Usher the Fall of the House
12 September to 12 October 2013
In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Edgar Allan Poe includes what could be the essential elements of a Gothic tale: inclement weather; an old house in a desolate, indeterminate part of the country; and a macabre, violent ending. Soon after the narrator’s arrival at the Usher family home, he shares the twins’ (Roderick and Madeline) belief that the house itself is the cause of their irrational behaviour and inexplicable illness. Eventually poor Madeline is buried in the family tomb, and Roderick’s behaviour worsens. The remaining twin begins to suspect that his sister was buried alive. Sure enough, on a dark and stormy night several days later, Madeline appears as a bloodied specter and collapses on her brother who in turn dies in fear. The narrator rushes from the house just as it cracks in two and sinks below the surface of the tarn that surrounds it.
While Poe’s story fulfills all the elements of the Gothic genre, it is the motif of the double that creates its sinister impact. Besides the twins (and Madeline’s own “twinning” with her resurrected self), the narrator’s vivid description of the house and its inverted reflection in the tarn foreshadows what is to come. The house’s reflection is more than a sinister version of the original: like a Rorschach ink blot turned on its side, the entire structure is seemingly made whole while cracks and decay mar its façade. As critic Paul Fleming writes in an essay for Cabinet, “The doppelgänger is an effect-machine, generating sensations of the comic, the uncanny, and the terrifying for the one confronted with his second self.”
In his more recent sculptures and videos (the latter made in collaboration with his brother, Robert Yates, an experimental filmmaker), Kevin Yates has also used the mirror image as a consistent formal motif. His models of old houses and rusty ships are doubled along horizontal axes, becoming hermetic or almost tomb-like forms that invite the viewer to peer into them—or project themselves inside. In Usher the Fall of the House (a deliberate recombinant play on Poe’s story) we are placed inside one such possible architecture with life-size fixtures that disrupt our sense of stability. A pair of dressers stacked end-over-end sandwich a memento mori encased in an aquarium. A projected “wallpaper” is haunted by small, twitching birds. A video of a dilapidated interior appears as if it is flooded as the mirror axis is slowly manipulated upwards on the screen. In fact, in navigating these works and others, in Yates’ world it is uncertain what exactly is up or down, or real or a simulacra. And while they are made “whole”, become perfectly balanced reflections of each other, the effect is an unsettling one.