Co-creator of the performance UNHEIMLICH Tarryn Gill answered to our questions and let us discover the world of this darkly-comic dream-like show.
The word “Unheimlich” is a Freudian term. What does it mean to you?
The word Unheimlich references Sigmund Freud’s essay about The Uncanny. It translates to “unhomely”- the experience of something that is familiar and comfortable becoming frightening or distressing in an instant. I’ve been interested in the concept of the uncanny for a long time and I think my artworks tend to hold dualities in this way: funny and frightening, comfortable and uncomfortable, conscious and unconscious.
Let’s go to the beginning of UNHEIMLICH. When did you and Katt Osborne begin working together and how has the work evolved?
I’d had a great time working with Katt previously on performance projects with The Last Great Hunt and she came to me in about 2016 after I’d made a series of works called Guardians. These were a collection of totems or protectors that referenced ancient funerary art; a cast of characters in the form of soft sculptures that contained light and sound elements. Katt saw the potential in these and asked me if I’d be interested in developing a performance work that bought them to life with performers. It was an exciting prospect and we have slowly developed the work in collaboration with our team since 2017.
Can you tell us about the making of the masks and the story/characterisation behind them?
I’ve made the masks in UNHEIMLICH in a very similar way to the way I make my sculptures – by hand carving foam and covering it in hand stitched fabrics. The challenge for me was learning how to make them wearable. For our first development I began by making some masks inspired by my Guardian sculptures as offers for the performers to interact with and we went from there in terms of developing characters for the show. It has been a very collaborative process – the incredible performers on the show have shown me the way in terms of what works and what doesn’t with the masks.
UNHEIMLICH unveils the hidden and unknown. What underlying messages does UNHEIMLICH hold?
UNHEIMLICH is set in a domestic space using the home and a relationship as a site for the uncanny or for horror. The show is still being developed as I write this but I think it’s a reflection on how when we go into a relationship, it acts as a mirror to our whole selves, including the parts you don’t want to see. Our shadow selves can quickly become apparent when in close quarters with another person. There is a lot of history and individual trauma we bring into our relationships.
Over the past year we’ve become re-familiarised with the home environment and partners in intimate and possibly claustrophobic ways. Does the work have a special resonance in 2021?
I think the work could be particularly resonant at the moment given that people have been spending a lot of time in their homes. I know there’s been spikes in domestic violence and mental health issues. Being contained in a domestic space means without many external distractions, you definitely are confronted with yourself whether you want to be or not. It’s definitely an environment where relationship issues can become magnified.
Let’s talk about cats. They’re an ongoing reference in your work and you’re of course a beloved cat owner. Tell us about your fascination with the house cat, a recurring motif of UNHEIMLICH.
My cat, Cat Stevens, is my muse and so I do often portray cats in my artwork. Cats are perfect as a motif for me because they relate to the feminine, the occult and can make good shapeshifters, contortionists or tricksters. It made sense to include a cat in Unheimlich because they help paint a picture of a domestic life, but also because the character can become a fun trickster figure who can manipulate the story!
You’ve worked across multiple disciplines in your career. What’s it been like, especially in this work, to adapt and translate your soft sculptural practice with live performance?
The materials and processes I use for making my sculptures were inspired by the way Jim Henson’s puppets were made, so I guess it’s sort of a full circle moment. That said it’s a very different thing to make pieces that are functional and get worn during a theatre show, to making objects that sit untouched and static in a gallery space. Early on I had assistance from Andy Cross and Fleur Kingsland from WAAPA to help me refine the mask I was making and to make them as ergonomic as possible. The foam and fabric I use is quite lightweight so it translates well in terms of being worn and manipulated.
What are you hoping the audience will leave with after experiencing UNHEIMLICH?
I hope that it’s a dream-like experience for the audience. I hope they find it funny AND uncomfortable. I hope they relate to and become fond of the characters we have created. It’s truly such a joy working with this team of fun, brilliant, highly skilled humans – I hope that comes across.
Image: Photo by Saul Steed.