Friday, 22 October 2010

Psychoanalysis, a slight return

To Exhibition Road on a Friday afternoon, in mid-October.

I was invited so I went — to a preview of a show at the Science Museum. Entitled Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious In Everyday Life, it is small, tenderly curated and intelligent.

It’s just off the main entrance, up a flight of steps. The light is low — giving a sense of the couch and the consulting room. A fine and private place.

The show’s title gives little indication of the contents or approach, though. It is, in fact, a collection of objects which exemplify and dramatise psychoanalytic thought and concepts. So there is stuff from Freud’s room — predictable in essence but given depth by the accompanying exploration of their significance by psychoanalyst David Bell.

An interruption to myself. David Bell is a funny little person, with a beard which perhaps contains a nest or two. He once nearly ran me over, on his bike, as he emerged, inattentively, from cycling through Waterlow Park. He certainly, absent-mindedly, didn’t see me. He always, always, always wears a sleeveless sweater, whatever the weather — which, of course, makes him look like an overgrown schoolboy from the 1950s. Which, I suppose . . .

Anyway, he was scurrying around the show at the preview, explaining things and herding people the way he does. He is also a wonderful speaker, a true believer whose views of psychoanalysis — as the central organising subject of human thought, effectively — are made acceptable — if not true or entirely believable — by his wit and eloquence. Though not charm. I doubt if anyone has ever accused him of that.

Other stuff in the show includes toys — as used to analyse children, by Margaret Lowenfeld and Betty Joseph. Basic idea: children aren’t capable of talking coherently about their inner life — ie via free association — so analyst gets them to play with toys and then analyse the deeper meaning of their play.

There are also drawings made by Melanie Klein’s young boy patient Richard. Pictures of Spitfires and Messerschmidts shooting and burning — it was war time. There are Winnicott’s squiggle pictures. Basic idea: analyst draws squiggly line on paper, child extends it, analyst explains meaning of child’s squiggle. (Put like that, it can sound daft. But I’m not sure it is. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. If we can’t find meaning and emotion in the shape and rhythm of a line, we would never visit art galleries and Picasso would have been out of work straight away.)

And there art works. One is directly sexual. Of course it is. It’s by Tim Noble and Sue Webster — YBAs, famous for their rubbish pieces (description, not judgment). There is an electronic piece. Of course, there is. It’s Arnold Dreyblatt’s The Wunderblock — a tablet screen which displays a paper of Freud’s which compared the way memory works to the child’s toy known, in German, as a Wunderblock. In English, a mystic writing pad — you write on it, you see what you’ve written, you lift the wax sheet you’ve written and it’s all gone. On Dreyblatt’s the text is electronic, speeding and drifting past, constantly rearranging and re-emphasising itself. Unfortunately, it’s the one thing in the show which isn’t well described or explained.

There is also a gorgeous Grayson Perry pot — his wife is, of course, an analytically inclined therapist. There is a ‘Cabinet of wish fulfilment’ — votives and pieces of tattooed skin from the Science Museum’s own collection. (You can imagine the justifying explanation by the curator who collected them, can’t you. Come on, he or she would have said, there’s bound to be a show someday when we’ll need a few ancient small carved penises and hands. Trust me, there will.)

What’s most intriguing about the show, I guess, is its concreteness. Psychoanalysis is the most cerebral — or, perhaps, most mental — of disciplines. It’s about words — silences and gesture, too, but mostly words. This show gives it, I suppose, body.

And, having spent an intrigued and distracted hour at the show, I wandered up towards Hyde Park for the next of the day’s distractions.

But that’ll have to wait for the next posting. Tomorrow. Probably.

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