paper by Ezra Plumer to be found on the website for the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and it's Legacies.
Papers of Surrealism, Issue 9, Exhibition Reviews
Kathleen Fox THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS. Freud Museum, London, 26 August – 14 November 2010
Kathleen Fox THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, text by Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Freud Museum, London, 2010, softback, 16pp., 14 ills. (colour), £4
THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS presented a series of multimedia installations by artist Kathleen Fox made as an extension of, and response to the Freudian legacies of the ‘unconscious’ within the legacies of surrealism. As we entered the main exhibition space, the strong glare of a reading lamp illuminated a portrait of Sigmund Freud. This work is a compilation of drawing, photography and x-ray material, allowing the light to reveal its multiple layers. This translucent portrait not only exposes the opaque facade of Sigmund Freud the man, it foretells the exhibition’s threefold application of the Freudian model of the unconscious in terms of space. Like the epidermis of the image, the layout of the exhibition was divided into a partially lit conscious space and a darkened unconscious space. The second layer reveals Freud’s jaw in reference to his oral prosthesis, which is one of three objects displayed in a glass cabinet alongside Fox’s Response to Freud’s Prosthesis. Sinking deeper into the image, the forehead of the portrait is illuminated as if to highlight the unconscious. Similarly, moving deeper into the darkened space of the room, we encountered three optical boxes in which light illuminated moving images accompanied by sound.
Looking over past exhibitions at the Freud Museum, there seem to be a number of themes running on a loop; a string of exhibitions that present objects owned by Sigmund Freud, and likewise a series of others that deal with space. This is indeed a reflection of the growth in current scholarship on Freud and his objects.[i] However, among a list of past and future titles, The Spaces of the Unconscious stands out as a unique investigation on several fronts. To begin with, the exhibition, which is part of a wider research project currently under development, is the first to bring surrealism to the table.[ii] The exhibition has been a long time coming. The project has been a three year process, ultimately funded by The Henry Moore Foundation and Norwich University College of the Arts.
In Kathleen Fox’s practice, the investigation of the dream and the unconscious are said to be central to her exploration of identity and exile. Placing herself within the ‘critical context of surrealism’ Fox presents a fraction of her ongoing work, which engages with the unconscious as a geographical space as well as an archaeological site. This almost scientific approach results from a combination of organic media with technology to portray ‘sedimentation and human imagination as the natural layering of the unconscious...’[iii] The focus of the exhibition is on space and place, exclusively in terms of Freudian theory and surrealist techniques. The mixed-media installation aims to question and explore the spaces of the unconscious as a ‘psychical topography’ and to locate ‘systems of psychic activity in the real spaces of the body and the world’.[iv] Since the recent emphasis on Freud’s objects, the understanding of Freudian theory and our orientation within his London house has shifted from the immaterial collection of Freud, in Roger Cardinal’s terms referring to the more public psychic documents, dream scripts and parapraxis, towards his private material collection of antiquities and objects.[v] It is presumably due to this shift that Fox requested to use a single room for the exhibition in order to ‘control the space’ as well as the experience of the viewer. Thus, the viewer’s experience is desired to be an immersion in the space of the unconscious, rather than a charted route.
Fox’s work does not in any way attempt to define a space of the unconscious, but rather upholds experience as key. This is paramount to understanding the artist’s work which can be traced as a continuous quality of her investigation into the unconscious by means of everyday objects and natural surroundings. Though Fox may cringe at those who try to pinpoint her artistic agency as a ‘surrealist vision’, the process of her production is undeniably based on surrealist techniques, carrying influences of free-association, automatism, decalcomania, as well as ready-made and video assemblages.
Fig. 1. Installation view. Photo Credit: Nick Fox
This modest exhibition in the intimate space that was once Freud’s bedroom, unpacks some of the legacies around his material objects and immaterial objectives. Freud’s suitcase, which sits on the entrance floor, symbolises some of these ideas and refers to Fox’s earlier assemblage series Good Enough to Eat (2008). The three boxes, which were later additions to the exhibition, build coincidental connections and uncanny resemblances to Freud and his objects that resonate with issues of identity and exile. References to works by Joseph Cornell, for example, illuminate the assemblage boxes as products that speak of trauma in a theatrical space of the mind.[vi] These objects contain highly personal belongings and intimate body parts, ranging from the hair of a Jewish bride, to the semen of a young boy and the milk teeth of a child. The boxes contain material forms of unconscious trauma, signified by the objects they contain; what is organic and comforting for some may at the same time be unnatural and dreadful for others.
A glass cabinet (Figure 1) presented three of Freud’s objects alongside a number of Fox’s responses to them. These three-dimensional objects were displayed in a unitary case, divided in space, placing Freud’s oral prosthesis, a metal porcupine from his study and his boots in the space dedicated to consciousness, while the response objects fell in the space of the unconscious. Strong lighting in the display cabinets cast shadows that penetrated the two realms, proving an interchangeable quality of the objects. Among Fox’s Response to Freud’s Prosthesis, we find ‘Jack’, a 40-year-old mummified cat, which, as if from an Edgar Allan Poe tale, was discovered inside a wall in what Fox calls a ‘death position’. There are several visual and auditory qualities that build connections between the unconscious and conscious spaces, suggesting the glass cabinets as an additional third space that projects various themes of death, decay and rejuvenation.
Through the black membrane made of skin-like latex that divided and slightly veiled each space from the other, high-pitched metallic sounds filled the room. Sound is, in fact, a significant part of Fox’s work, often composed of various layers from objects such as wine glasses and traditional African instruments. The sound that illuminated the exhibition space was created by Gareth Fox from the resonant quills of the metal porcupine that once resided on Freud’s desk in his consulting room.
Fig. 2. Sigmund Freud’s metal porcupine sculpture. Photo courtesy of the artist.
The metal porcupine, the only piece in Freud’s collection not to be an ancient relic, was used as a thumb piano also known as an Mbira. The pointing hairs of the creature become metal keys that produce the sounds of the ancient African idiophone instrument. This music is a catalyst for spiritual awakening, and invites the viewer into the space of a communal gathering.
Fox speaks of Jan Švankmejer’s description of working with the unconscious in its elusive quality and the ‘PING!’ sound as an indicator of encountering a mode of creativity. Thus the ‘ping’ of the porcupine becomes for the viewer an initiation into the ‘space of illusion with dream-like qualities’.[vii] As the journey progressed towards the ‘spaces of the unconscious’ the physical space shrank to a peephole, expanding psychic space to infinite fields of colours and layers. The room becomes a ‘controlled’ space by the artist, while the viewer loses control over sight and orientation. Curiosity leads the viewer through the space, oscillating between objects that arouse a series of illogical yet poignant connections, like in dreams and reality.
The illuminated boxes presented a restricted view of content through single aperture that invites the ‘voyeuristic possibility of experiencing another’s secret world’. These cuboids, which are designed after eighteenth century boites optiques, invoke a sense of reverie and daydream. The videos are layered images of frames that jump in sequence fragmenting time and continuum, like a half-forgotten dream with the missing frames as irretrievable information.
Bag Angel is a compilation of a hundred still photographs of a plastic shopping bag caught in a river current. The video is viewed through a slim lens giving the image incredible depth and can only be seen clearly at a specific angle. The slightest movement completely disorients the experience of this everyday object that could easily be an ancient relic fluctuating in the space of memory. Each time the object is recalled, its colour, shape and texture changed while retaining certain qualities. The accompanying sound was composed of rubbing wine glasses with various amounts of water in it, translating the glassy and glossy texture of the viewed image.
Man and Bird kaleidoscope is the second of the two box installations mounted on the ground. This revolving multimedia work is of a series of drawings made from an earlier collage assembled from a photograph of a dead baby bird, superimposed on a Victorian photograph of an anonymous man discovered in a junkshop. The drawings portray the hopes and dreams of the baby bird to fly and flourish, a hope ending here in failure and despair. The image of the undeveloped foetus becomes fatal, with its comical caricature reflecting the basic up and downs of life.
Humour comes dressed in black, as Kathleen Fox chuckles over the hopeless attempts of the dead baby bird’s journey. Equally hopeless and unaware, the tiny figurines of her early mix-media mud drawings, and the sediments of organisms, reflect on the insignificance of human life within the universe. There was a wonderful dialogue between the objects in the main exhibition room and these mix-media images around the house, such as Cock ‘n Bull Teaser (2008). This mix-media wash, reminiscent of Marcel Jean’s decalcomania studies from 1936, is one of four works that were later included to hang around the house, and were not made as part of the installation. These were produced by coating the canvas with river mud and allowing the organisms to inscribe random traces around the surface. The result is then fixed in wax and drawn over the natural form of the composition.
Fig. 3. Kathleen Fox, Mind the Gap, 2008, mix-media Fig. 4. Kathleen Fox, Man and Bird kaleidoscope,
70cm x 50cm. Photo credit: Kathleen Fox. 2010 mixed-media Photo credit: Nick Fox.
The inscriptions, made by slugs worms are various and identifiable, creating figures that are layered and imprinted with traces. Titles play on the struggling figures in the images, such as Mind the Gap, in a dark, amusing way. Collages of random figures are superimposed over the washes, emerging out of the blue, as bystanders of these unlikely and fantastic events.
Freud’s discrete material objects, which have on many occasions been recalled as ‘Freud’s toys’, encapsulate multiple layers of individual and cultural memoryies. Michael Calderbank’s review of the Freud’s Sculpture exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in 2006, presented these objects with their power to ‘provoke the mind to wonder into the more distant recesses of the imagination.’[viii] Though the body’s material interaction with objects is somewhat ‘overdetermined,’ there is a clear coherence of objects to play and humour. Thus, it is no surprise that the artist describes her practice as ‘playing around.’
Each work is regarded by Fox as ‘an ontological site,’ where organisms and traces carry the significance of the origins of life, while the superimposition of found materials acts a parody of its self-claimed importance. These ‘intruders’ are immersed in these sites and are incapable of asserting any control or way of understanding over the larger composition. These bodies comically fall into or simply trace the inscribed gaps left by the slugs which once crawled over the surface, creating an ongoing dialogue between the product and the process of its production. The third multimedia installation Shards of Memory, similarly traces impressions by means of a complex process that produces a series of hieroglyphics and blots of ink similar to many of the known automatic drawings made by Masson in the 1920s, as well as Unica Zürn’s later sketches. The layering of such images produce a virtual space that depicts the production of Fox’s mix-media mud drawings made two years earlier. In the second half of the short film, the movement of the organisms are clearly visible while the image slowly inverts into negative form. This installation combines the free-association of automatism, with the play of light and movement of Man Ray’s Rayographs, creating an original and fascinating depth in real and imaginary space.[ix]
Fig. 5. Kathleen Fox, Shots of film Shards of Memory from monitor, 2010, Film and video.
Photos courtesy of the artist.
Tracing our way around ‘the spaces of the unconscious’ became as natural as the organisms that inscribe random traces in river mud, while the curatorial principles at times ran against this current.
There are a few pillars that formed the curatorial method of the exhibition. The first being from the penultimate chapter of Freud’s last book, An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938).[x] This text, written in London, connects the book with the space in which its contents are explored. In the accompanying catalogue, Michael Richardson and curator Krzysztof Fijalkowski cite the text as a ‘scientific’ summary of Freud’s life’s study, placing the initial approach of space and place anachronically to the final years of Freud’s study. Moving backwards in time, the second point of Freudian thought that is emphasized is the much earlier idea of a ‘psychical topography’, discussed in the nineteenth Introductory Lecture on Psychoanalysis (1917).[xi] Here, Freud’s ‘crude, yet convenient’ spatial metaphor of a house is physically applied to the exhibition space, but conveniently reversed. The ‘conscious’ occupies the entrance, while the ‘unconscious’ is pushed back into the darkened depths of the room. Freud’s original order, where the unconscious is signified by the entrance hall and the conscious by the ‘drawing room’ with a ‘door keeper’ to parole what its revealed to the conscious, was significant to his description of repression.[xii] This reversal, in many ways a practical decision, unintentionally disassociated the display from the precedent of the text on which was it based. However, what seems to be an abbreviated yet constructive use of Freudian theory does in fact reflect an early surrealist interest in Freud. Michael Richardson’s presentation in the exhibition accompanying conference event elaborated on this notion further; in ‘Gradiva Rediviva: an Alchemical Encounter’, Richardson discussed Freud’s reading of Gradiva in In Dream and Delusion (1906) in tandem with various adaptations of the same story in surrealist practice. Richardson rightfully pointed to the alchemical qualities of the story which were ignored by Freud and contrarily celebrated by the surrealists to further claim that ‘the surrealist understanding of the unconscious was profoundly different from that of Freud ... however, this use reflected not a misapprehension of his theory, but a profoundly different approach to its application.’[xiii] The exhibition certainly falls along these lines, where the Freudian model is simultaneously reduced and expanded in its application.
The overall room, similar to the themes and media in Fox’s work, is transposable – the light, sound and texture of each space leak into each other and can be recognized by the viewer, as information exchanged between the unconscious and the conscious. Thus the application of the Freudian model of space becomes clear; whatever the viewer perceives in each of the two domains penetrates the membranes of both dream and reality.
The enigma of what the spaces of the unconscious may be was adequately approached by the objects on display in their attempt to engage the viewer by means of real and imaginary simulations. The obscurities of the provided information forced the objects and their content to be puzzling for the viewer, and equally disorienting. Thus the exhibition intentionally did not communicate a wholesome idea, but rather a dream-like blur of several merged images. This is an important quality of the boxes, which were made to resonate such an impression with the viewer. Though the objects were successful in producing the desired effect, the clarity of the experience for the viewer is questionable.
THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS creatively presented various interchangeable forms of ‘spaces of the unconscious’ that extend beyond its initially insipid divide of a lit conscious and darkened unconscious space, where the prolific quality of small scales produced vast spaces that simulate the unconscious. With the ‘PING!’ of the porcupine, the viewer moved from large objects to small peepholes, as the experience of space simultaneously grew. The exhibition expands our initial experience of Kathleen Fox’s Freud portrait, immersing the viewer into the multiple layers of Freudian and surrealist legacies while offering infinitely changeable spaces of the unconscious.
[i] See recent exhibitions at the Freud Museum such as Stone Speak (2010), Myths in Mind (2009), Freud’s Sculpture: a view from the desk (2006) and In the Freud Museum (2002). Also see The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner, Roger Cardinal, London, Reaktion Books, 1997.
[ii] The exhibition was conceived as part of a wider research project The Spaces of the Unconscious to be coordinated at Queen Mary College by Professor David Pindar, University of London by Dr Jill Fenton, Open University by Professor Steve Pile, Norwich School of Art by Dr Krzysztof Fijalkowski, and Goldsmiths’College by Dr Michael Richardson, bringing together a number of specialists in the fields of Surrealism and Cultural Geography, and is seen as feeding into the research generated by the AHRC Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies (Universities of Essex and Manchester / Tate).
[iii] Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Kathleen Fox THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, London, Freud Museum, Principal Colour, 2010, p. 7
[iv] ‘Introduction to the Exhibition’ in Kathleen Fox THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, London, Freud Museum, Principal Colour, 2010, p. 3
[v] Roger Cardinal, ‘Freud’s Objects’ presented at Spaces of the Unconscious conference, Anna Freud Centre, London, 9 October 2010.
[vi] Mary Ann Caws, Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, New York, Thames and Hudson, 2000
[vii] Speacial thanks to Kathleen Fox for a private tour of the exhibition and discussion on her work. All quoted comments made by Fox refer to this discussion.
[viii] Michael Calderbank, ‘Freud’s Sculpture’, Papers of Surrealism, issue 5, Spring 2007, p. 3
[ix] As observed by Prof. Dawn Ades in conversation with artist Kathleen Fox during a private viewing of the exhibition.
[x] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Psychical Apparatus and the External World’ in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (W. W. Norton & Co.; Reissue edition, 1970 ) pp. 195-204
[xi] Sigmund Freud, ‘Resistance and Repression’ in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Liverpool, London, Prescot, Tintling and Co., Ltd., 1922 , pp. 242-254
[xii] Sigmund Freud, ‘Resistance and Repression’ in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Liverpool, London, Prescot, Tintling and Co., Ltd., 1922 , pp. 242-254
[xiii] Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Kathleen Fox THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, London, Freud Museum, Principal Colour, 2010, p. 4