Into the room of dream/dread, I abrupt awake clapping

Jane Hartsook Gallery, February 2001
Brochure essay by Nancy Princenthal

Detail of Into the room of dream/dread, I abrupt awake clapping, 2001 Jane Hartsook Gallery.

While she was at work, for almost a year, on this installation, Elise Siegel kept a few texts in mind. One, Thomas Mann’s Disorder and Early Sorrow, concerns a party at which a girl of five, younger sister to the hosts, is asked to dance by an especially dapper young man. A mad, momentary infatuation ensues, and the little girl is inconsolably bereft at being sent to bed. A tale of small but damaging conflicts almost too numerous to name — of general disorder — Mann’s story is above all a parable of misplaced ardor, of grief at a loss that is the more painful for being wholly unconditional, supported by neither propriety or wisdom, or even rational cause.

It is emotion at just this pitch, and a void this resounding, that Siegel captures in Into the Room of Dream / Dread I Abrupt Awake Clapping. A circle of children, made of fired clay but painted an unbaked-looking gray, are seated around a solitary child who holds the position of honor — or opprobrium. As in a dream, all seem reflections of the central (dreaming) subject, their features as similar as individual modeling can make them. They are delicate but a little ungainly, slightly too big for their age, their bottoms wide as wobbly bowls, their wrists, ankles, waists and necks articulated, like undressed porcelain dolls, by the edges of separately fired elements (some of the neck joints are in fact shimmed with little clay wedges). Seated bolt upright in their identical wooden chairs, the children are anxious with expectation. All are clapping, their small hands mostly upright — the central child holds hers (or his? their sex is indeterminate) between her knees — and rigid with effort. Even their feet, dangling long inches above the floor, are tense, toes flexed or tightly curled. And every innocent, baby-soft face — mouths slightly open, eyes deep, intent, and utterly unreadable — is turned toward the door through which the viewer enters. The effect of confronting their concerted attention is breathtakingly strong. Assuming involuntarily the privilege (or anathema) of the child in the circle’s center, the viewer also, again inevitably, mirrors the expectancy of the surrounding children. Obtusely, even absurdly, big and animate, the viewer (guest? intruder? performer?) is, in the terms established by this unappeasable audience, at the same time perfectly helpless. The cascade of displacements around which the installation is organized produces an effect that could be called, in a word, uncanny. Indeed, one of two other texts that Siegel had prominently in mind was Freud’s 1919 essay, The ‘Uncanny’. In the German (unheimlich), the term refers to a sense of alienation from the comfortable and home-like (Heim = home), an effect readily invoked by children’s dolls, as is brought out in Rosalind Krauss’s application of Freud’s essay to the work of Hans Bellmer. “The doll is able to encode the dynamic at the heart of the uncanny,” she writes, because “the structure of the uncanny turns… on a strangeness that grips what was once most familiar, … as it also takes the form of repetition, of the inevitability of return.”

In citing literary uses of the uncanny, Freud writes at length on E. T. A. Hoffman’s tale The Sandman, written a century before. This story, the third of Siegel’s textual reference points, concerns a young man who succumbs, fatally, to the thralldom of a shape-shifting figure of evil, at first identified as a traditional bogey-man, a “sandman” who plucks out children’s eyes when they won’t go to sleep. A catastrophic romance with a female automaton, fashioned in part by one of the sandman’s progeny, figures largely in the story; the seductiveness of this sightless (as well as deaf and dumb) mechanical doll, and the blindness of the hero’s infatuation with her, have important parallels in Siegel’s installation, from its portrayal of troubled vision to its concern with imprecise distinctions between animate and lifeless objects. Relevant above all is the uncanny effect — devastating, but also sometimes wondrous — that the irruption of childhood experiences can cause in adult life, as they so vividly do in Into the Room of Dream / Dread I Abrupt Awake Clapping.

Nancy Princenthal

Rosalind Krauss, “Uncanny” in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss
Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books, New York, 1997, p.194.