Feature by Peter Dobey
All too often I encounter visual art that has been butchered by theoretical exposition. A particularly egregious variety of art writing often comes from those who apply psychoanalysis to art and present their critical judgment as a diagnosis of the nature of the artwork at hand. In short, they write the art off. These writers do an injustice to the art piece they examine and to psychoanalysis itself, a serious clinical practice that does not diagnose.
I say this as a practicing Artist, Writer, and Psychoanalyst. Although it may be my own neurosis, I choose to divide, rather than conflate these realms of work as a matter of ethical consideration. Admitting to this splitting, I nonetheless acknowledge that everything in mental life is intertwined; such divisions are inevitably prone to slippage. Although psychoanalysis as a method of critiquing art is anathema to me, I do believe one can get a glimpse into fundamental complexities of mental life through the experience of art. After all, what is art if not inextricably human? At its best, art tells us something about ourselves. I shall try and make interpretations about what certain art pieces say about mental life from a psychoanalytic perspective, rather than make dictums about a piece and how it should be judged. Rather than write about what art pieces mean, or whether they are good or bad, I will pretend for a moment that the artwork could think for itself. It is my firm belief that art should inspire thought, not force it. So, perhaps, art does go about thinking, it promotes thinking.
One of the most familiar adages in psychoanalysis is that the analyst does not do any analyzing, only the analysand (the more apt, less dehumanizing term for patient) can do the analyzing. If anything, the analyst acts as a mere mirror for the person who comes to speak, albeit one in a very special position or relationship for the analysand (What we call “transference”). Like the analysand, the artwork (if it has anything to say) has it’s own singular existence, but is nonetheless inextricably sewed, knotted, or loosely tied to the embroidery of its surroundings. Accepting these considerations, I will address art pieces on their own basis to the greatest extent possible, while recognizing the role the curated show or environment has on the arts presence only secondarily. I will try to say little about the content of the artworks from a position of judgment, nor will I attempt to make logical sense of the works, as I shall leave those experiential tasks up to a potential viewer who can see the works in the flesh, as it were. I shall attempt to write about art from the position of a psychoanalyst, though not from the position of he who uses art or psychoanalysis as a mere tool to do his own digging.
The first case study is “Fault Lines” at Kadist, San Francisco. If you have not seen it you can this weekend before it comes down. Ostensibly a video exhibit, it is not the moving image that makes the pieces in this show especially apt for psychoanalytic illumination. Instead, the videos in “Fault Lines” center around the erosion of family values, the accompanying curatorial statement by Constance Lewallen asserts that “Today, ‘family values’ as such are not only being called into question, but the very phrase is now code for regressive politics.”
Freud shocked Victorian society with a radical attack on the family values of his day, and there is little doubt that it was he who allowed the dissection of the family unit Lewallen points out to take place. However, as is often the case in psychoanalysis, one revelation does not lead to a single answer. By tearing down the veneer of societal understandings of the family, Freud also reinforced the importance of the family. The theory of the Oedipus complex is arguably the nucleus of all psychoanalysis. Try as you may, the fate of a return to your origins is always looming, always there to enhance your desire on its torturous, ill fated path home.
“A Border Musical”, by Russian collective Chto Delat is the first piece one experiences in “Fault Lines”, and acts as an exemplar case study to illustrate some basic concepts of Freud’s. The film follows a quintessentially human narrative of our divided existence and the calamitous trek we take searching for a more perfect home, one that we feel we already know, a ‘famil-iar’ one. The film itself thinks like a person, it is always torn. Fluctuating between intermittent, and seemingly interweaving Russian and Norwegian, the short film follows a Russian woman, Tanya, who successfully flees her actual homeland for her fantasy home, Norway, “where everyone is happy”.
Although the film follows a narrative, its setting has the characteristic non-logic of a dream, in that the scenario fluctuates back and forth between a makeshift set that signifies icy Russia, and one that signifies gemütlich Norway. This splitting between the two places is made all the more distinct with the overt set construction- the protagonist literally walks back and forth from one set to the next, in a Brechtian/Fassbinder-cum-DIY manner.
A more apt analogy than a dream however is an even more fundamental kind of mental process, what Freud designates as the primary process of mental functioning. Primary process thinking is unconscious, and constitutes the majority of our mental activity of which only a small portion ever becomes conscious, or ‘secondary’. Primary, unconscious processes are those of the famous triad of the Ego, Id and Superego. Since dreams occur during a state of unconsciousness (sleep), dreams belong to primary process thinking and as such are able to ‘condense’ and ‘displace’ images, memories and residue of conscious thought. Freud argues that primary processes are primal mechanisms of mental functioning that develop early on for an infant in relation to their initial love ‘object’ identification with the mother, be it a man or woman.
The protagonist, with her not clearly deliberate designation of Norway as her “home” is clearly searching for something that is different and yet familiar at the same time, and elucidates Freud’s saying that “the finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.” It is the relation we establish with the person who is positioned as our mother, and later the father, which predicates and structures an existence that we simultaneously run away from and return to.
It is fitting that the main resistance for Tanya is her mother-land, Russia personified in the form of a brutish Greek chorus of Russian miners that will, throughout the film, function as the harsh super-ego that taunt her ambitions, and the more instinctual id, that, while reminding her that she is a product of Russia, inadvertently drive her to search out something else with their constant nagging.
As Tanya’s ego seeks to do what she thinks is right for her and her child, the chorus of Russians is always there to remind her she is not the master of her own home, and that in fact, she has become quite delusional, effectively splitting the reality of her upbringing from her phantasmatic future.
Through the masking process of song, she praising the virtues of utopian Norway: “There’s no violence there against the person, father and son are equals“ before being interrupted by the harsh chorus of the Russian super-ego: “You don’t find that funny? The father is the head of the family!” “I’m happy im going home” she retorts.
What is clear is that she believes Norway will bring her unity, a feeling of wholeness. Home, as she says. What the Russian miners remind her of is that the myth of Aristophanes, of finding unity through another person or entity, is just that – a myth.
The great tragedy of “A Border Musical” is that the same place she sees as a utopia will break apart and shatter this nice fantasy of hers. In the end, she moves to Norway with her husband, only to find out that the history she cant escape, the way she was reared in Russia and how she goes about mothering, is wholly unacceptable in the utopia she thought would bring her happiness. The Norwegian community finds her child rearing to be unacceptable, and in the end takes her child away from her to be cared for by the community, abruptly up-ending the same happiness she thought the new (m)other would bring.
The family is never perfect, but it nonetheless structures our identity and our future, and utopic fantasies to escape it nearly always fail. This quintessentially human burden is further exemplified by the case of “Pork and Milk”, a straightforward documentary by French writer and artist Valérie Mréjen. The film presents vignettes in the form of interviews with young Israelis in Tel Aviv who have broken away from ultra-Orthodox upbringings. The family acts as a structuring factor for the individual, but society also structures the family, and vice versa – again, the family is omnipresent, not as a template of conscious being, but as a structuring mechanism of unconscious thought.
A man in the film tells a story about the first time he went to a movie theater, shortly after he left his family, neighborhood and religion. He arrived to a movie theatre early, and was surprised to find nobody there. He sat in the front row assuming it was the best seat in the house. Eventually people show up but he cannot figure out why no one is sitting next to him. Is he abandoned? Is there something wrong with him that people don’t sit next to him? As the movie starts playing his proximity to the screen becomes problematic, the image is so enormous he cannot see anything and all of his vision is eclipsed. His familiar reasoning had failed him and put him front and center in the worst seat in the house. In other words, it was his first time as an adult.
In another vignette, another former adherent talks about how when people found out he was Orthodox they would treat him like an outsider, a freak, and ask him “crazy” questions such as “Do you make love through a sheet? ” He then turns around the situation and asks: “Do you eat bread on Passover?” “Of course not!” they reply. “Do you observe Yom Kippur and fast?” “Of course we do!” “Would you marry a non Jew?” “No.” This gets him wondering about who exactly is controlled by their shared heritage more. Who is more delusional – the one who strictly observes its structuring principals out of actual belief or the one who follows its rules while denying the very existence of their predicates. It seems they want to have their cake and to eat it too. A nice fantasy, but one that is riddled with duplicity. Through this Socratic dialogue, the questioner seemingly reminds the secularists of the familial structuring that they try in vain to escape from. Their liberation is in fact just a veiled version of the same set of rules and social structures they consciously deny, but unconsciously remain indebted to. Who is the crazy one?