Texts: Four writers respond to Dig

In a series of texts written before, during and after the installation, four writers respond to the literary, psychological and whimsical notions of art and artefacts raised by Dig.

Photograph: Marcus Leith

Chris Turner, Sex and the Eternal City

On 10 February 1936, the Paramount opened on Grafton Way, just off the Tottenham Court Road. An Art Deco palace by Frank Verity and his son-in-law Sam Beverley, a duo who built over 25 British cinemas, it was one of the largest in London’s West End. It had over 2,500 seats. In 1958, in an effort to compete with television, the theatre became a showcase for the new Cinemiracle process. Films were shown on a concave screen so wide that it required three projectors. Viewers were totally enveloped by the action; it was sold as the 3D experience for which you didn’t need special glasses.

However, the only film made using this technique was Windjammer, a documentary about the Atlantic crossing of a four-masted Norwegian sailing ship.The cinema lobby was transformed to resemble a boat for the six-month run: visitors had to enter the theatre by walking up a gangplank, their tickets torn by ushers dressed as naval captains. The start of each performance began with the ringing of a ship’s bell. Even this nautical showmanship failed to save the cinema. Renamed the Odeon in the 40s after a change of ownership, it was demolished in 1960.

The site became a temporary car park, a weedy wasteland awaiting annexation by University College Hospital next door. Under a storage area for medical waste, inspired by Sigmund Freud's reliquaries, artist Daniel Silver has fabricated an evocative archaeological site with pottery armies of primitive figures and trestle tables of clay-covered fragments. Below is a flooded catacomb with gods on pedestals, their eroded heads a mix of Darwin and Socrates. To the keen observer, even half a century later there are also vestigial traces of the grand picture palace: in the car park’s sloping floor, where the auditorium once stood; in the remains of the proscenium arch and the plasterwork of the orchestra; and the bright green terrazzo floor of the former entrance hall.

In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), an essay in which Freud sought to explain the “oceanic feeling” of limitlessness, he makes an analogy between the mind and the history of Rome, the Eternal City. Our memories are stratified in layers, he wrote, which coexist with the present in a palimpsest, despite our attempts at repression, much as “the remains of ancient Rome are found dovetailed into the jumble of a great metropolis”. Psychoanalysis was akin to archaeology, involving the excavation of the past and the reconstruction of a narrative from the exposed shards.

In 1907, on one of his annual trips to Rome, Freud saw his first film. It was an evening screening in Piazza Colonna, a square dominated by the Column of Marcus Aurelius. A screen was erected on a rooftop, and magic lantern slides and movies projected to the accompaniment of a live band. The event was sponsored by a stomach medicine called Fermentine, for which numerous advertisements were shown: “to beguile the public,” Freud wrote in a letter home, “these are interspersed with pictures of landscapes, Negroes of the Congo, glacier ascents and so on… and short cinematographic performances, for the sake of which the old children (included your father) suffered quietly the advertisements”.

Freud could never really stomach the cinema. In 1923, Samuel Goldwyn offered him $100,000 to serve as a consultant on a film about Anthony and Cleopatra as “the foremost expert on love”. He refused without hesitation. A few years later, when the director G.W. Pabst collaborated with the Berlin analysts Hanns Sachs and Karl Abraham on Secrets of a Soul, a story intended to showcase Freud’s techniques, Freud objected strongly. "I do not consider it possible to represent our abstractions graphically in any respectable manner,” he decreed.

Freud visited Rome primarily to buy antiquities, the collection of which he described as his “addiction”. His psychoanalytic study was an Aladdin’s cave of archaeological finds, and his desk swarmed with antique statuettes and other mythological figurines, protective talismans through which visitors looked at him as though through a confessional screen. As I contemplated the fate of the Odeon, transformed into a landlocked ark in its final days, I remembered a description by one of Freud’s patients, the modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). She portrayed Freud in his office as resembling an “old man of the sea” and described his precious objects as treasures “salvaged from the sea-depth”.

4 October 2013

Christopher Turner is the editor of Icon and an editor of Cabinet. He also writes for the London Review of Books and the Guardian, and is the author of Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America.

Photograph: Marcus Leith

Sharon Kivland, A London Fantasy

It was Friday and I had been in Senate House Library all morning, embedded or inscribed into the Palaeography and Manuscripts Room, where one is obliged to think about reading and deciphering, about dates and origins as much as style and customs. For the palaeographer, philological knowledge of what is written when, where, and how enables the detection of forged documents, the identification of what is authentic, of its time, in its time. I had stood for a while in the area devoted to books about books, looking up and across from one gallery to the other in a perfectly square room whose antique furnishings belied the view into a more modern, sparsely furnished room beyond.

I walked down to the London Review bookshop, thinking about the image of books compared with the reading of them, and about an installation by Daniel Silver’s work that I had yet to see, imagining what I would see as though I knew already what I would experience, a stupid thought. On the corner – I think, of Bury Street – there is a shop selling antiquities. I paused to take a hasty photograph, which seemed to include my own reflection. While walking I was thinking of other walks: pursuing an archaeological metaphor, one might say, deploying excavation, reconstruction, and decipherment (for one buries what one wishes to forget). There is one walk that I might devise, starting at Victoria Station, where Freud arrived on 6 June 1938, then travelling, as he remarked, under the protection of Athene, and following a route that imagines the city as a ‘psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away’, before eventually arriving at the Freud Museum in Maresfield Gardens, which contains both his remarkable collection of antiquities and his library. And there is the other walk I had made all summer––in writing, that is––following Freud’s analysis of Wilhelm Jensen’s novella Gradiva. Therein Freud examines the mental processes of the characters, through application of the psychoanalytic method, as though it was a case history. Sometimes he seems to forget they are fictitious, even as he draws the reader's attention to this.

Gradiva is the story of a young archeologist who buries his desires, but of course what is repressed always returns and one night he dreams of Pompeii; it is the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, and he sees his Gradiva there, the dream image of a woman depicted in a plaster-cast bas-relief, with a particular gait that fascinates him, for which he searches in the streets. He is possessed by her ‘lente festinans’. The woman in his dream lies down as if to sleep, stretched along a broad step. She dies (it is a moment for which Jacques Derrida says all historians wish: to witness the coincidence of the event with the archiving of that event). She is a like a beautiful statue and a veil of ashes covers her face and soon buries her. In 1907, Freud published his essay on Gradiva and delusions and dreams. It is also a ghost story, unstable and distorted, its happy ending uncertain even when resolved.

In 1907 Freud wrote a postcard, dated 24 September, from Rome to his wife, Martha. He had received a card from Martha, in which she expressed her pleasure at his gift of a small cabinet, and he advised that a small mirror frame should also be arriving soon. He invited her to think of his joy in encountering––or re-encountering––after a long solitude, a beloved face. It was, however, as he remarked, a rather one-sided recognition, for the face to which he was referring was that of the bas-relief of the Gradiva, a figure stepping lightly, high up on a wall in the Vatican. I continued walking, past the British Museum, taking the small back streets up to Grafton Way, to the site of a former cinema, an empty carved-out ground. I thought of the film of Gradiva by Raymonde Carasco, a short work of steps and rhythm and stone, shot by Bruno Nuytten.

At Dig I was surprised to encounter a familiar beloved face, a figure standing alone to the [middle] left of the photograph above, and whose little original I think I have held in my hand. He (can one say he?) was taken out of the case in which he is housed in the Freud Museum, and tenderly passed to me. Perhaps it was simply someone like him, but visual memory-traces are the most difficult to disavow and the facts of memory tend to emerge rather slowly. I was delighted, despite or perhaps because of the strangeness of the meeting and the uncertainty of the recognition, by the sense of life in the face of death.

26 September 2013

Sharon Kivland is an artist and writer. In a series of books and related works she has followed Sigmund Freud on holiday. Freud on Holiday volume IV. A Cavernous Defile. Part I is published in autumn 2013 by Cube Art Editions, Athens.

Photograph: Marcus Leith

Deborah Friedell, In Bloomsbury

On the streets that lead out from the great museum, you can buy a bust of the Marathon Youth and the head of Hygieia. Some of them look a little like marble or are painted to look a little like bronze. There are oil lamps and tripods that were made in Greece, but recently, deliberately cracked and pasted back together, oxidized and pitted. One of the shops claims that its busts, bowls, coins and spearheads are as old as they pretend to be. Even if the dates weren’t too precise (‘618 AD’ ‘305 BC’), the prices would give them away: high for copies, but too cheap to be the real thing. How did they come by so much early porcelain? ‘They were recovered from a shipwreck, madam’: a nine-masted junk found off the coast of Indonesia after five hundred years. Such things do happen.

In The Golden Bowl, a woman tells her friend that in Bloomsbury there are ‘such "funny little fascinating” places and even sometimes such unexpected finds’. The woman is thinking of the shop in which -- with her lover, who happens to be her friend’s husband -- she nearly bought a gilded crystal bowl. She had suspected that the bowl might have a crack, but she couldn’t detect any, and the dealer, a ‘swindling Jew’, had tried to persuade her that no fault would ever be discovered. ‘If it's something you can't find out, isn't it as good as if it were nothing?’ If you never know for sure that your terra-cotta horse -- the size of a Mastiff, with intelligent eyes, which will stand in your hallway until your son breaks it and he cries -- isn’t actually four hundred years old, have you been harmed? If you don’t know that your husband and your friend have had an affair, is it as good as if they never did?

When Alexandre Dumas’s son discovered that the Corot he had purchased from Trouillebert was a fake, he shook the forger’s hand: it was an excellent painting.

When I was a student, I sometimes worked in an office in which the director’s secretary was a White Russian. Her friends were waiters and taxi-drivers, but she referred to them as princes. She told my friend, who told me, that she kept above her bed a portrait that her father had told her was a Michelangelo. She had never had it appraised: if it were real she couldn’t have afforded, once news got out, to keep it safe; and she didn’t want to give it up. She liked it as it was: probably fake, but possibly real, or just real enough.

12 September 2013

Deborah Friedell is an editor at The London Review of Books.

Photograph: Marcus Leith

Dr Martine Rouleau, Waiting for the aura

Casting is a singular process of multiplication. The reproduction of sculptural work is often associated with the anonymity of mass produced commodities, from garden gnomes to funerary monuments, but it exists alongside the physical trace of the artist and the vestige of an ‘original’ object or gesture. The very nature of the process, with its incidents and slippages, can also allow for the emergence of something unique within the variations. Doesn’t a lost or broken mould turn the resulting cast into an only copy? Doesn’t a slight variation in the casting process caused by a broken, modified or fragmented cast also generate in some ways an original? The casting process can neatly mediate the aura right out of the work but, if the meaning of what is an ‘original’ can itself be multiple, does this matter?

That is partly why, when I first walked into Daniel Silver’s Dig on a quiet rainy day, the experience was as uncanny as it was familiar.

His figures, grotesque for their human characteristics combined with departures from the human form, are scaled up and scaled down, multiplied, fragmented, a perfect spread of what can be achieved with casting when the artist embraces the process to the full extent of its potential beyond being a mere mode of reproduction. The very hands of the artist are imprinted into individual works as if faces and bodies had been punched and kneaded into shape. Yet for all the strangeness of this motley group, the overall effect evokes the universal human cornerstones of birth, fertility, parenthood, death. That experience of Dig, poised halfway between recognition and alienation, is not without parallels.

In the many collections available at UCL, the home of the Slade School of Fine Art where Daniel Silver studied sculpture, there are countless examples of ways in which a tension between ‘original’ sculptural work, reproductions, fragments and other versions has been revisited over the course of human history. The ancient Egyptians used models of plaster taken from the human body. The Romans, attracted by the idealized aesthetic of the Greek statues, reproduced them en masse.

John Flaxman’s work, part of UCL Art Museum’s collections, is influenced by this long history. More than anything else, the neo-classical sculptor's plaster work is representative of the ways in which the anonymity of mass reproduction can yield to a surprising version of the aura over time. The works are now inlaid in the rotunda of the Wilkins building in the main library of UCL but they used to be kept in Flaxman’s studio as samples of the monuments that could be produced for clients seeking to commission a tombstone or memorial. The works are clean, polished into harmonious lines that offer familiar compositions of charity, grief, parenthood and spiritual education. Over time, they have gone from being ignored and vandalised to valued and conserved. Their extreme familiarity is due to their presence in just about every cemetery in Britain, not to mention that Flaxman also applied his studied aesthetic to Wedgwood ceramics.

These plaster works that were thought of as commercial tools have been taken out of the studio and integrated into a shrine of sorts: a gallery of humanist iconography. The ravages, and the distance, of time have allowed for the work to be recognised as art in a process that could almost be the exact negative of Dig, whose questions are raised by the nature of the reproduction process and by the historicising of context.

For all their differences in aesthetic and intent, these two groups of work are inscribed upon a single continuum of tensions, one raised by the reproduction of works of art and the aesthetisization of human nature. Casting is indeed a singular process of multiplication.

26 September 2013

Dr Martine Rouleau is Learning and Access Officer at UCL Art Museum.