The Spaces of the Unsconscious
THE SPACES OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
(text from the catalogue The Spaces of the Unconscious)
Michael Richardson and Krzysztof Fijalkowski
The title of this exhibition poses an enigma: what is the space of the unconscious?
Scientists and philosophers,although approaching the issue from different directions,
are agreed upon the fact that space, like time, does not exist. Or rather, that it is a
concept that assumes existence only through human perception, and even then that
space and time are relational entities each of which has
meaning only relative to the other.
In speaking of the ‘space’ of the unconscious, we are therefore bringing together two
abstractions,because the unconscious similarly does not ‘exist’, but can be understood
only in relation to what we define as ‘consciousness’, a notion notoriously difficult to
define and one which has defied all scientific attempts at explanation, notwithstanding
the extraordinary investigations that have inrecent years penetrated deeply into mental
processes and the functioning of the brain.
We know, of course, that time is differently structured in the unconscious. It follows that the same must be true for space. This space of the unconscious functions according to different determinants than everyday space (just as the ‘unconscious’ functions differently from the ‘conscious’), disorienting and disordering our senses in an alien setting in which we lose ourselves, as we do in the night or when we are underwater. We become unable to determine distance. This space is not an area we enter, but one which enters us. It is a space we cannot control as it comes towards us and engulfs us, carrying us along in a momentum we need constantly to negotiate to make progress.
Dominant notions of the unconscious tend to see it as an individual or collective property in which forgotten or repressed thoughts are deposited or hidden away. Enormously influenced by Freud, early surrealism explored the mechanisms of the unconscious through an extensive examination of dream states, aberrant and psychotic displacements, and through processes of automatism aimed to bring to the surface memory traces or other elements of this ‘other’ realm. Despite this debt, the surrealists’ understanding of the unconscious was profoundly different from that of Freud, as the latter recognised when he declined André Breton’s invitation to participate in an anthology of dreams. Freud pointed out that for him dreams detached from the individual context of the dreamer were meaningless. With this statement, Freud showed that he had understood the fundamental incompatibility between his theory of dream and the use that the surrealists wanted to make of it. He had failed to understand, however, that this use reflected not a misapprehension of his theory, but a profoundly different approach to its application.
For Freud, the unconscious was a place of confinement in which was stored all that the individual wished, or found it prudent, to repress, whether it be socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic or painful memories and violent emotions. Although this insight provided one of the bases of surrealism, the surrealists had no interest in drawing out what had been repressed in order to cure the neurosis it had given rise to. Their interest was in exposing the processes by which society used such repression as a means of social control, and in so doing identifying how it had caused the person to be alienated from his or her inner being.
Yet, from this starting point, what we can observe in surrealist explorations of the unconscious is something that goes beyond a simple exposure of individual or societal mores to raise profound questions about the relation not simply between the individual and society, but more broadly about how individuals and societies function in relation to natural and cosmic forces. This echoes the way in which the penultimate chapter of Freud’s last book, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, summed up the unconscious, the scientific object of his life’s study, as ‘a psychical apparatus that is spatially extended, expediently constructed, and developed according to the needs of life, an apparatus that gives rise to the phenomena of consciousness only in one particular place and under certain conditions’ (emphasis added). While Freud often summoned the idea of a ‘psychical topography’ that might allow us to locate the systems of unconscious and conscious activity in the real spaces of the body and the world, however, this sort of mapping always seems to have been troublesome and provisional. ‘Our psychical topography,’ he writes in ‘The Unconscious’ (1915) for example, ‘has for the present nothing to do with anatomy’.
The notion of spatial extension suggests that the unconscious is not simply an internal space, but is also a space that inhabits us, as we live within a world that has its own unconscious, formed of the filed away (but not necessarily repressed) elements of cultural memory traces that only partly belong to individual or inherited experiences. This ‘universal’ unconscious takes shape within the extensive spaces that surround, rather than are inherent to, the psyche and are contained within empirically observable phenomena whose extent remains to be discovered. This notion underlies significant elements of surrealist investigation that remain of continuing relevance. As René Alleau argues, writing in the journal Médium, Communication Surréaliste (no. 4, January 1955) and taking Jung to task for his demonstrably false idea of a collective unconscious which renders individual consciousness insignificant and in ‘definitive ignorance of its own reality’ (p 44), it is in the precision of consciousness in its extended sense (that is, essentially free both of rationality and repression) that we must seek the reality of what we are. This inseparability of the conscious and the unconscious needs to be recognised as a cornerstone of the surrealist attitude. Surrealism did not, as too many commentators assume, seek to mine an internal unconscious, but to determine its place within consciousness. Along with Rimbaud (‘It is incorrect to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought’), Freud’s theory of the unconscious coincided for the surrealists with Hegel’s phenomenology of being in providing ways to think outside of the paradigm of the rational, self-contained individual or the Cartesian cogito. In the 19th of the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1917), Freud compared the mental apparatus to a house, in which the unconscious resides in the entrance hall while the consciousness occupies a drawing room, with a watchman on patrol between them.
It is notable that Freud’s sense of domestic space and the idea of the house, reflected in his repeated use of architectural metaphors, seems to gather around its hidden aspects, what is secreted in its basement and undisclosed places, what is retained in its ruins and what can be reconstituted through archaeology. Surrealist artists have frequently tested this spatial location of the psyche. Among many other examples may be cited André Masson’s embodied caverns or corporeal labyrinths, Brassaï’s nocturnal urban playgrounds or Jan Švankmajer’s anxious apartments and cellars, all of which propose locations where mind and body, place and space are brought into ambiguous correlation. The Spaces of the Unconscious draws on these strands, using as its environment a room that was precisely Freud’s own bedroom.
These ideas provide a point of convergence for this exhibition by Kathleen Fox. Like many of the artists who have previously exhibited at the Freud Museum, she is fascinated by the interrelations existing between her work and Freud’s legacy - not so much his theories as his existential (conscious and unconscious) residues retained as material, even ghostly, traces in the building in which he lived and worked during the last year of his life. Consciously working within the surrealist tradition, Fox seeks in her installation to question the viewer’s journey towards the unconscious, across thresholds and into spaces that are simultaneously both real and imaginary.
Born in South Africa, Fox moved to England in 1987, unable to tolerate the political situation in her homeland. Her work is a reflection on issues of identity and exile, explored through unconscious processes and the myths they generate. In this a key concern has been to explore the way in which the dynamic of consciousness is underwritten by the traces it leaves behind, layered and textured, in the unconscious in much the same way as a house retains the residues of those who have inhabited it or a river, as it flows, leaves in its wake the trace of its passage in the mud and sludge. One of the main inspirations of her recent work has indeed been to probe the detritus left behind in river mud, observing the progressive decay and re-composition of life that takes place within it.
Themes of layering and texturing in Fox’s installation offer the possibility for an examination of the unconscious not simply as a psychological process but also as a geographical space with its own particular properties and qualities. The exhibition is organised so as to invite the viewer to contemplate works in which the layering of the material will be suggestive of both the layering of archaeological sites, and of the natural layering to be found in sedimentation and the human imagination alike. In such a way, a parallel is drawn between natural and cultural sites of decay, decomposition and regeneration. This process suggests that a route to the unconscious cannot be charted: what is required is an immersion in its space. The exhibition engages the viewer to think about how the human relationship to space psychologically links the past to the future through his or her positioning.
Here archaeology and geography are linked with alchemy as Fox engages with a fluid realm as she takes detritus from the river bed – precisely ‘its’ unconscious (linked with her own through the engagement she makes with it) – as a location of operations, a place in which, linked with the night and the depth of caves (all, of course, metaphors for the unconscious as well as for the origin of life), life reconstitutes itself through decay. This alchemical task of regeneration is at the same time directly tied in with the death drive as identified by Freud: life is turned back on itself eternally, the ouroboros of hermetic traditions.