For 150 years, humans have been fascinated by the Cyborg—the cybernetic body (part human, part machine). It has been with us since the advent of the machine. But with this fascination came an intense anxiety around masculinity and mechanical equipment.
In a 1919 essay on the subject of the Uncanny, Sigmund Freud meditated on a form of neurosis that is manifest in a confusion of living and dead, real and imaginary, and between things and symbols. For Freud, the uncanny was a familiar object or event that, estranged through repression, returns to us in the form of the dreaded or bizarre.
In the 19th century, machines were built to mimic human behaviour; biological functions were described in terms of the machine. In the early 20th century, machines were simultaneously eroticized and feared. At this time, there was also a shift in the traditional exchange between art and popular culture, and a blurring of the boundaries between the two.
The era around the Second World War saw developments in the science of cybernetics and war machines. From the 1960s to the present, the Cyborg has been developed for multiple uses (particularly by Japan and the US), including military technology, body implants and nanotechnology. These developments have been contingent on a growing economy and the burgeoning relationships with corporate cultures that have changed the way production and commercialization relate.
Artists have always shared this fascination, and the neurosis. We can see this in the invention of the 19th-century automata, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Marcel Duchamp’s bachelor machines or Fernand Leger’s La mecanicien. In the past works of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, HG wells; in modern-day titles too numerous to mention. Today, the Cyborg image is everywhere—in movies and comic books, on TV and toy store shelves. The Cyborg is an industry unto itself. It has its own power.
The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, focuses on the uncanny relationships between humans and machines over time and through cultures. It offers insight into a subject that has captured the imaginations of artists, writers, movie-makers, scientists and cultural theorists since the mid-1800s. Key historical works include a 19th-century automaton, 19th-century scientific photography, and early 20th-century artworks by Duchamp and Leger, as well as Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein and Francis Picabia, plus a selection of outstanding photographs by Eadweard Maybridge, Lewis Hine and others.
Blitz Magazine, January 2002