Sianne Ngai came to mind when watching Designs in Air’s multi-site work Creatures from the Deep (2020) at this year’s Spectra festival What was being depicted here were alien creatures, large and inflatable, and oceanic in nature. There were waving tentacles on top of MsQ1, a coral-tower with an inferno of orange flagella as a head, and a bulbous vermillion sea-flower-thing outside Marischal College. This would be the fare of Lovecraft – the unknown god-like creatures, wobbling way beyond our heads (literally, figuratively) driving us mad – if it wasn’t for the exact way these creatures were depicted. They were neon-coloured; some were clad in polka dots; children found them friendly.
If this was the Weird it has been disarmed. We might not know what these are, their genera or material or names, but we sure found these colossal entities, waving in the frigid Aberdeen air, hella cute.
Hence Ngai. In her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, she describes ‘the cute object’ as a result of this exact phenomenon – “cuteness seems to be a disavowal – at once a repression and an acknowledgement – of otherness.” (p. 60) By being made cute, these Creatures from the Deep are now “anthropomorphic being[s] less powerful than the aesthetic subject”, the actual basis for these strange things versus the family-friendly spectacle we see before us, “appealing specifically to us for protection and care.” (Ibid.) Unlike a god of the Weird “the cute object addresses us as if it were our only child” (Ibid.)
Intentional or not, Designs in Air have either pacified any initial fear of the Weird – those tentacles could look a lot grimmer – or sanitised these entities of the void, the hyper-Marina Trenches of unknown worlds, so we can accept our lives as the miniscule labyrinthine mysteries that they are.
Overall I found this year’s Spectra pretty great. It was also pretty great to see a queue the length of Back Wynd in Aberdeen, for art. Two more highlights – number one – The Book of Lies (2020), an essay film split over three screens, exploring the relation between the Icelandic people and the systems of privilege at heart of history-making. Ends in geo-critique, stressing the dire state of our climate crisis. Number two – Ship of the Gods (2020), inside St Nicholas Kirk. Ship and church schemata were projected on to a gossamer sheet, cobwebbed. Sometimes the blueprints seemed to breathe; sometimes they were magnified; sometimes they melted into mountains. Visually it reminded me of Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), a mystery-puzzle game set on an abandoned ship in the 1800s. This piece seems as mysterious – trying to figure out when exactly the Thermopylae shifts to a steam-boat, to the interior of an oil rig, and how that relates to its final form, the very church the audience stands in, was a welcome challenge.