interiority complex: Phobias as Entities and Experiences

 Aug 12, 2016   Digital Essays, Peer-reviewed   No Comments

A Digital Essay by Rachel Cunningham Wang, Texas A&M University


interiority complex is a three part body of work that explores the nature of fear, specifically irrational or inappropriate fear. Commonly known as “phobias,” these fears go beyond their useful function in stimulating a fight or flight response in the subject. Instead they have a debilitating effect, as the subject may find herself paralyzed in the face of certain objects or situations.

The two digital painting series and animated short that comprise interiority complex are titled Menagerie of Phobias, Seven, and Stage Fright. They progress from an impersonal, clinical analysis of different phobias, to the personification of the artist’s own fears, and finally to illustrating a story about a single, terrifying experience. By presenting “rational” and “irrational” phobias alike to the viewer, interiority complex asks the viewer to not necessarily understand, but to empathize.

This article explores the artist’s creative process in these works while explaining the visual language used to translate abstract fears into an experience for the viewer. These digital works combine modern techniques with personal psychological analysis in an attempt to start a dialogue with the audience in how we as a society and individuals deal with anxieties. In this way, interiority complex warns against the tendency to escalate fear in our minds, even questions the fear response itself, but ultimately it leaves the viewer with a hopeful message: fear is survivable.

Freud, Displacement and Transference

One may observe that the creatures and characters presented are not particularly gruesome or even frightening. With the abundance of horror tropes popular in our culture, I felt trying to scare the audience would be redundant and in many ways futile, for not everyone is frightened of the same thing. Instead, my goal was to displace these phobias – to take things people find threatening and transform them into domesticated versions.

Displacement, first coined by Sigmund Freud, was a term first associated with dreams but later applied to waking life. It is a defense mechanism that “usually occurs in such a way that a colourless and abstract expression … is exchanged for one that is visual and concrete” (Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams” 314). In the case of fear, the “…internal danger is transformed into an external one…What [the person] gains by this is obviously that he thinks he will be able to protect himself better in that way. One can save oneself from an external danger by flight; fleeing from an internal danger is a difficult enterprise” (Freud, “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” 84). However, displacement is part of a repeating cycle that can never be fully resolved. In the creation of this artwork, my goal in transferring these feelings onto a substitute is to allow the viewer (and myself) to “come to grips with the actual cause of their feelings” and to begin a healing process (Felluga 315).

interiority complex plays with the idea that one can take the dreadful, and by giving it physical form, transform it into an object to be contemplated instead of feared. It is well known that in horror films, revealing the monster makes the story less frightening. People are most afraid of the unknown, and in this body of work I not only take the abstract and make it visual, I make it less threatening. Julia Kristeva speaks of the therapeutic quality of works of art and their power to “capture…an anxiety that they frame and represent so that your attention is drawn to it here and now, in the same way that analytic practice does” (Kristeva 1085).

Although many of Freud’s ideas have fallen out of vogue in light of more modern research, displacement, at least in terms of how people deal with aggression, “is now a generally accepted mental mechanism with considerable anecdotal support” (Kline 182). Ultimately my decision to use displacement (and transference) as a tool for dealing with phobias was an aesthetic choice, stemming from a desire to distance myself from and analyze fear from the outside. Modern, practical applications of behavioral therapy may be primarily concerned with the extinction of fear in response to certain stimuli, but my goal is a deeper understanding of my personal demons and dialogue with the viewer.

Lacan, the Gaze, and the Mirror Stage

By presenting phobias visually to the audience, all three parts of interiority complex bring the viewer into an uncomfortably ambiguous situation where she is both the “observer” and the “observed.” The disquieting feeling that the object of one’s attention is looking back is commonly referred to as “the Gaze,” a term popularized by Jacques Lacan. He builds on Freud’s concept of the ego, superego, and id by claiming “the ego is a form of defence, a way of denying the fact that we are all fragmentary and unstable. The consequence of this idea is that psychic life is a constant struggle to retain this sense of imaginary wholeness” (Hatt, and Klonk 186). In Lacanian theory, this phenomenon first manifests in childhood when “in seeing itself in the mirror and recognising itself, the child is alienated from itself” (Hatt, and Klonk 186). In describing what he terms the “mirror stage,” Lacan describes a paradox of looking where the viewer simultaneously observes an object and feels observed himself. This malignant “Other” persona “is the persecutionary Other of paranoia,” a “splitting off a part of our unconscious” which ultimately results in the distortion of the subject’s image (Melville, and Rapaport).

Menagerie of Phobias invites the viewer to look at phobias rendered as various creatures. While some of these are fixated on objects in their environment, a number of them make eye contact with the viewer, incriminating them in the tension of the scene. In Seven, the motif of mirrors is literally illustrated with all the reflective surfaces in Snow White’s environment revealing the fragmenting of her personality. In the animated short Stage Fright, the story deals with the fear of public speaking. The viewer shares the point of view of the sinister audience, but also has a peek into the main character’s terrified imagination, creating empathy for her fear of being seen and rejected.

Menagerie of Phobias

The first installation is a series consisting of eight digital paintings, each depicting different phobias. The phobias selected do not have any personal significance. Instead I selected them based on visual interest. Represented are the fear of hair, chins, joy, swallowing, decisions, failure, hands, and being bound.

In this series I take the role of an amateur nature “photographer” capturing images of bizarre creatures in an exploration of pseudo-cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of unconfirmed animal species, with creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monsters being some of the most famous “cryptids.” Even absent of sufficient physical evidence, stories of these creatures continue to spread. Their anatomy, habitats, and other characteristics are based on hearsay, and this provides rich fodder for artistic renderings.

According to Bernard Heuvelmans (as cited by Dendle, 2006), a person’s emotional response is “a core feature of a cryptid: to count as a cryptid, an animal must have at least one trait ‘truly singular, unexpected, paradoxical, striking, emotionally upsetting, and thus capable of mythification’ (Dendle 192). By converting fears into iconic creatures and setting them in environments full of fear-inspiring stimuli, these eight phobias are transformed into my own set of cryptids, shocking in their strangeness but viewed from afar.

With this compilation of images, I also borrow heavily from the tradition of medieval bestiaries. Such collections were more than mere documentation of alleged new species. On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré documents a number of strange creatures, but also describes many examples of people whose deformities or bizarre behavior indicated moral corruption or the influence of demons (Paré). Bestiaries ultimately existed to inform about human nature and frequently used allegory to draw “breezy moral lessons from the natures and propensities of the various creatures….By hybridising the monstrous and the human, they continually raised questions about the essence of ‘humanity’ by contrasting it with ‘animality’ or ‘deformity” (Dendle 194).

In such bestiaries, the writer would often connect the animal’s character traits and flaws to its anatomy and behavior. Likewise, Menagerie of Phobias explores the idea that these creatures are specifically evolved to ward off or avoid what they fear the most, and in many cases their anatomy has been directly affected by the very act of avoiding the feared object. Chaeto (Hair), due to its lack of body hair, has developed festering sunburns and cataracts (Fig. 1). Decido (Decisions) is unable to move forward in any direction and has become rooted in place, growing branches to allow it to simultaneously “experience” the different environments in its vicinity (Fig. 2). Atychi (Failure) has similarly grown into the ground, and in order to avoid the slightest risk of failing refuses to sit up and partake of the food within his reach (Fig. 3).


Figure 1, (Hair) 2012


Figure 2, Decido (Decisions), 2012


Figure 3, Atychi (Failure), 2012

While “Decisions” and “Failure” illustrate this most clearly, all of the creatures are paralyzed — some rooted in place by physical limitations, and some because of an awareness of the “danger” surrounding them. Ultimately the work confronts the viewer with the question: is the thing we fear as terrible as we imagine, or is fear the real danger?


The second installation is a collection of eight archival pigment prints. The center-piece shows Snow White returning the viewer’s gaze, while depictions of the seven dwarves surround her. The installation is hung on the wall salon style (Fig. 4). I chose to set the characters in the “Roaring Twenties,” contrasting the appealing style of the time with the morbid subject matter.


Figure 4, Seven, 2013

I specifically chose this story in part because it is one my least favorite fairytales, which has been rehashed into numerous versions, none of which appeal to me. I was interested in the idea of borrowing from multiple interpretations of the same source material and somehow making it new and personal. According to Roland Barthes’ theories about intertextuality, all texts contain fragments of other texts because themes are constantly recycled, organized into different contexts, and given new meaning (Di Leo).

In this version of the story, Snow White serves as a proxy for myself, and each of the seven dwarves represents a fear that she and I share: responsibility, helplessness, poverty, infirmity, insignificance, exposure, and failure. The titles are a riddle game I wanted to play with the audience, stemming from years of my own family’s tradition of solving quests and clues. The centerpiece of Snow White, titled Mirror, Mirror, is the most explicit hint and is an allusion to the viewer seeing himself in the character of Snow White. The dwarves are all titled in reverse after the object of fear they represent, e.g., “Poverty” becomes Ytrevop. At first glance they seem like names from another language. My goal is for the viewer to sit with this installation and work out all the pieces in the same way someone may sit in front of a mirror examining one’s own flaws. In this case, the flaws are of a psychological nature, brought to the surface in these characters. Like a true reflection, that reverses reality and only shows a distorted self-image, yet is believed to be real, fears can become part of one’s identity even as they wreak havoc in one’s life.

“Fear of Responsibility” decides everything by chance, because the biggest challenge is taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. The mismatched nature of his clothes reflects the random selection process. “Fear of Helplessness” overcompensates with anger and violence. “Fear of Poverty” is portrayed as a rich gentleman (although a better direction would have been to design a miserly character). “Fear of Infirmity” is covered in protective gear of the times. “Fear of Insignificance” is flamboyant, “Fear of Exposure” wears a disguise, and “Fear of Failure” is an alcoholic bum, who, like its creature counterpart in “Menagerie,” fears too much to try (Fig. 5).


Figure 5, The Seven Dwarves, 2013


In the original tale, Snow White is a naïve child, who cooks and cleans and is easy prey for predators. In modern versions (Mirror Mirror, 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman, 2012, Once Upon a Time, 2011), she is a sweet innocent, a warrior ninja, or in a state of unbelievable transition between the two. All of these personas are mere caricatures and fail to present Snow White as a multi-dimensional human being with whom the viewer can empathize. Craig Owens describes this phenomenon:

Thus, feminism is rapidly assimilated to a whole string of liberation or self-determination movements…Not only does this forced coalition treat feminism itself as monolithic…it also posits a vast, undifferentiated category, “Difference,” to which all marginalized or oppressed groups can be assimilated, and for which women can then stand as an emblem, a pars totalis (another old theme: woman is incomplete, not whole) (62).

One will notice that in spite of the character’s gender, I left the dwarfish fragments of her psyche male. My initial reasoning was out of convenience: the original characters from the story were men, and I saw no reason to change that. As the project progressed, however, I began to link each phobia to its source and consider how gender plays into each fear. Fear of poverty deals with fear of not having financial support, which is a role traditionally filled by the working husband. Fear of exposure and vulnerability leading to rejection could apply to any relationship. Fear of helplessness is often exacerbated in what could still be considered a predominantly patriarchal society. However I realize that much of societal pressure placed on women is not by men, but rather by other women. Perhaps the next stage in my body of work will be exploring the role of the Evil Queen and her jealous tendencies.

Lacan’s Gaze

In feminist theory, the Gaze is often described as male, where the female subject is warped and objectified through the lens of a patriarchal viewpoint. While that may be a factor in Seven, my goal was to make the piece universal in a way that incriminates both male and female viewers alike.

In the final installation, I take a literal interpretation of Lacan’s mirrors. The scene Snow White inhabits is full of reflective surfaces that shatter her personality into different elements representing the fears she carries with her (Fig. 6).


Figure 6, Mirror, Mirror, 2013

At first glance, the viewer is looking into her world, and Snow is merely an object to be observed. Upon further examination, however, the viewer notices that the surrounding dwarves are all gazing intently at Snow, and only she is making direct eye contact with the viewer. With subtle hints such as the low point of view and the absence of the seventh dwarf in the central painting, the viewer should come to the realization that she is the seventh dwarf, and Snow White is staring straight at her. This is a direct reference to the painting Bar at the Folies Bergères by Edouard Manet (1882), where, through point of view, the gaze of the woman at the bar, and the reflection behind her showing her talking to a man, the viewer is implicated as a man propositioning her for sex. In my paintings, the viewer is both accused of being Snow’s burden and accepted as a part of her persona. The dwarf who is absent is “fear of exposure.” I believe everyone struggles with issues of intimacy, perhaps stemming from the distorted self-image, and as such this is the most universal of the seven phobias.

Stage Fright

The final piece in my body of work is a three minute animated short, which also serves as an autoethnographic study in that it “acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist” (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 274). In this short I focus on a single, common fear: public speaking, which ties in with fear of both failure and exposure. Unlike the previous painting series, I use a video format to enable the viewer to be part of the experience.

The story is loosely inspired by a recent experience in which I was pressured into participating in what I believed was a simple Mandarin speaking contest, only to discover that it was a reality TV show. As an introvert, finding myself having to perform on live television was traumatic. Every moment on that stage seemed to stretch much longer, and imagining all the worst case scenarios only made it worse. In Stage Fright the specifics of that experience have been transformed in order to create a more universal story. The setting is intentionally vague allowing “Phoebe” to serve as an “everywoman.”

The middle of the animation is a prolonged 2D sequence showing what is going on in Phoebe’s head (Fig. 7). She imagines her performance ending in failure, resulting in a series of rejections by the most important people in her life: boyfriend, parents, employer, and God (Fig. 8). Based on my personal experience, I wanted to emphasize certain phenomena that have been observed in various psychological studies. Fear focuses the mind on the present moment with no absorbing activity or other stimuli to engage, leaving the brain free to rush through a stream of consciousness at high speed (Taylor 67). As a great amount of information is processed, perception of time slows down (74-75). Another theory is that we gauge time by the number of memories we form, and a sense of danger causes us to remember every detail of an event, stretching time (Hammond 29). Phoebe’s dream sequence lasts approximately one and a half minutes, but when she recovers, the viewer realizes that, to the audience, only a few seconds have passed.


Figure 7, Stage Fright, 2015


Figure 8, Stage Fright, 2015

The majority of the animation contains no dialogue. Instead I rely on nonverbal cues to emphasize Phoebe’s emotional state. The beginning is full of nervous tics and Phoebe’s attempts to shrink out of view (Fig. 9). After she successfully speaks her one line, the shift is palpable, and she saunters offstage. Her delivery is not perfect – she stutters – yet everything turns out okay, serving as an important reminder for myself as well as the main message I seek to convey to the audience.


Figure 9, Stage Fright, 2015


interiority complex takes an issue most people struggle with and explores it from multiple viewpoints, allowing the audience to experience fear from the safety of “outside” while simultaneously relating to the victim. The characters and situations force the viewer into an uneasy awareness of “the Gaze,” but visualizing them transforms the danger into a nonthreatening object.

Throughout these projects, I have come to a better understanding of the nature of my own fears stemming from a futile desire for control in an uncontrollable world. By exploring these recurring phobias as both entities and experiences, I examine them as ever-changing internal demons, parts of one’s identity, and external forces that affect the mind.

For future work, I am interested in exploring more time-based projects. I see the possibility of interviewing people about specific experiences with fear, and illustrating them in a series of shorts. By working from a variety of personal accounts beyond my own, such an extended project could connect to a larger audience.

Works Cited

Dendle, Peter. “Cryptozoology in the Medieval and Modern Worlds.” Folklore 117.2 (2006): 192-4. JSTOR. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

Di Leo, Jeffrey R.. “Text.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 May. 2013.

Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Abrams, and Arthur P. Bochner. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 36.4 (138) (2011): 274. JSTOR. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Felluga, Dino Franco. “Transference (Transferential).” Routledge Key Guides: Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. Taylor and Francis, 2015. 315. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Dream Work.” The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 314. Texas A&M University General Libraries. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Trans. G. Stanley Hall. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920;, 2010.<;. [2015].

Freud, Sigmund. “Lexture XXXII: Anxiety and Instinctual Life.” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1965. 84. Print.

Hatt, Michael, and Charlotte Klonk. “Psychoanalysis.” Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 186. Print.

“Julia Kristeva Interview with Catherine Francblin,” p. 1084-5, Art in Theory, 1900-1990, Ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.

Kline, Paul. “The Mechanisms of Defence.” Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory. Ed. H. J. Butcher. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1972. 182. Print. Methuen’s Manuals of Modern Psychology.

Melville, Stephen and Herman Rapaport . “Lacan, Jacques Marie.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 May. 2013.

Owens, Craig. “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Bay Press, 1983. 62. Print.

Paré, Ambroise. On Monsters and Marvels. Tran. Janis L. Pallister. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. Print.

Richard Wollheim. “Freud, Sigmund.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 May. 2013.

Taylor, Steve. “Absorption and Time.” Making Time. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, 2007. 67-74. Print.


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