Ryan Hamilton / Umbo

You know that feeling when you know something is off but you cannot figure out what it is? Like you’re looking at a friend and can’t figure out why they are different, then you look deep into their eyes and feel a love that you have never felt before…or just notice that they have a new haircut or got new glasses or something? That’s “uncanny.” Uncanny is difficult to define because it is a feeling of the indescribable, but it has been part of our vocabulary since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ernst Jentsch’s “On The Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906) defines uncanny as a “lack of orientation,” where a person who is experiencing this phenomenon is not quite familiar with their current situation. To Sigmund Freud, defining a word as an uncertainty was not sufficient, so he develops it more in his book titled “The Uncanny” in 1919. Freud brings a more abject rendering of the word, describing it as an effect of experiencing repetition where our repressed impulses bubble to the surface. His use of the German word unheimlich, or “un-home-like,” brings an image of a secret, or something that is hiding in plain sight.  

Artists explore the uncanny through slight shifts in reality. My favorite example of uncanny art is Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series (1977-1980). “Untitled Film Stills” is 69 black and white photographs of Sherman dressed as stereotypical Hollywood female characters. Every character is a person you swear you have seen before (the cheerleader, the housewife, the damsel in distress), but every woman is fiction, an image of our collective imagination. Her photographs rely on the uncanny, an image of the familiar that upon closer inspection becomes foreign.

Untitled #35
Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #35,” 1979 (Photo by moma.org).

Otto Umbehr, known as “Umbo,” created uncanny artwork through formal affects. I was exploring the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s photography collection online and stumbled upon a photograph by Umbo. “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I)”, is an aerial shot of a German street. The angle chosen by the artist, which is completely parallel to the street, causes the work to be unrecognizable as a street initially; the large black figures and shades of gray create what looks like a collage, different textures pieced together on a page. Look closer, and these dark figures are long shadows shooting off of a man walking on the sidewalk, a man on a bicycle, and nearby buildings. Umbo turns an easily recognized space, a street, and makes the subject its shadow.

Image result for umbo uncanny street I
Umbo, “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I),” 1928 (photo by artnet.com).

When we get stuck in our routines, like our daily commute, we become numb to the details. It takes big changes for us to take a second look. Remember that weirdness we had with our surroundings after the election? Ryan Hamilton in his new Netflix stand-up “Happy Face” summed up that feeling perfectly.

I had never heard of Ryan Hamilton prior to watching his new stand-up special, and I have to say that I’m glad I know him now. “Happy Face” tells the stories of a man from a 1000 person town in Idaho now living in Hell’s Kitchen New York. Two very different places, but to him it’s a strange time to be from anywhere in the U.S. In New York, Hamilton hears people say “I don’t know who all of these Trump voters are.” Hamilton’s reply: “I’m from a town of one thousand in Idaho. I know who they are.” He then goes on to describe the day after election night in November. Here’s Hamilton’s experience:

I haven’t had a conversation in a very long time that hasn’t ended with ‘well it’s going to be interesting.’…I will never forget election day… But the next day was the strangest day of all. You went home, you slept for four fitful hours, then you woke up wide-eyed, and walked over to your window and you looked outside and went ‘well it looks okay, I guess. I guess I’m going to go out there.’ And then you left your home and that was the strangest feeling on the strangest day, wasn’t it? Just walking outside like ‘Here we go! Out into the new normal!’ Just making eye contact with people, like ‘I don’t know, I’m going to work, I guess!’

After I heard this segment I immediately thought of the uncanny. After November 8, 2016, we all felt unfamiliar in our familiar surroundings. Leaving the house and walking on the street, everything looked exactly the same but everything was different. It was like we were all looking at our streets at parallel; the extended shadows revealing the ugliness that we had denied existed. The darkness stretched out before us, we all still moved forward with this uncanny feeling, thinking “well it’s going to be interesting…”


Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. 2003. The uncanny. New York:          Penguin Books.

Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906).” Angelaki: Journal of the                    Theoretical Humanities 2, no. 1 (1997): 7-16.



Louis CK / Man Ray

So here’s what I think: I think you should not get an abortion unless you need one. In which case, you better get one…and hurry.

Louis CK’s “2017” starts with his standpoint on abortion and just gets more fun-loving from there! His first few minutes of this special pinpoint the reasons why women should have the right to choose: living is not that important, and women decide who lives or dies. He brings the entirety of human existence into solidarity by defining us simply as people who decided not to kill ourselves, a rather uplifting message delivered in a slew of “screw it” rhetoric.

This special came out earlier this year, but it was the first show that came to mind when I decided to write about a comedy special. Would you like to know why I picked it? I picked “2017” because it is 2017. How do I find these connections?! Look at a calendar, dummy.

CK points out how arbitrary yet astounding this number is:

The Christians won everything. A long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: What year is it? I mean, come on. What year is it according to the entire human race? And why?…It’s 2017. What is that? That’s a number. It’s not just any number. It must be a very important number. ‘Cause we’re counting to it in unison as a species.

This quote comes after he explains how he teaches his daughters about religion. All religions are equal, but the Christians are the main one. “They won big time, and a long time ago.” Christ died 2,017 years ago and we’ve all be counting “Jesus + 2, Jesus + 3, Jesus + 4…” ever since. Even stranger, before Christ’s birth, we count “Jesus – 1.” As an art history student I had to memorize dates as far back as the Woman of Willendorf from 28,000 B.C.E. Personally, writing B.C.E (Before Common Era) just causes my mind to go “Oh, the way to avoid saying Christ when we’re talking about old stuff.” Of course, I still use B.C.E. because it is a scholarly convention. I mean, who am I? You’re 75 year old archaeology professor with a bow tie and elbow patches? Go to my about page and you’ll see that I’m not that person, but wish I was wearing that kind of jacket.

Back to time. It’s something that shocks us out of bed in the morning if we hit snooze too much and its unforgiving forward movement haunts us after age 25. Time motivates us. Time destroys us. But what if we could destroy time?

Man Ray experimented with this question when he created “Object to be Destroyed.” This piece consisted of a picture of an eye attached to the weight of a metronome. A metronome keeps time for a musician; for an artist like Man Ray, it observes. Ray believed that a painter needs an audience, so in order for him to work more effectively he created Object to be Destroyed. Its unforgiving tick created a motivating artistic progression; that is, until his heart was broken by Lee Miller, his student, lover, and muse. He worshipped Miller. Honestly, I kind of worship Miller too. She lived an adventurous life that any person now would dream of, and she did it in the 1920s forward. Plus she is a prominent modern photographer who worked as a correspondent for Vogue during WWII. So when this badass woman left Ray for someone else, he replaced the eye on “Object to be Destroyed” with her eye and wrote a set of instructions:

Cut out the eye from the photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

Man Ray, Indestructible Object, 1965 (replica of 1923 original), Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by author)

With these words, an object that kept an artist moving forward in his work pivots into a question of the longevity of love. CK hates it when people congratulate couples on being together for a significant amount of their lives. They might be together for that long, but they are not in love for that long. He created a handy equation for the phenomenon:

Love plus time minus distance equals hate. That’s just the way it goes. I’m not saying don’t do it. You should do it. It’s the best thing. It’s the best part of life, love is. But don’t be greedy and expect it to last. Don’t be amazed that a butterfly died ’cause you shot it in the face. Just fall in love, make a fucking mess. It goes shitty, you don’t realize it until too late. And then you cry a lot and move on. It’s the best part of life.

After you wind up a metronome, at say an allegro 140 beats per minute, its tempo is seemingly unflinching. Its “tick tick tick” keeps your hands moving; at first it may seem too fast, then your muscles get used to the beat and you can keep the same movement for the duration of your song. Even after you stop, the tick keeps on ticking. Even after Ray’s lover left, his heart kept on beating for her. Sure, you can smash that love with a hammer, just destroy every bit of it and walk away. That’s the Ray method. But the CK method, that’s a relationship that endures. A metronome can click away at the same tempo for seemingly forever, but in reality the wind-up eventually winds down, then all that is left is an echo stuck in our heads.

“Object to be Destroyed” was officially destroyed in 1953 by a group of anti-Dada art students at a Paris exhibition. After the incident, Ray created a series of copies of the original titled “Indestructible Object” (1964). The copy can be found in museums all around the world. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can find it in Gallery 169: Surrealism.