Looking up from the couch: on Mark Wallinger's show at the Freud Museum in London

The artist makes subtle changes to Freud’s study that speak to larger issues

by Orit Gat  |  18 August 2016
Looking up from the couch: on Mark Wallinger's show at the Freud Museum in London
Mark Wallinger’s Self-Reflection exhibit at the Freud Museum in London. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
In Self Reflection, Mark Wallinger’s installation at the Freud Museum in London, a one-liner multiplies into numerous readings. It is easy to describe: the artist has placed a mirror on the ceiling of Freud’s study, doubling the room. It’s almost impossible to add anything to the room, which is chockfull of collectibles, works of art, wood sculptures, books and furniture, including that famous couch. Instead of adding, Wallinger’s installation draws the eyes upward. From the mirrored ceiling, you see dust atop the bookshelves, an energy-efficient light bulb in a lamp (one of few non-original details in the room, one would assume) and an angel’s view to to the couch.

The Freud Museum is in Freud’s house in North London, where he arrived in 1938 and lived for one year until his death in 1939. (There’s also a Freud museum in Vienna at Berggasse 19, the apartment and clinic where he lived and worked for 47 years until he was forced to flee the Nazis.) Freud’s daughter Anna lived in this house until her death in 1982 and she was the one who initiated its transformation into a museum. The couch came with Freud when he left Austria and is the crown jewel of the museum. Unlike the period-room tendency of many houses-turned-museums, like the Keats House a mere 15-minute walk away, no room at the house except for the study has been conserved to look the way it did when Freud was its resident. The dining room has a vitrine full of photos, Anna Freud’s room is a monument to her work and the landing has original bookcases, but the seats are meant for visitors leafing through a titled document The Unconscious: Frequently Asked Questions. Only the study remains frozen: it includes Freud’s collections, his books, even his glasses left on an unfinished manuscript on his desk.

It brings to mind questions of what we choose to conserve and what we think of as representative. We now see more and more contemporary interventions into museum spaces that are not necessarily meant to exhibit art. At times, a site is complimentary to an artist’s practice, such as Mark Dion’s exhibition at The Explorers Club in New York in 2012 (which was also a rare occasion to gain entrance to a private club whose members include astronauts and war correspondents). At other times, it simply provides a non-white-cube space in which to explore contemporary art. Fred Wilson, in his influential Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, interposed his work into the actual workings of the museum. Wallinger, instead, is not attempting to draw attention to the museum as an institution, but to what we expect the museum to do. The mirror on the ceiling transforms the space, which becomes an object of study in its entirety, rather than a sum of its parts, like the glasses or the the couch.

Self Reflection is accompanied by two other works: an outdoor sculpture in the garden that is also visible from the study in the shape of the letter I, called Self (2016), and a self-portrait in the form of an abstract black-and-white painting. With a single strip of black atop a white canvas, a line becomes, again, the letter I (Self Portrait [Arial Black], 2008). A Japanese woodcut by Kiyoshi Yoshida from 1929 that depicts Mount Fuji reflected in water was also brought in from Freud’s collection to provide another layer to the visual game of reflections and mirroring in the exhibition. There is nothing self-absorbed about the triple self in Wallinger’s show; rather, it feels like he has thrown a light onto the different selves that have existed, that have been analysed on that couch and that have been all but forgotten because of the psychoanalyst who haunts the room.

Wallinger has been working with this material for a while. At the Frieze Art Fair in London in 2014, he organised Hauser & Wirth’s stand as a re-imagination of Freud’s study. His exhibition earlier this year at the gallery’s two Savile Row spaces in London was titled Id. It comprised of a series of new works called the Id Paintings (2016), which are monumental gestural works based on and depicting the artist’s own body (another facet of Wallinger’s long interest in self-portraiture). The Id Paintings were accompanied by Ego (2016), two iPhone shots of the artist’s hands, citing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and Superego (2016), a kinetic mirror sign.

Though the above may seem facile (and at times it is), Wallinger’s long interest in Freud’s work and the analyst's perpetual presence in the social psyche makes him the perfect artist to intervene in this institution, the safekeeper of the most iconic object of Freud’s legacy. The installation echoes the initial reasoning for the couch, a tool to force patients to look at the ceiling and thus inward, rather than out a window or toward the therapist. Instead of attempting to combat the lasting visual impact of this one couch, Wallinger enhances it. It’s an examination of what an object can come to represent in our cultural imagination. Any artist would be interested in the repercussions of this, but only here are they so clear to see.

Orit Gat is a writer based in London and New York. She is the features editor of Rhizome and managing editor of WdW Review

Mark Wallinger, Self Reflection, Freud Museum, London, until 25 September

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