Sigmund Freud, in his 1919 essay, The Uncanny, described the uncanny, or unheimlich, as “that class of the frightening which leads us back to what is known of old and long familiar.” In other words, it is often those things that remind us of things safe and homely (heimlich) that when distorted can be the most frightening. For example, a human face with gouged-out eyes or a dilapidated and deserted theme park.
Darkness can also play a large part in the feelings of the uncanny. First of all, darkness is something that we experience every day of our lives, and so it is heimlich, but at the same time, it is completely unknown to us because it is not possible to see through it. Darkness is the supplement for the unheimlich, as when invisible things become visible, that creates feelings of the uncanny. For example, the sense of unease we get when we know something is about to come to light. It does not matter whether this thing is good or terrible because that ambiguity and uncertainty only adds to the uncanny feeling. Therefore darkness is a very powerful medium, not only because it can create such a strong sense of fear, but also because the ambiguity that it presents will almost always lead to curiosity and intrigue.
Because of these powerful feelings that darkness inspires, many modern artists use the medium in their work. For example, Anish Kapoor, the British-Indian sculptor, who has created several sculptures utilising darkness and spatial allusions.
‘Marsupial’ is an example of Kapoor’s work with darkness. The sculpture shows a smooth reflective surface with a large inverted pouch placed at the centre of it. The name, ‘Marsupial’, meaning a mammal similar to a kangaroo, refers to this pouch, which alludes to the uncanny quality because a kangaroo’s pouch should feel homely and safe. However, the presence of the hole does not make you feel homely or safe because of the fact that anything could be lurking inside its dark interior. But at the same time, there is a definite urge to place your hand in the hole in order to conquer its ambiguity.
Another sculpture by Kapoor that can boast this same feeling of unease is ‘Descent into Limbo’, which features a concrete square that can be entered though a small door on one side. Inside this square, a black hole takes up most of the ground space. The darkness of the seemingly never-ending pit immediately draws your eye because of its dense nature. Again, you feel both repelled by uncertainty and fear, and attracted by curiosity. These contradictory feelings create a compromise in your brain, and instead of running from the pit or drawing closer to it, all you can do is stand and stare at it, as if waiting for something invisible to pop out of it and reveal itself.
Kapoor’s sculptures perfectly broadcast how irrational the sense of the uncanny is, because the fact that such strong feelings of fear and unease can be created from looking at a small dark space in the ground is indeed irrational. But this only adds to their appeal, as surely the point of modern art is to create pieces that will leave a lasting impression on the soul, whether that impression be comforting or disturbing. Without this indisputably important factor, ‘Descent into Limbo’ really is just a boring hole in the ground.