It made sense that Alex Da Corte’s installation-cum-house-of-horrors would be staged in an Upper East Side former manse, bounded on all sides by the residential practices of Manhattan’s elite therapists. Indeed, the artist’s multi-storey, immersive exhibition, ‘Die Hexe’ (2015), had more in common with the likes of Sigmund Freud than Stephen King. Da Corte deploys subtle tropes that draw from a collective consciousness of the supernatural; tellingly, the exhibition title means ‘the witch’ in German. But another German word was perhaps more appropriate to describe the exhibition – what Freud referred to as unheimlich, or ‘uncanny’.
For Freud, the uncanny belonged ‘to all that is terrible’, but was also the category of the terrifying ‘which leads back to something […] once very familiar.’ Locating in the philological root of the term heimlich both a sense of home and of concealment, Freud conceived of the unheimlich as a confrontation with absence, provoked by the effacement of the distinction between imagination and reality.
In the case of Da Corte’s multi-storey installation, this effacement followed a clearly defined path, one that began with a black-lit parlour floor entrance, in which the viewer could find faux-candy apples and wicker basket wall sconces with flickering electric candles. A peep-hole into a locked broom closet revealed Robert Gober’s chrome-plated, bronze drain, Untitled (1993). Lined with mirrors, the small chamber produced a sense of perceptual dislocation. with the eye unable to distinguish top from: bottom, the viewer was effectively turned upside down.
Up a flight of stairs was a windowless room bathed in pumpkin-orange fluorescent light, lined with gingham wallpaper and with a knitted-rag oval rug in similar carrot hues on the floor. Placed at the rug’s centre lay Mike Kelley’s Arena #8 (Leopard) (1990), an afghan throw with a stuffed animal crocheted into it. Bounding Kelley’s rug, a multi-legged stool with a pumpkin atop stood opposite a rocking-chair with a mini-motor fixed to the runner, giving the impression of a phantom occupant nervously rocking back-and-forth. Da Corte, it would seem, is interested in drawing the mechanisms of illusion to the fore. In another room on the same floor, Bjarne Melgaard’s Allen Jones Remakes (2013), an appropriation of the pop artist’s original fetish furniture, sat on plush carpets of pink and purple in a room awash with a lilac-hued light and bisected by a polished silver strippers’ pole. Here, more than anywhere else in the house, Da Corte’s use of props and found objects seemed to stray from the totemic import he imbued them with elsewhere. The pseudo-altar of objects arranged atop the latex-clad, mannequin-supported table was less ritualistic than it was tchotchke.
Just off the landing of the townhouse’s top floor, a cramped pantry space included an assortment of Da Corte’s small sculptural assemblages and thrift-store finds (a curtain tassel and plastic cherry pie, among them), as well as Haim Steinbach’s Absolutely Silent (1987): two small cast-metal sculptures of a whale and an owl. Meanwhile, down a narrow hall, a room bathed in a clinical green light reeked of antiseptic solvents. One wall, tiled in diamond-patterned mirrors, housed three cadaver drawers, their handles made from the joined heads of Swiffer mops. On one side of the room, a wooden credenza included an assortment of objects, among them two hockey masks mounted by a taxidermied dove.
Ultimately, the interplay between obvious symbols of the occult and morbidity in Da Corte’s exhibition was indicative of something far more personal than a passing interest in the paranormal. As the catalogue essay accompanying the show explains, the progression of Da Corte’s grandmother’s dementia deeply influenced his creative impetus. A condition marked by, amongst other symptoms, a gradual misrecognition and dissociation from everyday life, dementia might be understood as Freud’s uncanny in the truest sense of the term. Indeed, as he concluded, the most horrifying experiences are not those which reveal the possibility of the otherworldly but, rather, those that expose our susceptibility to the ‘silence, solitude and darkness’ of the present.
First published in Issue 172