So much recent British art has been written about admiringly in terms of the uncanny. Many artists, it seems, wish to evoke a sense of unease and, whether time-based or static, two- or three-dimensional, they employ all manner of strategies to make the familiar seem strange, or vice versa. Outright horror, on the other hand, has evinced accusations of ‘sensationalism’, recalling the public outrage against so-called video nasties during the 1980s. The Chapman brothers’ flatof- the-hand approach is in stark contrast to the queasy poke of, say, a film by Jane and Louise Wilson.
Christian Jankowski’s recent photographic, video and sculptural works, ‘The Frankenstein Set’, could be thought of as a link between these two positions. His video ‘Angels of Revenge’, 2006 summons familiar figures from the horror genre—a psychologically complex point in itself, that conflates the familiar with the monstrous. He invited participants at a horror convention in Chicago to design a costume and devise a monologue that would illustrate the moment when they had felt most badly wronged by someone in the past, and how they would wreak revenge. The vignettes are at once chilling and comic: a sadistic butcher in a blood-spattered apron carries a bucket of severed limbs, while a figure in a hockey mask wields a chainsaw and vows to ‘split her up the middle’. Cliché and the uncanny are linked through the idea of the archetype: whereas cliché turns on its reiteration, the uncanny hinges on its infection. Here monsters are infected with archetypal familiarity—a convolution typical of Jankowski’s machinations.
Many cultural and critical theorists have analysed horror literature and films—from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to contemporary schlock—and Marina Warner, in particular, has reapplied this thinking to art and its transformative potentialities. In ‘Violence of Theory’, 2006 Jankowski has worked quotations from a number of such academics into the script of a straight-to-DVD werewolf film. He has also collaborated with a production company on a film that revolves entirely around grisly moments of transgression and transformation—the onslaught of vampire bites, werewolf savagings and mutations into half-beasts is relentless to the point of banality. While troops with night-vision guns perilously hunt down a snarling enigma or a victim spurts blood from the jugular or sprouts hairs on the backs of his hands, the actors deliver tracts of critical theory on death, transformation and the attraction of horror. In addition to this absurd intervention with the script, Jankowski also commissioned a prosthetics department to make casts of the theorists’ body parts to feature in both his film and the production company’s final movie. The thought of Warner’s leg being gnawed off or film theorist Linda Williams’s head rolling across a toilet floor would undoubtedly cheer many a scholar.
It would be erroneous to think of Jankowksi’s work as imparting meaning in a straightforward way—for instance, critiquing screen violence. His videos are often the outcome of baroque situations, which are more about what he can get people to do than the content they provide. This would imply that Jankowski exploits his participants, and to an extent he does. But in manipulating people’s customary behaviour and proclivities, his scrutiny inevitably focuses on social and commercial structures wider than the idiosyncrasies of a vulnerable few.
Sally O’Reilly is a writer living in London