View of “Louisa Clement,” 2017. Photo: Trevor Good.

View of “Louisa Clement,” 2017. Photo: Trevor Good.

Louisa Clement

View of “Louisa Clement,” 2017. Photo: Trevor Good.

On first glance, it was hard to say what was depicted in these glossy black photographs. They might be pictures of extremely complex devices, perhaps the kind used in scientific experiments, or they could be of fine machine parts or the dissected limbs of an insect under a microscope. These photos were puzzling in a way that made them uncanny, and like all uncanny things, they triggered curiosity and repulsion at once: Did you really want to know what these images show? It could be something unpleasant.

But yes, you wanted to know. The subjects are mannequins that Louisa Clement photographed with her iPhone camera. Just like that, without any equipment or special lighting, she took these close-ups of mannequins in a department store. And indeed, you could recognize the individual limbs, even the individual fingers, and above all the hinged joints that make them adjustable. The mannequins appeared to be interlinked in anatomically awkward poses. Their limbs touch with what seems to be tenderness. But even when you know what they depict, the photos remain just as uncanny as before. As if emerging from the blackness of untold depths, individual limbs briefly reflect the light only to recede back into those depths again. The photos have an unreal quality, evoking something fleeting and strangely occult, too.

Bringing an artificial body to life has been a dream of various occult practices since time immemorial. Since the early Middle Ages, people have tried to make bodies with joints and limbs move like human beings—and even to endow them with souls. Think of the clay golem made by Rabbi Loew in sixteenth-century Prague, or the mechanical jointed “automata” that were prized objects in the Wunderkammers of the eighteenth century. In his story “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810), the German writer Heinrich von Kleist claimed that having a soul was a precondition of natural movement. But how can a mannequin have a soul? The title of Clement’s exhibition in Berlin, which translates as “The Path of the Soul of the Dancer,” was taken from Kleist’s story. Today, in the digital era, we have avatars that surpass all the attempts of medieval alchemists and eighteenth-century mechanics. But these beings are also given souls, as the term animation attests. The etymological origin of this word is of course anima, meaning “soul.”

Animation is an act of transformation. In 2015 Clement gained attention for her installation Transformationsschnitt (Transformation Cut) in the Kunstraum Fuhrwerkswaage in Cologne. On two long, white pedestals she lined up rows of deep-black crystal-clear glass stones that drew the viewer in with their purity and cool elegance. The stones looked like fragments of a meteorite, or a material that might be used for 3-D prints. But in fact they were made from the residue of chemical weapons from the Syrian civil war, whose toxic components were mixed with sand and incinerated. Loaded with the potential of death, these stones looked frighteningly beautiful. What a contradiction! And it’s precisely this contradiction that is also key to the photos shown in Berlin: They are forbiddingly elegant, understated in their perfection, and at the same time frightening and mysterious—and that, ultimately, is what makes them so uncanny.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.