whitehot | November 2008, Oliver Clegg: Nights Move at the Freud Museum
The Freud Museum
Through November 23, 2008
Artist Oliver Clegg is used to exhibiting in fertile environments outside of the conventional gallery space: rising star Clegg exhibited in Charles Dickens’ house two years ago, then in a Georgian house in Soho, and now at the Freud Museum in North London, following in the footsteps of artists already fully established in the art world firmament such as Noble & Webster, Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas and Ellen Gallagher.
Clegg was approached by Curator James Putnam to come up with an idea for an exhibition that would fit into the historic house and museum inhabited by the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and his family after they escaped from the Nazi invasion of Vienna in 1938. As it is the centenary of Freud’s text ‘Creative writers and the daydream’ this provided an ideal starting point, and the text’s central theme of play runs through the exhibition, which subtly infiltrates Freud’s study and dining room on the ground floor, creeping up the stairs into Anna Freud’s former bedroom and into Freud’s bedroom where Freud plays himself at chess. In this intriguing exhibition Clegg examines Freud’s notion of adults losing their ability to play. Clegg described to me his approach to creating an exhibition in such a symbolically loaded environment:
Making work for the Freud museum, or in fact, any museum that is not specifically an environment for exhibiting contemporary art is going to involve a distinctly different approach to making work for the context of a gallery. Here you are not only dealing with the fact that it is a museum and people may not necessarily be visiting the house to look at contemporary art but also in this context it is specifically a museum dedicated to the life and work of Sigmund Freud. The development of ideas for the exhibition is therefore carefully discussed at every stage between the artist and the institution so that the artist is aware of these issues. As opposed to feeling daunted by the prospect of presenting work in Freud's house a situation develops where you become at the same time both respectful and inspired by the given environment. And yes of course with Freud there is going to be a certain anxiety - not only for his contribution to the progression of psychoanalysis but also his respect earned amongst such pivotal art movements as Dadaism and Surrealism in the first half of the twentieth century.
In Freud’s study a giant light bulb hovers above Freud’s desk, fading and glowing continuously. Clegg engages with the museum environment yet respects it at the same time, energising a static space whilst subtly infiltrating it to the extent that the light bulb will become a semi-permanent installation in the museum. The light bulb appears to float in mid-air above the ghost of Freud, like the ethereal light replacing the head in Magritte’s O Principio do Prazer.. Indeed Clegg cites the Surrealist notion of the harmony of disharmonious elements as an influence on this piece. When I asked Clegg how he reacted to this environment his answer was revealing:
I thought it would be more interesting to try and make subtle accents within the space that would enhance, rather than compete with, the already fertile and rich environment. Working in a museum such as the Freud museum is always going to be very different to working in the context of a gallery because you are working not only with the architectural givens of the space but also a wider range of more complex and personal givens.
The title of the exhibition Nights Move is taken from ‘Studies on Hysteria’ (1893) in which Freud compares the moves of the Knight on a chessboard to the erratic nature of the mind during psychoanalysis. However Freud didn’t play chess, he played Tarok, hence the presence of Clegg’s House of Cards on the other side of Freud’s study. House of Cards is a display cabinet constructed by the artist in the style of other cabinets already in the room, containing a pyramid of antique Tarok cards, the fragility of the stack a metaphor for the fragility of Freud who was forced to flee to this house in London because of his religion, and spent his final year in this house before his death in September 1939.
‘I was thinking of the kinetic energy of a static object’ said Clegg.
The cards lend activity to the room with a sense that they could tumble at any minute, whilst alluding to Heinrich Heine’s prophetic 1821 play on the burning of religious texts during the Spanish Inquisition: ‘Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings’. Heine was a favourite writer of Freud’s, and his text predicted the burning of the books by the Nazis over a century later. The energising presence of the Light Bulb and House of cards provide a subtle intervention in a static space. The Light Bulb tempts the visitor behind the red rope, which separates the public from the inner sanctum of Freud’s study.
In what was Freud’s former dining room is a rather more obvious homage to Freud in the shape of a school desk and chair with the words ID, Ego and Superego etched into the wood by the artist. Yet the etching and the use of engraving on the desk reveal Clegg to be a true Artisan, reviving traditional artistic processes with this installation. On the walls hang exquisite etchings of Tarok cards - a favourite game of Freud’s, on top of pages removed from a book of Heine’s writings. Painstaking attention to detail is evident here in the use of piano keys carefully engraved by Clegg to provide labels.
The school desk leads us logically to a series of paintings on board which hang on the stairs leading up to the room of Anna Freud, the psychoanalyst daughter of Sigmund. Drawing boards salvaged from City & Guilds where Clegg studied, with marks and remnants of paint from other artists, form the background for these paintings. Each painting features a lone childhood toy such as a Golliwog, Rupert the Bear and a Russian Doll. These anachronistic toys hark back to a bygone era and are further evidence of Clegg’s obsession with Victoriana. The depictions of children’s toys are a further exploration of the theme of play running through the exhibition, and Freud’s notion of adults losing their ability to play as described in ‘Creative Writers & the daydream’. These eerie paintings of lifeless toys set against a desolate background have a Surreal de Chirico-esque quality.
Again Clegg uses Ivory piano keys for labels, with titles hand engraved. This use of non-digital methods continues in Anna Freud’s room where we see further proof of Clegg’s craftsmanship and interest in Victoriana with a series of embroideries overlaid on antique 19th century pillowcases and children’s’ tapestries. Clegg’s attention to detail here is meticulous, as it is throughout the exhibition, and his delicate embroidery of flowers is reminiscent of Michael Landy’s etchings of weeds titled Nourishment. The choice of flowers embroidered by Clegg is symbolic as the Opium flower; passionflower, peony and buttercup all possess the power to induce sleep and were often used as tools during psychoanalysis.
Another subtle intervention in the historical space is the use of a radio, which plays Radio 4 continuously, breathing life into the room, with unfinished embroidery left on Anna Freud’s desk giving the impression that Anna has recently abandoned her embroidery and left the room. Anna was a keen weaver and often practiced her hobby during psychoanalysis sessions with her patients.
The pièce de resistance of the exhibition can be found in Freud’s former bedroom in the form of a captivating chess set with pieces fabricated using lasers to replicate a selection of antiquities from Freud’s desk. A copy of Freud’s anthropomorphic chair faces an empty, blacked out room, illuminated dramatically with a sole light source, which emphasises the idea of Freud playing a game of chess against himself, engrossed in an internal dialogue. Such dramatic use of light creates a Caravaggiesque effect and draws the viewer into the game.
The use of laser technology to recreate key figures from Freud’s desk brings the exhibition full circle, providing a clear dynamic between past and present, and traditional and digital methods of artistic production. This dynamic fits well in Freud’s bedroom, for Freud himself was a dichotomy with his passion for ancient religions and civilizations, contrasting with his desire for progress demonstrated by his invention of psychoanalysis.
It is clear that Clegg has a respect for both history and progress, demonstrated beautifully in this exhibition,which showcases his ability to be both conceptual and traditional. This tension in Clegg’s work is intriguing and captivating, and it will be interesting to watch what he does next.
The exhibition was produced in association with RS&A and Clegg’s chess set is the latest addition to their series by artists including Maurizio Cattelan, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy and Rachel Whiteread. The chess set will travel to Reykjavik in January 2009 to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition titled 32 with the RS&A chess sets, as well as sets by other artists such as Duchamp and Ernst.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief