From a Freudian perspective (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900) projection, condensation, substitution and displacement form the basis of dream analysis. Unacceptable elements of the self are projected onto other objects; omissions and fragments of ideas and images become fused together in a process of condensation; a repressed idea is transformed via another image through substitution and a shift of emphasis moves from an important part to unimportant part through displacement. In Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay proposes that visual experience can be tied to psychological processes, demonstrated by narcissism, exhibitionism and scopophilia, fundamental to the human psyche.
According to Freud (1916), the superimposition of transitory concepts with common elements that are condensed together in a blurred or vague image (as in several photographs made ‘on the same plate’) is an expression of an internal psychic reality. Meanings can shift in the unconscious from one representation to another: a process which post-Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1966) called ‘sliding signifiers’.
These Freudian perspectives occurred to me at a recent exhibition of MA student work near Canterbury. The gallery’s basement abuts an underground stream, long since buried. Approaching from a steep wooden staircase, the visitor encountered two works projected in the basement. Purely by chance, their subject-matter was drawn from the site of a ruined church in Kent which was also the site of a brick factory, long since closed and abandoned like many industries in the South East. In the gallery, visitors were intrigued by an accelerated, yet strangely meditative, almost dreamlike moving image of a stream, flecked with broken bricks, flickering across the gallery’s brick archways. Next to it, a glass window, salvaged from the derelict site and strangely illuminated from within. Visitors couldn’t work out how it was done. How could there be a window into the long forgotten bricked-up stream below the gallery?
According to Tim Edensor (Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality), the site of the industrial ruin evokes neglect, transgression, surprise and an aesthetic of disorder. These are symbolic spaces whose devastation reveals social, economic and cultural values of commodification, obsolescence and abandonment, yet simultaneously having the potential for transcendence. Derelict spaces are indeterminate places in suspension, and it is these aspects which evoke their powerful fragility. It was this unpredictable immanence and intimation of transience which was evoked by the installation. The gallery became a de-materialised architectural opening, evoking its own potential immateriality.
In The Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary quotes from Paul Virilio (‘The field of vision has always seemed to me to be comparable to the ground of archaeological excavation’): the artist as a shaman figure is a potent metaphor of how artists (and art works) can function as a presence that create portals to mysterious spaces.
The Tate Gallery’s recent exhibition, Ruin Lust, proposes the ruin as ‘an aesthetic of pleasing decay’ drawing on an eighteenth-century Romanticism in various stages of the picturesque. In this cultural form acceptable elements of the romantic are projected onto unacceptable elements of decay and dereliction; omissions and fragments of ideas and images fuse together into a ‘ruin aesthetic’; a repressed idea (of the inevitability of death and decrepitude) is transformed via another (acceptably pleasing) image in a process of substitution; and shifts of emphasis are displaced from other important elements (failed social housing or urban planning) to unimportant elements (light, form, texture, scale).
Freud’s essay “A Note upon the ‘The Mystic Writing Pad’” (1925) contemplates the potential ruined surface of writing, both materially and in terms of its mimetic value. Whilst the human mind has unlimited capacity for endlessly new perceptions and to lay down memory traces of things perceived, other devices such as cameras are limited in capacity. Freud proposes that consciousness exists in the act of perception instead of its memory trace. He reflects on the device of The Mystic Writing Pad – a slab of resin over which is laid a sheet of translucent wax paper covered by a transparent piece of celluloid – as an approximation of the mental apparatus. The two sheets of paper, over which writing is done with a stylus, are equivalents to the two layers of the mind which Freud proposed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922). Whilst the surface behind receives the stimuli, the external layer protects against its force. When the two covering sheets are lifted in the Mystic Writing Pad (both celluloid and waxed paper), the writing vanishes and the Pad is ready to receive more impressions. However, a permanent trace of the writing is preserved on the wax slab and is ‘legible in suitable lights’. The Pad thus retains traces of what has been written but can be written on again and again, like the mind’s receptive capacity. The layer which receives stimuli leaves no permanent trace: memory comes about in other systems. Freud proposes that the two sheets of paper are equivalents of perception and its protective shield, and the wax slab of the unconscious. The lifting up of the paper and the interruptions, appearance and disappearance of the writing is equivalent to the ‘flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception’.
An MA Fine Art graduate recently projected a video image onto her oil painting of de-commissioned gas towers in Didcot as part of a response to an exhibition in Turner Contemporary of Constable’s watercolours. The video image was matched in scale to the painting and depicted the same scene, resulting in a disturbingly almost imperceptibly moving surface where clouds played across the semi-derelict industrial landscape. A haunted sense of passing away, of traces left, the outdated and outmoded landscape of abandoned and toxic forms of production, skittered in a spatial performance of perception.
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