What happens when a visionary theatre maker with a penchant for risk-taking joins forces with a multidisciplinary artist acclaimed for her soft sculpture? Disembodied limbs. Floating cats with flashing eyes. Moon-like visages sporting sequinned skin the colour of jewels. Welcome to Unheimlich, a surreal, liminal space conceived by Perth-based director Katt Osborne and artist Tarryn Gill in which the familiar becomes unnerving, and the mundane disturbing.
Billed as a hybrid of performance and visual arts, the immersive 65-minute theatre piece was commissioned by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and will premiere there on Wednesday. The starting point for the pair's creative journey was Gill's Guardians series of sound-emitting soft sculptures.
Inspired by a residence she undertook at the Freud Museum in London in 2013, the nine totem-like creatures were exhibited at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2019. "Tarryn started making prototype masks and sculptures for us and the four performers to play with, and over time the story began to unfold," Osborne says from Perth, where she and Gill are in the midst of technical rehearsals.
Gill carves slabs of foam to make her sculptural forms before covering them in hand-stitched fabric, often embellished with sequins and fake fur. Some have human-like glass eyes, others' sockets shine with LEDs. German for 'uncanny' or 'un-homely', the term 'unheimlich' and the psychological state of mind it describes was explored by psychologist Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay titled The Uncanny.
For the founder of psychoanalysis, an uncanny experience is a function of repressed infantile complexes having been "revived by some impression", or of discarded "primitive beliefs" reasserting their primacy. He lists certain "impressions" that can trigger feelings of uncanniness, including wax-work figures, artificial dolls, automatons and doppelgangers. These days the word is generally used to mean eerie, mysterious, beyond the ordinary or inexplicable. Gill's working definition of uncanny is "when something really familiar to you becomes horrific or unsettling".
The story Osborne and Gill have coaxed into being transposes the unease of uncanniness, or un-homeliness, to the domestic sphere by focusing on a couple and the unravelling of their relationship. "The narrator of the story is their house cat, a trickster character who's a bit like an MC," Gill says. "He appears as all kinds of different characters throughout to progress the narrative." Known only as Contestant A and Contestant B, the man and woman play various board games together, but reality starts to tilt and shift, and the mood turns sinister as power plays erupt and hidden impulses bubble to the surface. "We were thinking about how your everyday routine, or a place that's supposed to be safe, like your home, can become unfamiliar and unsafe," Osborne says. "At certain points in the show, audiences will see things that look human but aren't quite human, objects and people inhabiting that in-between space, which gives you a visceral, something's-not-quite right feeling," she says.
Osborne and Gill took inspiration from the feline kingdom while devising the piece. Gill has a furry baby named Cat Stevens and cats are a recurring motif in her artwork. "We looked at the territorial nature of cats but also the intimacy that cats can bring their owners," Osborne says. "We've also drawn on the Cheshire cat, the Sphinx, cats telling riddles - all the cat mythology wrapped up into our cat narrator." The action takes place on a revolving black-box set with glittering black curtains as a backdrop.
Audiences can expect spooky lighting and a textured sound design interspersed with a small amount of dialogue. Osborne, who is currently executive director of The Blue Room Theatre in Perth, likens the experience of co-creating Unheimlich with Gill to making a collage from an array of different elements. "You're working with images, performers, masks, text and character to create a story that audiences can engage with and bring their own experiences to," she says. Co-presented with Performing Lines WA, Unheimlich plays at the Performance Space, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts until October 2.