Katharina Fritsch, Heart with Money and Heart with Wheat, 1998–99, plastic, aluminum, resin, and paint, 26' 2 1/4“ x 13' 1 1/8”.

Katharina Fritsch, Heart with Money and Heart with Wheat, 1998–99, plastic, aluminum, resin, and paint, 26' 2 1/4“ x 13' 1 1/8”.

Katharina Fritsch

To begin, a niggly question: When painting or sculpture is labeled “uncanny,” what is actually being claimed? Katharina Fritsch’s image world—of effigies and doubles, skulls and spooks, votive figures and völkisch motifs—has fixed her work in this explanatory frame; the term “uncanny” is often used to describe her art, and words like “unsettling,” “dark,” and “threatening” abound in the literature accompanying her Tate retrospective. Freud’s 1919 paper is fairly precise about the defining effects of uncanny narratives and occurrences: Loosening rationality’s grip, they permit repressed mental formations (primitive animism, infantile narcissism, castration anxiety, the death drive) to return, triggering panic, a paranoid impression of being menaced by unseen presences, and so on. In short, Freud is interested in uncanny anxiety because it exceeds the scale of aesthetic sensation and measures as hysterical symptom. Visual art can provoke physical reactions, no doubt about it: maybe shaky feelings of shock, or nausea, or (let’s be more cheerful) sexual arousal. But can gallery objects really induce sweaty anxiety in their viewers, as a yarn by M.R. James or a scary movie might? Could an encounter with Fritsch’s work make a normally rational adult imagine that a polyester skeleton in a lab coat (see Fritsch’s Doctor, 1999) or a giant plastic rodent (see Man and Mouse, 1991–92) or a posse of black plaster poodles (see Child with Poodles, 1995–96) are inexplicably out to get her? Freud concludes his study by noting that a tale needs more than just the presence of particular motifs to give readers the heebie-jeebies, a point not lost on Anthony Vidler in The Architectural Uncanny (1992). Uncanniness, Vidler stresses, is not a property of space (or, by extension, of specific objects or imagery) but a mental state of projection in which the boundaries of the real and unreal start to wobble. Narratives, as noted, can induce this slippage, but things—buildings, paintings, sculptures—have a second-order relationship to it; they emblematize rather than cause uncanny anxiety.

The Tate’s exhibition comprised eighteen works spanning Fritsch’s career, from the very early, tiny Gray Mill, 1979 (included as a component of Display Stand 11, 1979–84), to Dealer, 2001; and barring maybe just one piece—the audio installation Ambulance, 1990—the works’ most striking characteristics were their emphatic tangibility and immediate physical comprehensibility. In Freud’s account, uncanny motifs lead from the familiar and intelligible to the unfamiliar and disturbing, but Fritsch’s works, in their vivid physicality, lead from the knowable and graspable in the gallery to the all-too-knowable and graspable output of mass-production. A good example is the floor piece Heart with Money and Heart with Wheat, 1998–99, two giant heart-shaped spills of chunky plastic coins and ears of wheat. The wheat ears resemble Christmas decorations and are colored a sickly metallic “gold”—an acid greenish-yellow that recalls such items as Mylar candy wrappers, food packaging, and disposable foil ashtrays. The coins are made from dull silvery metallized plastic. Both invite picking up, but in the same way that cheap goods or props for commercial display do; one knows for certain that one’s haptic curiosity will be disappointed by the ordinariness of the objects’ feel. The same goes for Dealer, with his fabulously crisp trouser creases, sharp cuffs, and smooth, unbendable lapels, treated with Fritsch’s hallmark velvety paint surface, this time in a rich red. One wants to reach out and touch—but knowledge of the painted plastic’s texture already resides in the twenty-first-century consumer’s well-trained fingertips. Wheat ears and coins might bring to mind folksy, heimisch gifts or gingerbread-house decorations; Dealer, with his single cloven hoof and pony-tail, is clearly intended to invoke a whiff of the dia-bolical. These are uncanny motifs, for sure, but their substantiality and knowability preclude uncanny effects.

Gary Garrels has commented that for Fritsch, “locating a point of tension in form and proportion that corresponds to a personal and intuitive sense of rightness is critical,” and he goes on to assert that the “vividness of the encounter” with the artist’s work is significantly at odds with “normal habits of perception.” The first of these statements seems quite correct: Fritsch’s capacity for making incredibly finely tuned “right” decisions about the forms, manufacturing techniques, proportion, detailing, and finish of each of her works binds her oeuvre together. Her account in the Tate’s catalogue of her painstaking studio activities is illuminating: She describes the effort it took to get the hood of Monk, 1999, to look perfectly, stereotypically hoodlike, and reveals that the coins used in Heart with Money had to be completely remade when she realized they’d look better a couple of millimeters thicker.

However, is there really a categorical difference between the experience of her works and those hypothetical “normal habits of perception”? Arguably, the “rightness” of Fritsch’s artistic decisions corresponds to standards set in the world of commercial manufacture, design, and display: It’s the fine art of knowing how to lend an object a really itchy, arresting, self-contained finish. However much the artist herself might wish to distance her work from 1980s Simulation, it’s this effect that grips one’s attention: With their tightly judged repertoire of technical effects, her pieces intensify the experience of mass-produced items, managing to be both virtuosic and absolutely, estrangingly blank and adamantine. Thus the work does ultimately earn its “uncanny” label, but at an entirely emblematic level. To claim that it is genuinely spooky (in the good old Freudian sense) is to willfully ignore the real sources of its alienating vocabulary.

Rachel Withers is a London-based art critic.