At the beginning of his classic work on the subject, the 1919 essay “The Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud places a long quotation from the dictionary. “What interests us most,” Freud concludes, “is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich (homey) exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich (uncanny).” His following remarks are devoted to this synonymity, and it seems that Petra Sterry knows these remarks very well. It is only a small step from trusted familiarity to ghastly horror. Terror is there on the trottoir, and the more carefully one isolates oneself in one’s little world, the closer the demons are at one’s heels.
During the last one and a half decades, the uncanny has been booming. The Architectural Uncanny was the title of Anthony Vidler’s 1992 work on “Modern Architecture and Its Discontents”, which pinned down the relationship perfectly in its subtitle: “Essays in the Modern Unhomely”. Then in 2004 Mike Kelley organized a touring exhibition on the theme of “The Uncanny”, making the split between the homey and the uncanny fit for the stage, as it were. And yet this was more or less a late bloomer. With a tip of the hat to Petra Sterry’s penchant for creating inimitable Austro-Anglicisms, one could already long since have said: An kenn i.2
2. Our Nature Is a Dress Code of the Nada
Sheet sixty-nine of Francisco Goya’s Desastres de la guerra has the motto “Nada. Ello dirá”, “Nothing. We shall see”. This image, which is unusual for the series of war depictions because it goes beyond the comprehensibility of the visible, shows an already mummified corpse, which in a sort of posthumous exertion points toward the meaninglessness of being, of war, of its own existence by reaching for a writing instrument. The living cadaver is scrawling a solitary, highly readable and capitalized “Nada” on a tablet that rests against his hip. Nothing, it is written there plain and clear. Here Goya brings into play the empty, naked evidence that everything is as it is, the pure sic, with nothing that can outstrip it. Nothing but the uncanny. It lives exclusively from suspicion, but it lives. A skeleton, like the one that Goya derives from the tradition of the Dance of Death, is to a certain extent the traditional form of depiction for it, familiar to every child and bringing together the unspeakable with the irreversible, a personification that has long since left behind everything personal. >>