Diane Arbus and Gert & Uwe Tobias at Nottingham Contemporary (NVA, 2010)

diane_arbus_untitled (1970)

In C.J.S. Thompson’s The History and Lore of Freaks (1930) the author begins with a blunt statement of fact: “From the earliest period of the world’s history abnormal creatures or monstrosities, both human and animal, have existed…and excited the wonder of mankind”. These two exhibitions demonstrate that the ancient interest outlined by Thompson’s survey remains as strong as ever. The terms on which that interest is justified may change over time, shifting from religious portent to scientific curiosity, outright entertainment to political theorising about marginality, but the imaginary and real dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, bearded ladies and wolf-men who have appeared in visual and written records dating back to cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets in Nineveh and Babylon four thousand years ago remain a source of enduring fascination.

It’s a pertinent place to begin a discussion of the two bodies of work currently occupying the galleries of Nottingham Contemporary, as both, in their different ways, extend the traditions outlined in Thompson’s book and make it clear that the abnormal and exceptional continues to command attention. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. While much of the material gathered by Thompson’s account – ranging from the fictional monsters and prodigies said to inhabit undiscovered lands described by Plato, Herodotus and others, to the real lives of such figures as the ‘Irish Giant’ Charles Byrne and the ‘Sicilian Dwarf’ Caroline Crachami – is rooted in societies where the exceptional is in contrast to a wider urge towards conformity; by Arbus’s time, and in our own, the emphasis on individualism suggests such figures may be envied as often as they are feared.

In the case of Arbus, there certainly seems to have been something of this in her attraction to these subjects: in one famous comment she described these marginal figures as having “already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats”, a point reinforced by her tendency to present her subjects with dignity in a kind of inverse proportion to their atypicality. A good example is the contrast between her two portraits of Jack Dracula, a tattooed showman photographed in New York in 1961, and the later Lady Bartender at Home with a Souvenir Dog posed in her New Orleans room in 1964. Where Jack Dracula is presented straight – sitting at table with a drink, or reclining on grass, only his dense tattoos distinguishing him from any other man at leisure – the strangeness of the unnamed Lady Bartender, with her artificially blonde bouffant hair, painted eyebrows and awkward posture – is heightened, rendering the outlandish almost mundane, the ordinary freakish.

It’s an approach that runs through the whole selection, and it seems that the commonplace criticisms of Arbus’s exploitation of her subjects – she is often said to be focused on making them look their worst – may be more a reflection on the viewer’s discomfort than the subject’s lack of agency. That discomfort can be palpable, as we are caught in the intense stare of the unidentified Tattooed Man at A Carnival, Md., 1970, or find ourselves seeming to intrude on the private conversation of a group of Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C., 1963. In the latter, Arbus’s subjects turn toward us as though we’ve just walked in on them. If we consider the strangeness of these subjects exploitative, is that a displacement of discomfort as we are presented with people who look other, but assume an equality as they look back from these photographs? Many of those portrayed here seem to weigh up the viewer with the same cool gaze and curiosity that Arbus’s camera turns on them.

The Untitled series of 1971 that occupies the final room here is the emblematic – and perhaps most problematic – example, but while the act of viewing these images of masked individuals and groups at a home for adults with learning difficulties can skirt territory where we feel we’re seeing extraordinary things, in a freak-show sense, there’s a great distance between these images and the kind of public shows put on at hospitals like Bethlem in the eighteenth century. Here, the adults are active in their interactions with the camera, so that the Masked Woman in a Wheelchair, Pa., 1970, is clearly holding the mask to her own face, and looking back at the lens, while the pair of gleefully grinning women linking arms in Untitled (1), 1970 – 71, are projecting a sense of friendship and delight in each other’s company that may – given their toothlessness – look odd, but radiates something powerful and human that won’t be denied by any urge we might have to patronise them with sympathy.

A contrast between these two women and the superficially similar Woman in a Rose Hat, N.Y.C., 1963, with her sternly distracted expression, underlines yet again how Arbus’s camera judges her subjects less the further they depart from ordinariness. In granting her extraordinary people an agency and matter of fact presentation, while rendering her ordinary subjects as somehow freakish in appearance, it appears Arbus’s intent – consciously or otherwise – is to elevate even the least interesting of her subjects to that ‘aristocracy’ of individuals who wear their physical and psychological flaws as marks of distinction.

We observe the implied redemption of the cruciform handle protruding from the mouth of an Albino Sword Swallower at a Carnival, Md., 1970, the spectral presence of A Flower Girl at a Wedding, Conn., 1964, as she emerges from the misty background like a ghost, or an oversized Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, 1963, making its presence felt in a deserted room (as though anticipating the stooped figure of B-Movie actor Eddie Carmel, memorably pictured in A Jewish Giant At Home With His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970). In all of these images, Arbus seems at least as intent on granting exceptional visual status to the ordinary, subjecting it to a defamiliarising transformation, as she does on recording the unusual and marginalised: in this respect, her purest contemporary descendant might be David Lynch.

diane arbus sword swallower

At first glance, the work of Romanian-born twin brothers Gert & Uwe Tobias seems – unlike Arbus’s – to have no relationship to reality at all, let along anything resembling a provocative one. Much here consists of large-scale semi-abstract woodblock prints, from which grotesque, cartoon-like faces mischievously emerge, highly glazed but roughly rendered ceramic sculptures sized like domestic ornaments, collages in which arms, heads and bodies seem to scatter themselves randomly across painted sheets of paper. Yet despite some of the work being almost wholly abstract – grids, random typographic markings and designs of a kind often found in folk art decoration printed from layered blocks of beautifully modulated colour – much here also engages with the figurative, drawing on stereotypical images of the vampires, monsters and folk-demons often projected onto the idea of Eastern and Middle Europe, evidenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and the full gamut of mysterious Transylvanian forests, superstitious peasant villagers and long, foggy nights preyed upon by Christopher Lee in the films of Hammer Studios.

There’s something playful about all this, especially as the Tobias twins have apparently claimed they knew nothing about the reputation of their homeland while living there, and only discovered this material after they left to study in Germany. To this extent, the folklore influences in these works are wholly synthetic, a pop cultural rather than rooted body of mythological references, and in this sense their work contrasts with the more sombre approach of their contemporary Victor Man*, an artist whose work consists of black glass plates, monochromatic paintings and objects constructed from milking stools, fur and imaginary portraits of Elizabeth Bathory, a sixteenth century aristocrat rumoured to have murdered virgins and bathed in their blood. Just as Man’s iconography often borrows from elsewhere – remodelling Victor Brauner’s surrealist Wolf Table in Untitled 2002, for example – so Gert & Uwe Tobias draw frequently on works by others.

The pop surrealist sensibility is certainly striking in the four large scale heads (all Untitled) of 2010, their viscous noses and elongated ears turned in matching half profile. Dominating the second gallery, these seem like splices of Murnau’s Nosferatu, traditional church gargoyles, Halloween masks and – particularly in their candy colouring and quasi psychedelic patterning – have something about them of the ‘Blue Meanies’, villains of George Dunning’s animated Beatles film, Yellow Submarine (1968).

Gert-und-Uwe-Tobias Untitled

Equally, and as with Arbus, the Tobias twins work through a kind of inversion, the bigger and more obvious the monstrous presence, the less threatening it becomes, and vice versa. The array of large scale heads or the strange presence emerging from a totem constructed from hydraulics and a vase-like, alembic form in Untitled 2010, seem comical, impish rather than nightmarish. Yet when scaled down – to the impaled demonic head with its extended and wilting nose in a typewriter drawing, or the obsessive accumulation of glazed clay figures in one corner – something darker comes into play, a sense of unconscious forces made visible by trance-states: that typewriter drawing would not seem out of place on Jack Nicholson’s desk at the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – a film that coincidentally also drew its supernatural twins straight from Diane Arbus’s Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J., 1967.

The ceramic works seem to echo Jan Svankmajer’s ‘gestural’ and ‘tactile’ works of the 1980s and early 1990s, works like Tactile Poem (1996) or Gestural Chair (1990), in which the distracted manipulation of clay is used to create amorphous forms whose accumulation creates a code that seems intended to be read, but impossible to decipher. Like Svankmajer’s wordless texts, the presence of dozens of these small, unreadable objects in a corner, like the elements of a household shrine, generate considerable unease: what are these figures representing? Who or what are they? They hover on the cusp of recognition, naggingly familiar in size and shape, but ultimately unknowable. They might be conventional ornaments melted in a fire that has left no trace of itself, figures conjured from intuitive touch as part of some rite, whose purpose might be malicious or protective. All we recognise for sure is the presence these things exert.

In the collages and smaller scaled works on paper, a similar uncertainly prevails, as carved heads, female bodies, headless suits and dangling arms – that might belong equally to a corpse, a post-coital reverie or a sleeper – generate an unreadable code that seems part cavadre exquis, part mediumistic documentation. That these collages are often made (like all the work here) through a process of the Tobias twins passing the works to and fro, each adding further layers, in an ongoing game of consequences, undermines the idea of individual authorship, but also aligns many aspects of these works with certain ideals within earlier forms of modernist art: Russian Constructivist graphics, the typography and collage of El Lissitsky and the Bauhaus are explicitly cited, but the oneiric and unreadable qualities of much of the resulting work suggest other influences are present, too, particularly in the sense that these images are ‘surfacing’ rather than created, steeped in a half-conscious sense of things imagined during the early hours, in an insomniac or drunken state.

The conscious merging of periods here – from medieval heraldic wall-patterning and modulated colours to constructivist typefaces and synthetic pop-cultural monsters – makes this a show of work that seems simultaneously very familiar, and very strange. Perhaps, too, it’s worth noting that the folk-demons of Eastern Europe, far from being fanciful creatures of the pre-modern imagination, are still finding their way onto the front pages of British and German newspapers, where Polish, Romanian and Roma migrants are regularly said to be running criminal gangs of children, eating swans, being other and generally bringing the dark shadows of their homelands to the shores of Dover, just as Bram Stoker’s Dracula brought his pestilence to Whitby in 1897, during an earlier period of immigration from Jewish and other settlements in middle Europe. Whether there’s any deliberate satirical intent in the work of the Tobias twins is debatable, but the potential to make such a reading of their oeuvre in the present context is clear enough.

In this sense, there’s another connection with Arbus’s larger project to be found: in the normalisation of the strange, and the defamiliarisation of the known, both she and the Tobias twins operate in a zone that runs deep in the art of the twentieth century: given the name ‘unheimlich’, or ‘the uncanny’, by Ernst Jentsch in 1906, and its outlines developed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Sandman, the idea had its roots in folklore and German Romanticism, and has extended its influence into much of the art made in the century since Freud defined the concept. Despite the documentary claims of photography, Arbus – like Bill Brandt, Emilia Medkova and Brassai – deployed the camera as a tool that transformed the things it recorded, enriching the fabric of reality by breaking with habitual ways of observing it: in their blend of oblique popular iconography and traditional craftsmanship, Gert & Uwe Tobias, too, remake the world we think we know, leaving it a more unsettling and outlandish, but also a more intriguing place.

Ubiquitous You (Victor Man)

*A short review of Victor Man’s ATTEBASILE, shown at Ikon Gallery in 2009, might be a useful footnote:

Victor Man grew up in Transylvania, best known to outsiders for its folk traditions and the mythology of Dracula. It’s a legacy the Romanian artist’s debut UK solo exhibition makes good use of, merging the dark legends with a glossy minimalist aesthetic in paintings, assemblages and reflective photographic panels that defy easy categorisation. Ubiquitous You mounts a small monochrome portrait of a faceless female figure on a pelt of fur, perhaps an allusion to the notorious Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to preserve her own beauty. Other, untitled, works offer a paired etching and photograph of a black glove, metal cooking pots and logs remade into mysterious sculptural forms, and paintings where shadowy figures point guns at a hooded victim, smoke billows from a straw, and plus and minus signs are connected by a luminous, diagrammatic circle. Man’s approach demands that his viewers follow a kind of dream-logic between the recurrent symbols, and the largest piece in the exhibition, Those With Teeth And Those Without, presents a sheet of black glass etched with faint impressions of women and lunar phases, images the viewer can only discern by ‘scrying’ the mirror, as witches were once said to do when practising magic. Surreal yet grounded in Romania’s history, simultaneously ancient and contemporary, these are objects that repay prolonged attention.  [Wayne Burrows, Metro, 2009]

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