Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” dramatizes the potential perils of scientific progress, or rather, man’s over-certainty or undue faith in that progress. Not only is Frankenstein tormented by his gruesome creation, but the Monster itself suffers the ultimate existential uncertainty: Who am I, and why?

Mary Shelley © Mary Reid Kelley

George Herriman

In George Herriman’s celebrated, long-running, dada-esque comic strip “Krazy Kat”, he demonstrates his ease with the uncertain by declining to name the gender of his comic’s titular character. Krazy Kat was neither male or female, he said, but a “sprite”.

George Herriman © Mary Reid Kelley

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy

Marcel Duchamp’s iconic alter ego Rrose Selavy reveals two of the artist’s most powerful strategies: fluidity of gender and personae, and of language. Rrose’s name is a French pun, which when spoken sounds like “Eros, that’s life”. Both punning and gender-swapping are strategies of ambiguity, which might be a more carefree cousin of uncertainty.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy © Mary Reid Kelley

T. S. Eliot

For much of the 20th century, the great poet’s literary criticism was seen as indisputable, his taste and judgement forming the foundation of the influential “New Criticism” school.
But a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shows that he was keenly aware of the discomforts of uncertainty: “And indeed there will be time / To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” / Time to turn back and descend the stair”.

T. S. Eliot © Mary Reid Kelley

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire introduces us to a new inhabitant of urban space: the flâneur. A wanderer, a drifter through the kaleidoscopic crowds of the 19th-century city, the flâneur is heroic in his embrace of uncertainty. “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home… The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

Charles Baudelaire © Mary Reid Kelley

Edgar Allan Poe

One of the earliest detectives in fiction, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin does his investigative work from the recesses of his armchair. Unlike his later, more active counterpart Sherlock Holmes, Dupin’s labor takes place entirely in his mind, as his analytic powers rescue us from the unknown, banishing uncertainty to an immensely satisfying degree, and establishing a remarkable genre of fiction in the process.

Edgar Allan Poe © Mary Reid Kelley

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart, I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”

Jorge Luis Borges © Mary Reid Kelley

Mary Reid Kelley’s Performance “This Is Offal” is part of “Uncertain Places. Eine Nachtausstellung” at Foreign Affairs 2016. It can be seen from 5–15 July (except 11 July), free admission.