NIDA Art-Wank #1

During my year at NIDA I wrote some pretty A grade art wank (I literally got A's for some of it). It's pretty heavy going in style for a blog, but I reckon there's some interesting thoughts in there too. Buckle in if you're so inclined....

Expressions of the Unconscious in the works of Sewell, Ostermeier and Bacon

With reference to Artaud’s The Theatre and The Plague and questions about conscious access to the ‘unconscious’ 

Introduction

    “Art and literature…can be viewed as compromise formations in which repressed desires find expression in a socially acceptable form. Texts are thus as much unconscious as conscious creations articulating unconscious desires they struggle to contain.” (Lapsley, 2006, p.76)

This critical analysis takes the above statement as a launchpad to examine three artworks through the lens of the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan, in particular the Psychoanalytical concept of the unconscious mind. I will contend that a core component of the chosen artworks is that their implicit meanings reside primarily at the level of the unconscious: that the figures represented are expressions of the unconscious-made-flesh on page, stage or canvas; that the works attempt to address and access the unconscious of the audience; and that these iterations of meaning are made possible by the author (or authors) having access to their own ‘unconscious’ in the creative process. Unsurprisingly, given the paradigm, many of the clearest examples of the tendency towards ‘expressions of the unconscious’ lie in the erotic relations portrayed.

Further, I will suggests that the works bear some relation to the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious, and I will conclude by discussing the variety of ways that authors of art access ‘unconscious’ understanding in a post-Freudian context, and ask whether the line between the unconscious and the conscious minds in creative practice is as well drawn as psychoanalytic theories would have us believe. 

The works which this analysis takes as its cases-in-point are Stephen Sewell’s play text Nigger For Love (2015), Thomas Ostermeier’s production of William Shakespeare’sHamlet (2008) and Francis Bacon’s tryptic Three Studies of the Male Back, 1970 (Henceforth referred to as ‘Three Studies’, for the sake of expedience). 

 

The Unconscious Made Flesh 

Freud’s most basic contention is that the human mind is separable into those things of which we are conscious and those which we repress - called the unconscious. These interact with his later notions of Ego (roughly aligning to the conscious mind, and described as ‘the conscious idea of the self’) and the Id (roughly aligning to the unconscious minds and described as the animal self, which is concerned with the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain). Over these Freud lays a further concept of the Superego, the part of the mind which monitors behaviour, acts as a conscience, and encourages us to abide by social rules (Dixon 2015, p10-16). 

This is further overlaid with the idea that the unconscious mind - previously thought responsible only for seeking pleasure - in fact sometimes attempts to relive traumatic experiences, in order to gain control over situations where the subject previously had no control (Lapsley 2006, p78). Lapsley asserts;

    “If freud’s hypothesis holds, then artworks are more than merely the articulation of conscious and unconscious desires; they are also attempts to actively master distressing, even traumatic, situations.” (Lapsley 2006, 78)

In a 2012 interview with Deutsches Welles, Thomas Ostermeier suggests that his work is an attempt to grapple with plays that speak of “the humiliation of being born”(Craven/Ostermeier 2012). He says:

    “Now that I’m born what am i going to do with it? But it is pretty humiliating because you’re not asked to be born…you pretty soon find out that you’re going to die and this is also pretty humiliating…the basic humiliation is that it’s not going on forever, so: why being here?” (Craven/Ostermeier 2012)

Seen through a psychoanalytic lens, this is a clear appeal to the unconscious mind in its capacity to gain control over trauma. 

His Hamlet reflects this relationship to trauma in a number of places, but none more so than in the dumb-show which precedes the commencement of the classic text. The burial of Hamlet senior is played out in gory detail and includes the complete bungling of the burialand the complete humiliation of all involved - to the extent that each member of the six-person cast is rain soaked, mud streaked, sweaty and disheveled before the ‘play’ has even formally begun (Ostermeier 2008). My personal impression of the sequence is that it is by turns deeply troubling and unaccountably funny. The imagery evokes a sense of lack of control, while a the same time being situated in the relatively controlled circumstances of a choreographed theatrical moment, with the audience safely removed from the action in the auditorium. In placing such an exaggeratedly traumatic sequence of events on stage - particularly as the opening images of the production - Ostermeier is inviting the audience, through the figures, to address in some way their own traumatic relationship to mortality in this controlled environment.  

Francis Bacon attacks the suppressed traumas of the unconscious in a related but distinct way. Bacon was raised Catholic in Ireland, allegedly subjected to systematic physical abuse and possibly rape at the hands of his fathers stable-boys, was thrown out of home by his father when discovered dressing up in his mother’s underwear, and many times asserted that he had been sexually attracted to his father (Farson 1993, pp 17-19). All of this undoubtedly resulted in a complex relationship to his subsequent male lovers and his own homosexuality. In ‘Three Studies’ we see this tension between a Super-Egoistic shame and an Id-ish desire writ large.  In my personal viewing of the paintings, the figure of Bacon’s lover George Dyer (repeated thrice) is at once a sexualised figure and a figure of threat and shame. He is super-humanly muscular, but rendered in colours that might suggest bruising and damage to the skin, in thetwo side panels his face is exaggeratedly ape-like in the mirror, and in the centre panel the reflection is completely blacked out and the puddling shadow seems to haunt the figure (Bacon, 1970). 

The combination of these elements (and the knowledge that the subject is a man with whom Bacon had a volatile and highly erotic relationship (Farson 1993, p 175)) suggests a dis-ease in the artist about his inner sexual drives, and provokes a similarly complex lust/disgust response in the viewer. Like Ostermeier it seems that Bacon is accessing in some way his own unconscious desires and traumas - in this case as both the cause of the trauma, and in its capacity to gain control over that same trauma. In doing so the artwork has a visceral effect which strikes directly at the unconscious mind of the viewer. 

 In ‘Nigger For Love’ Sewell addresses similar conceptions of the subconscious in various ways. Firstly he creates a sequence of three scenes which are implicitly ‘set’ in Falco (the central figure)’s subconscious - this is exemplified by subverting the location of the surrounding scenes. We move from “Sc 1:Taylor Sq, 4am” to “Sc 2: Negative Taylor Sq”, “Sc 3: Party Taylor Sq” and “Sc 4: Aids Taylor Sq”, before returning to “Sc 5: Taylor Sq, 4am”. Time hasn't shifted and yet we have seen four different iterations of the space (Sewell 2015, pp15-23).  With these stage directions it seems that Sewell is suggesting a subconscious layering of experiences, manifested theatrically as a temporally linear sequence. Additionally the figures who appear in the subconscious realities have an aggressively mythological nomenclature: Ovid, Bacchus and Grendal all make appearances, as do less placeable but equally mythological sounding figures such as Bethsheda and Negreto (Sewell 2015, pp 15-23). This nomenclature suggests the Jungian conception of the archetype as central to the functioning of the unconscious. (Feist & Feist, 2009). These figures explicitly encourage the central figure towards a variety of Id (or pleasure principal) driven experiences including taboo sex acts, and acts which imply a complex unconscious relationship to mortality; principally the intentional pursuit of HIV seroconversion. 

    “FALKO: So if we've all got Aids -

    MIRABELLO INDEFINIDO: Or are going to get Aids - …

    FALKO: Why don't we just -

    MIRABELLO INDEFINIDO: Get it, you mean?” (Sewell 2015, p 22)

It seems that Sewell is making a clear deconstruction of the subconscious into separate, individually comprehensible, components. He is displaying the unconscious desires and drives as separate figures for the audiences benefit - and the effect of reading such a text is viscerally affective.

The above examples illustrate broadly how these authors are utilising conceptions of subconscious desires and traumas in their work. I would now like to turn to the presentation of the central love object in each artwork, and that figure’s conception as either ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’ figure (in the Freudian sense) or ‘Object A’ (in the Lacanian). 

 

The Love Object

Freud's conception of the Oedipus complex essentially consists of a contention that at an early age men are sexually attracted to their mother and fear losing her to their father/competitor. This manifests as a covetous desire towards the mother and a wish to do away with the father. A related fear of castration, which he believes to be a central driving factor of the male subconscious, is also a central tenet of Freud’s work (Lapsley 2006, p76) .

Ostermeier creates an Oedipus Complex for his Hamlet with the intentional conflation of the two textual figures of Ophelia (Lover) and Gertrude (Mother). (Shakespeare’s text in someway supports this reading with it’s presentation of the new step-father Claudius intruding into the family structure.) In Ostermeier’s production the figure of Ophelia and Gertrude are played by the same actor and she manifests minimal physical shifts from one figure to the next - only the removal of a wig and sunglasses.  Additionally the temporal relations between the two figures are often no more than momentary - Opheliafrequently appears as if from ‘within’ Gertrude, in situ. He further eroticises the mother figure by presenting her as a highly sexual being; in the banquet scene which follows the aforementioned burial she is filmed by her son performing a highly eroticised song and dance for her new husband Claudius (Ostermeier, 2008)

Sewell constructs a similarly freudian sexual relationship for his central figure Falco. The dream-figure of Ovid attacks Falco, biting off his ear, and Falco retaliates by eviscerating Ovid:

    “OVID: Suck dick, shit-head.
Falko struggles…

    FALKO: No!

But Ovid keeps his hands firmly on his head…

    OVID: Suck dick.

    FALKO: No!

    OVID: Suck -

But he suddenly stops as Falko's knife slams into his groin and eviscerates him…

    FALKO: Suck it yourself, you fucking deadshit”(Sewell 2015, pp 19-20)

Given the placement of this episode in Falco’s theatricalised unconscious this is a clear allusion to the castration fear suggested by Freud. 

Bacon’s potentially Oedipal relationship to his father has already been mentioned but, perhaps more telling is his portrayal of the figure of Dyer as a super human ‘object a’. In Lacanian terms a human enters society at birth and in doing so conceives a lack or loss of completeness, this tends to manifest as a desire for a missing ‘object a’. Lapsley constructs the resulting interchange thus:

    ”As the ‘object a’ does not exist, the tendency is to fantasise that it does and, in ourculture, the commonest form of such fantasies is romance. Lovers imagine that the other embodies a lost object and can make good their lack. As the ‘object a’ is irreparably lost, no lover can incarnate the lost compliment; no lover can complete the partner.” (Lapsley 2006, p82)

 I would suggest that Bacon is portraying his lover through a highly idealised and constructed lens - as the ‘object a’ of his desire.

Sewell portrays the romantic figure of Michael in a similar way. Michael is the only figure without a name that alludes to a super-human or mythological figure conception, and yet in scene six it is revealed, through name and interaction, that he is perceived by Falco as the‘object a’ of his desires:

    “FALKO: Do you want me to tell you why?

    MICHAEL: No.

    FALKO: It’s because I don't want anything to separate us - I want to be with you in everything you are and do [….]You don't know what your name means,do you.

    MICHAEL: What?

    FALKO: Who is like God. (Sewell 2015, pp 31-33)

In each of these examples the author could be seen to be using the represented figure(s) as an expression of their own subconscious desires - whether viewed through the Freudian lens or the Lacanian - and potentially they are also inviting the audience to contemplate their own relationship to these purported psychological phenomena. 

 

Purging the Collective Unconscious 

Post-structuralist semiotics suggest that an art text’s meanings lies in the mind of the receiver(Rodley 2014). Of course invitations to create meanings lie in a variety of places and it is worth noting that, as three very different forms of artistic texts, invitations to meaning lie in very different places in each text. None the less in all three cases with the post-structuralist argument in mind, I would suggests that the real meanings lie in the liminal spaces between. Between the mind of the author and the page or canvas, between the stage, page or canvas and the mind of the receiver, and in the case of ‘Hamlet’ between the mind of interpretive authors and the stage (duly inspired by Shakespeare’s pre-text). 

It is my contention that, with this in mind, these works specifically attempt to speak to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, in which Jung suggests that in addition to an individual personal (Freudian) unconscious, the human race also possesses an unconscious which we all share (Jung 1916, pp 263-4). This unconscious works in the realm of archetype and myth which, as we have seen, is so prevalent in the works being discussed. 

Potentially this appeal to the unconscious is conducted with a view to allowing audiences a socially acceptable outlet for their own repressed desires. This suggests a collective purging of ‘sins’ which is akin to concepts contained in the theoretical writings of Antonin Artaud. 

In ‘The Theatre and Its Double’ Artaud suggest  

    “If the essential theatre is like the plague, it is …because like the plague it is the revelation, the bringing forth, the exteriorisation of a depth of latent cruelty by means of which all the perverse possibilities of the mind, whether of an individual or a people are localised. […] It appears that, by means of the plague, a gigantic abscess, as much moral as social, has been collectively drained; and that like the plague, the theatre has been created to drain abscesses collectively.” (Artaud 1958, p30)

Viewed through a psychoanalytical theory of mind - whether Freudian, Lacanian or Jungian - Artaud’s conception of the collectively drained abscess creates a meaningful link between Ostermeier, Sewell and Bacon: In these works at least, they are conducting a conscious or subconscious attempt to create an experience for their audience of a psycho-sociological purgative. 

 

Conclusion and Provocation - Conscious Access to the Unconscious

The question that remains is then: is the attack on the audience’s unconscious, through the fictional unconscious of the figure, actually prompted by the author’s unconscious mind, or is it a more conscious pursuit? 

I would suggest that, in the post-Freudian world, there are a variety of ways that authors of art access nominally ‘unconscious’ understanding.. Due to the pervasiveness of Freudian, Jungian and to some extent Lacanian theories in modern intellectual and creative discourse it seems to me that artists are conditioned to cultivate a personal conscious access to the facets of their own psyche which would usually remain unconscious. If we accept Artaud’s thesis that art is (or at least can be) the repository for the desires that society dares not actually enact - and the evidence suggests these artists do - then surely we, as artists, must conclude that the correct role of the artist is to act as auto-analyst and mine the supposedly ‘subconscious’ for artistic fodder. Each of these artists has made a specific assertion to this effect. Ostermeier’s above mentioned statement that his work is about the ‘humiliation of being born’ is a perfect example. Bacon makes the following assertion in interview with David Sylvester:

    “We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens”(Sylvester 1975, p 82)

If Bacon’s corpus of work is anything, it is a testament to the removal of egoistic and super-egoistic screens in an attempt to reveal unconscious ways of seeing and being. 

Sewell, in conversation with the author, has asserted that although an atheist he believes that “Human beings are full of God” and that theatre is the place for the expression of those godlike tendencies (Sewell, 2015). Taken in concert with his structural establishment of god figures as subconscious desires, and his establishment of the Lover as ‘Object ‘ in ‘Nigger For Love’, I can think of no clearer expression in art of a conscious address of Freudian conceptions of the unconscious mind at work, Jungian ideas of the archetype in the collective unconscious, and Lacanian principals of Separation-loss.

These examples would lead me to suggest that, although it is possible, even probable, that many of the actually unconscious desires of these artists are being expressed through their work, additionally, they are in fact consciously accessing elements of their psyche which, were they not makers of art, would likely remain unconscious. It is the pursuit of art-making which leads them to this exploration of their own ‘unconscious’ Id.

 

Bibliography:

Lapsley, Rob, Psychoanalytic Criticism, in Wake, Paul & Malpas, Simon (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory. Routledge (2006)

Dixon, Robin, Theory of Mind 1 - Freud, lecture notes, Author/National Institute of Dramatic Art (2015)

Craven, Peter & Ostermeier, Thomas, Talking Germany, television interview, Deutsches Welles (2012)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaUHxKXjkwI

Ostermeier, Thomas (Dir.) & Shakespeare, William (auth.), Hamlet, Schaubuhne Berlin, (Premiere 2008, performance attended 05/2015)

Farson, Daniel, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage/Random House (1993)

Bacon, Francis, Three Studies of The Male Back, 1970, collection of the Kunsthaus Zürich (1970)

Sewell, Stephen, Nigger For Love, unpublished (2015)

Feist J & Feist GJ, Theories of Personality, McGraw-Hill (2009)

Rodley, Chris, Post Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards, BuzzFeed Inc. (2014)

http://www.buzzfeed.com/chrisr414d8a71a/post-structuralism-explained-with-hipster-beards-xwfz#.lb1yLDxZg

Jung, Carl, The Structure of the Unconscious (1916) in Collected Works, Princeton University Press,  2014

Artaud, Antonin, The Theatre and It’s Double (Richards, Mary Carol trans.), Groove Press, 1958

Sylvester, David, Interviews with Francis Bacon, publisher, (19??)

Sewell, Stephen conversation with the author, 04/2015