that to them could be nothing more than an attempt at something horrible.
The gap presented in the interaction between audience and the performer-space highlights and problematizes one’s transition into adulthood and what one leaves behind in that process, thereby defined not just as an evolved version of the same core subjecthood, but as a separate entity altogether, one that can be estranged to its younger self, or potentially, even more tragically, not recognizing oneself in it at all and becoming intimidated, experiencing one’s old spaces as of an alien substance, and further becoming estranged towards it by processing one’s understanding of their own childhood through its metonymic affect as a symbol for what it could potentially be, instead of what it is and what it is constantly becoming.
Freud describes the unheimlich as the horror found in “what was once well known and had long been familiar” (Freud et al, 156), a feeling closely evocative of what Peeters herself refers to when she defines the room as a confrontation of “the horror of the distance between us and the things we hold dear” (Peeters). Roughly translated, the subtextual substance of the installation can be summed up as a strange resistance, a resistance of the child as a temporality against its erasure by its repressed potential self.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. London, Repeater Books, 2016.