241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

Read the most recent articles, or mail the editorial team to contribute.

Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I am not afraid of spiders. In fact these, these creatures particularly remind me of my childhood and make me feel nostalgic rather than disgusted.

Spiders appear as the royal king in the kingdom of insects. They are the most mysterious and the most beautiful. We all admire their extraordinary ability to create webs: structures that could be seen as something in between tree houses and vicious traps. Our perhaps we admire them because human technology is still unable to deliver a structure equally simple and light yet powerful.

They are familiar to us both as dangerous enemies and as prey. We admire these insects because we are truly afraid of them, and it is not wise to disrespect an ominous enemy. Especially when that potentially deadly and dangerous creature can be so much smaller than us, since we tend to relate power to the size.

Maybe what is the most fascinating about these animals is that even they seem to be the closest to more developed and closer to human species like for example dogs and cats, they remain mute.

What might be the most fascinating thing about these animals is that although they resemble cats and dogs in their domestic proximity to humans, they remain mute. They accompany us in our kitchens, bathrooms, and attics; yet they emit no sounds of approval. The other animals that we have deemed intelligent and live so close to us communicate their joy or discontent, but not spiders. Are they simply aloof? Like us maybe? Or maybe they do not think at all?

Spiders not only inhabit the area located someway between intelligent animals and the grey mass of insects and lower forms of life like bacteria: dangerous but robbed of any personal traits (When we think about any other bug, we usually think about THEM, in plural, when a spider appears, it is a lonely hunter most often and this gives him more individual traits.) but also the area between what is disgusting and fascinating. What disgusts about them is their set of eyes that lack the characteristics of a personal gaze. Their hairy legs also somehow do not make them fluffy and cuddly, instead they express something more primal, a scary force of brutal nature.

Louise Bourgeouise's sculptures of giant spiders can be regarded as a homage to these little monsters. Reimagined by the artist they seem to posses all of their core traits of "character" but made more visible, more tangible. They drift above our heads, like they do in ordinary life, on their strong, scary legs. Suddenly they can encircle us, and create a shadow over us, but is it really something unusal when they live all around us in the pipes of the houses we inhabit, under-the-carpet areas that nobody has ever time and enough energy to clean or in the corner under the ceiling where the human eye, tired of the every day routine, cannot, or at least does not want to, notice them?

Bourgeois compared the spider to her mother's omnipresent way of being. My memories of them somehow send me to my grandmother because of many reasons.

First of all, she owned a beautiful necklace in the shape of a spider made of artificial emeralds. This piece of jewelry interested me a lot when I was a child, made me think up different stories of its provenance or to imagine to whom it might have had belonged before, even though it was only made of plastic.

I can also remember her room in my family home that was truly full of spider webs and spiders. She never allowed my sister and I to kill them because that brings bad luck. Instead we were taught to catch them, to let them crawl onto an old newspaper, which she kept so many of in her own quarters, and then gently place them outside the window so they could live in the garden.

The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima once wrote that he was scared of crabs. He said he could even faint just by looking at the Japanese character for crab: ‘蟹’ . The character’s form reminded him of the horrible appearance of crabs, so he could only read it in the Kana version: ‘カニ’. However, Mr. Mishima did enjoy having crab served as a delicious dish. It reminded me that I had almost exactly the same phobia, however, mine was for fish!

Whenever I tell friends for the first time that I’m scared of fish, besides the funny expression on their faces, the most frequent reaction I get is a big question mark: ‘Do you eat fish?’. For sure, I eat fish and I enjoy sashimi and sushi, I eat them raw, no kidding! I would also not go mad if I saw a dead fish floating above water, or tuna cut into pieces and frozen in the freezer. My favourite photographer Araki has a beautiful picture of a salmon head with a bunch of flowers in its mouth and I still like it. I like small goldfish, and those tiny little colourful creature like betta fish and guppies don't bother me much, in fact, I always kept them at home since I was little. Fancy male fighting fish, which are sold in separate cups, never constitute a risk to me.

Fish have cold eyes, and are covered with mirror-like silver scales which reflect fluorescent light, and they squeeze together in limited closed water spaces. They are too quiet, wandering inside the over decorated fish tanks, spinning around and around, killing their time.

There is ambivalence and ambiguity in my phobia because I am not against the whole concept of ‘fish’, I would describe it specifically as the fear of deep sea scenery and large-scale fish. The last time I had a panic attack was when I was browsing the websites of vintage hand-made botanical pictures, and I accidentally clicked on the category of ‘sea life’, each image had three fish drawn from different perspectives. Even though they were drawings for the study of ancient fish, I found it unbearable.

In Chinese supermarkets, live fish are kept in tanks to guarantee ultimate freshness. Just imagine the humming sounds from the filters and the ultraviolet lamps, the unusual blueness in the background that creates an unordinary spooky atmosphere.

Almost every supermarket has these fish tanks in the seafood aisle. And it's especially the city I spent my whole life in, Shenzhen, along the southern coast of China where seafood is a well-known specialty, that never ceases to bring me endless inspiration for my nightmare.

As I got older, my symptoms kept getting worse. After trying to analyse my phobia, I realised that instead of having an aversion to fish, I was afraid of aquatic scenes. At seventeen, I was still bothered by why I always dreamt of aquariums, so I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which said that the source of dreams lies in recent experiences and childhood memories.

Tracing this back to my childhood, I remembered I spent a whole summer vacation in which my little cousin and I were both obsessed with watching the sea life screensaver on my uncle’s computer. It was an odd situation in which we spent hours imitating the fish swimming up and down. At a certain point, while staring at the screensaver, I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of fear and isolation.

The worst of my dreams was of drowning in a closed tank filled with water, with my head stuck in the bottom of the narrow container. There were huge fish with their typical expressionless faces swimming up and down and surrounding me. They didn't even attack me, but the clock seemed to have stopped at that moment, and it felt like an eternity of desperation. When I woke up, the images overwhelmed my mind and the fear I felt lingered for the whole day!

I’ve looked my condition up on the Internet, and I was glad to find that I am not the only weirdo. There is term that is used to describe these specific symptoms, which is officially called ‘ichthyophobia’, usually caused by a traumatic past experience.

However, I never figured out what triggered my fear initially. I’ve tried to recall any severe tragedy concerning with aquatic situations, but I failed to dig up any origins. Last summer I was disappointed to find that I couldn't even take a look at a gold fish store in the distance, while two years ago I could stay inside one of these shops for ten minutes. I’ve tried to train myself to look at fish tanks when I pass the grocery store, and I keep on telling myself not to be afraid, but every time I see one I just close my eyes at once, take a long breath to slow down my racing heart and walk away to let the fear flow away.