Can we use the talking cure to solve society’s ‘problem’ with women?
Natalya Hughes’s The Interior invites audiences into an exaggerated consultation room playfully furnished for psychoanalysis. The myriad motifs and details in The Interior are drawn from Sigmund Freud’s life and work. In her practice Natalya Hughes adopts a repeating methodology of mining the images, objects, and ideas of male modernists as her reference material (previous bodies of work engage de Kooning and Kirchner), to gain insight into their motivations and legacies.
Freud as the father of psychoanalysis is particularly ripe for this treatment, what might his works and surroundings unintentionally reveal about him? Hughes is especially interested in the construction of woman in psychoanalysis, as this was something that challenged Freud during his career; “Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity”[i].
Freud reckoned with women as a dark continent, an unknowable interior, a confusing terrain — a notion that persists if we look to recent world events. In The Interior Hughes offers us a space to challenge our understanding of ‘woman’ and to use the principles and methods of psychoanalysis to confront the unconscious biases we hold; the assumptions that shape our mode of being in the world, and ultimately perpetuate the ‘problem’ of women in society.
We invite you to slip off your shoes, lie on the couches, and talk.
Weaving throughout The Interior are repeating images that Hughes has drawn from the case studies that Freud made of his patients during his development of psychoanalysis as a treatment. What we see in the motifs on the fabrics and floor coverings designed by Hughes, are the key images that appeared in the symptoms of these individuals, and the dreams that they recalled during analysis sessions.
In Freudian psychoanalysis dreams and their content offer keys to our unconsciousness and expose our ‘inner selves’ – they capture our desires, repressions, and conflicts. The fragments of a dream that are recalled by the patient is the ‘manifest content’. The meanings ascribed to this content is arrived at via interpretation with the analyst and is termed the ‘latent content’. Freud published the details of his patient’s therapy in the early twentieth century as case studies under pseudonyms. Freud used their experiences as an index for the broader human psyche, providing the raw data for his developing theories.
Anna O is a case first discussed by Freud and Josef Breuer in Studies on Hysteria (1895). Anna O became ill while nursing her ailing father, with symptoms manifesting as involuntary eye movements, hydrophobia, paralysis, lethargy, and language difficulties. She also experienced hallucinations such as skeletons and black snakes. She revealed these in her consultations with Breuer, who would come to emphasise her talking out of past traumas and registering their unconscious ideas as the way to recovery. This process became the blueprint for the ‘talking cure’.
An image of hypnosis appears on one of Hughes’s rugs taken from Didi Huberman’s ‘Invention of Hysteria’. Hypnosis was used by Freud as a means of gaining access to the unconscious, in time he replaced this method with free association.
The repeated images of rats are drawn from Freud’s Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (1909). His patient is nicknamed ‘the rat man’ for his nightmarish preoccupations with rats. He is the first patient that Freud claims to have ‘cured’ through psychoanalysis. The design of Hughes’s rat rug also references the Smyrna rug that Freud draped across his consulting couch, he had received it as an engagement present from his brother-in-law. The geometric design of this famous textile forms the base of many of the patterns in The Interior – the couch upholstery, the Baubo rug, the wall banner.
The wolf man case study forms the focus of another of Hughes’s rugs. Its image is drawn from a haunting childhood dream of Segei Pankejeff, who the night before his fourth birthday dreamt that he was lying in bed when all of a sudden the window swung open. Peering out, he saw six or seven white wolves sitting in the tree outside his bedroom, their eyes fixed on him. Terrified by their gaze, he woke up screaming.
Dora was a patient diagnosed with hysteria by Freud in 1900, one of the key dreams Freud interprets in making his assessment of Dora is the dream of a burning house: “a house was on fire. My father was standing beside my bed and woke me up. I dressed quickly. Mother wanted to stop and save her jewel-case; but Father said: 'I refuse to let myself and my two children be burnt for the sake of your jewel-case.' We hurried downstairs, and as soon as I was outside I woke up.”[ii]
Freud’s collection of antiquities numbered nearly three-thousand, and his consulting room was filled with vases and figurines from the ancient world. He was interested in mythology and would often acquire multiple renderings of the same fabled figures. He saw archaeology as a metaphor for exploring the layers of the mind, and the stories of mythology often provided shared narratives he could use to illustrate his theories. The Interior recreates some of these objects:
In mythology Eros is the Greek god of love, passion, and desire. In Freud’s work Eros represents the ‘life drive’, the human imperative to for basic survival, pleasure, and reproduction. Hughes has feminised Eros—her more fecund and less-binary image becomes more animated and full of life.
The Sphinx featured repeatedly in Freud’s collection, in sculpture and painting. In the Greek tradition she has the head and torso of a woman, haunches of a lion, and wings of a bird. The Sphinx lived preying on the youth of Thebes, devouring all who failed to solve her riddle… until she encounters Oedipus. The Sphinx has been read as a destructive phallic mother, but also as the enigmatic, inscrutable figure of woman (and woman’s sexuality in particular). The moment where Oedipus masters the riddle, her powers are blunted by being ‘solved’ or ‘cured’.
The Falcon Headed Figure in exhibition is a replica of a19th century forgery, and not a genuine Egyptian antiquity. It bears comparison to the vulture headed mother-goddess Mut.
Demeter is a Greek goddess representing birth, harvest, agriculture, and abundance. She was also the mother of Persephone, who was abducted to the Underworld, but would return to earth and her mother each spring — bringing renewal. The story of Persephone is representative of the death drive for Freud. In titling her object, Hughes complicates this ‘mother story’ and makes a naughty joke in the process.
In A Mythological Parallel to a Visual Obsession (1916) Freud speaks records the case of a man who sees a face in the place of his father’s genitals. Baubo features in the story of Demeter, when Demeter is mourning the loss of her daughter to the Underworld. To distract her from her grief, Baubo lifts her skirts to reveal her sex organs, but in place of her genitals is a smiling face. This moment of levity releases Demeter from her mourning.
The Interior like its historical protype, creates a snug and inviting space designed to comfort and to connect you to your inner-most thoughts. In her excellent essay Freud’s Couch: A Case History, Maria Warner relays the set-up of the analyst’s London office at the end of his life; “Freud sat behind the head of the couch when listening to his patients talk. …the analysand would lie stretched out under the celebrated print of Charcot displaying a female hysteric to his class in the Hospital of La Salpetrière in Paris”[iii].
Hughes has used images of hysteria to construct the figures in the mural. These forms reference the postures and convulsions captured on film as part of diagnostic process, although her reference is Italian physician Gaetano Rummo’s images not Charcot’s. Hughes’ therapeutic couches take the form of breasts and feminine bodies; which simultaneously soothe and unsettle us, depending on which couch configuration we choose to recline into.
Throughout The Interior we see the myriad ways in which the idea of ‘woman’ is constructed — mother, goddess, hysteric, lover, analysand. Maria Warner further notes Freud’s awareness “…of the relations between the structures of the unconscious and the patterning and weave of the rug”[iv]. He knew the potency of objects, images, and their facility to communicate and encode meaning in combination.
Psychoanalysis as a therapy aims to confront present symptoms through the resolution of past traumas. Through The Interior Hughes addresses the idea of woman and asks if we can use the ‘talking cure’ to put the pieces back together in a new, more interesting, and perhaps liberated way.
[i] Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, in The Standard Edition (vol. 22), 113.
[ii] Malcolm Macmillan, Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc, 1997, MIT Press, pg. 251-252
[iii] Maria Warner, Freud’s Couch: A Case History, Raritan (vol. 31 (2)), pg. 153
[iv] Ibid. pg. 155