The Owls Are Not What They Seem
text: Robert Barry
>> In response to 'Out of the Woods' exhibition:
Roey Hunt | Philip Zwiegers
“The conspiracy theory,” writes Boris Groys, “is the metaphysics of our time.” The series Twin Peaks represents the explosion of this metaphysics onto the surface of the TV screen; breaking apart the flatness of the TV image and inviting us to explore deeper, further. The secrets behind picket fences. The darkness in the woods. The uncanniness of small-town America. The owls are not what they seem.
Functioning like a kind of media-psychosis, febrile with a paranoid semiotics, the series “combines and re-combines the fragments of the visible world in a (futile) hope to find a combination that will offer an insight to the dark, hidden core.”1 I have read that every time a character in the series smokes a yellow-tipped ‘English’ cigarette it is a sign of their impending death. I have read that electric power lines are a means of transport for evil spirits, the inhabitants of the Black Lodge. I have read that the owls are familiars of these same spirits, that the owls are the screen memories of UFO abductees, that the owls are watchers, listeners, the CCTV of the Other Place.
And I too have watched. Again and again. Searching for these clues and these fragments, for my own theories and schema and interpretive frameworks. What artist would not dream of such a response to their work? Of an audience so drawn into the innards of the piece as to build their own labyrinths from its intestines, multiplying its mysteries a thousandfold. It catches you like a dream and wraps you in its world and afterwards – like a dream – it invites these awestruck interpretations. This is why Twin Peaks could never really come to an end, could never really reach a sense of closure. We just sort of woke up from it one day at the very pitch of its most nightmarish.
I remember, back in the early nineties, when it was first broadcast in the UK. The country was in a kind of fugue. It absorbed the talk of school playgrounds, of office watercoolers. Each new fragment was awaited and subsequently pored over. It was one of the the great works of something now almost lost: TV as event, TV as something with the power to unify (even as it rends) a people in time and space. But it was also the beginning of something which is now much more common: the TV series as very, very long film; of TV as a form of advance promotion for a later – and perhaps somehow more perfect, more complete – incarnation as DVD boxset, a process which reached a kind of zenith with The Wire.
Twin Peaks was also TV about TV. One of the many mirrors enfolded in the programme's narrative is the daytime soap, Invitation to Love, watched by several of the characters. Invitation to Love allowed the writers to ironically reflect and comment upon their own melodramatic excesses. It is said that David Lynch will occasionally deliberately cast bad actors, or actors who are dimly familiar from somewhere we can't quite place (like Richard Beymer as Benjamin Horne who once played the lead in Robert Wise's West Side Story, or Peggy Lipton as the demure Norma Jennings who, in a former life, was The Mod Squad's Julie Barnes). He is an adept at the kind of reality effects that could only possibly function on an audience already weaned on screens. But like all the mirrors in Twin Peaks, the TV screen of the daytime soap bears within it the alarming possibility that if we look into it long enough we might see Bob, the evil twin whose maniac smile lurks threateningly close to the surface.
This was the goal of the Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovsky: to make us look again at ourselves and our familiar world as suddenly strange and disturbing, as if it were from Mars. The artworks of Philip Zweigers and Roey Hunt are thoroughly imbued with these defamiliarisations and unsettling reversals. For what could be more familiar than a hunk of wood? But in their being exhibited, we are forced to look, to see beyond the semi-conscious recognition-without-seeing of everyday life. And therein something disturbs: a crack in the otherwise too-smooth surface of a timber block, like an opening to a gateway; a sliver of silver bismuth that seems to extrude from the very core of the duramen, like a visitor from another place.
This, precisely, is why The X-Files, for all its obvious debt to Twin Peaks, was ultimately a betrayal of the older series. In safely locating the key to its mysteries in the extraterrestrial or obviously supernatural, The X-Files enacted a kind of paradoxical re-territorialisation – the unbearable ‘truth’ is comfortably out there, not in here. But Twin Peaks reminds us that the messages being tracked by Project Blue Book come not from the stars but the woods at the end of the street; that the true horror lies not in some baroque government conspiracy but in a family secret, an everyday story of abuse and denial. It is this aspect of the programme that brings it right to the very heart of the Freudian theory of the uncanny as unhomely, the familiar made strange and unsettling. But if the relation between Twin Peaks and the Unheimlich is by now, two decades after its first broadcast, itself somewhat familiar (if nonetheless strange); another obvious point of contact between the series and psychoanalysis that has received far less attention would touch upon the theory of partial objects.
In her essays from the second quarter of the twentieth century, Melanie Klein developed the theory that a child's earliest relations with the world and with other people are enacted through objects split off from the whole person and invested with a kind of magic, fantastical quality whose inflections will tend to colour the subject's unconscious fantasy life into adulthood. In Twin Peaks there are several characters that in one way or another become associated with or substituted by body parts and other objects – most obviously, perhaps, The Man From Another Place who at one point identifies himself with Mike's severed arm, but also Josie Packard who, upon dying, seems to become in some way imprisoned or transferred upon the wooden knob of the night stand drawer in a room at the Great Northern Hotel. Finally, there is the Log Lady who carries around a wooden log which speaks to her and seems to possess some special insight or even foresight, possibly due to its somehow carrying the soul of her dead husband. When looking, then, at the equally enchanted logs and wooden sculptures of Zweigers and Hunt, perhaps we should listen closely. For who knows what spirits may reside within, what secrets they may possess.
1. Groys, B. ‘The World Puzzle’ in Seuls quelques fragments de nous toucheront quelques fragments d'autrui, Chaillou, T. (ed.), Salzburg & Paris: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 2012
OOTW flyer, by Bruno Glint, 2013
OOTW exhibition view, photo by Paul Williams, 2013
OOTW exhibition view, 'Untitled' Philip Zwiegers, photo by Paul Williams, 2013
OOTW exhibition view, 'Untitled 03' Roey Hunt, photo by Paul Williams, 2013