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The looking glass

Forensic analysis of skin dust from Freud’s couch leaves much to be desired

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Trace fiber from Freud’s couch under crossed polars with Quartz wedge compensator (#1), 2015, unique jacquard woven tapestry, 2.9m x 2m. © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin

In the middle of a rose garden, on a leafy road in northwest London, nestles the Freud Museum – though the petals, in October, are tumbling. The house, at 20 Maresfield Gardens, is the proud bearer of two blue plaques that adorn its frontage like war-medals: one for Sigmund Freud, and one for his daughter, Anna. Both lived at the house until their deaths in 1939 and 1982, respectively.

Inside, Freud’s study has been preserved intact. Everything that he owned in Vienna – prior to fleeing Nazi persecution in 1938 – was carefully imported and reassembled so that he could continue his work unabated: his books, his archaeological artefacts, his leather chair that so curiously and uncannily resembles a human form – and, of course, his famous couch.

Freud’s couch. © Broomberg and Chanarin

For the next few weeks, however, that couch is covered by a blanket. “Every Piece of Dust on Freud’s Couch” is an installation in Freud’s study by artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Commissioned by the Freud Museum, it runs until the end of November.

At one end of the room, a carousel slide projector noisily rotates a series of monochrome slides. At the other end, a blanket covers Freud’s couch. The slides – highly magnified images of fibres – are the product of a forensic team’s investigation into the dust from the rug on Freud’s couch. The dust itself, a handout informs us, is largely keratin; in other words, skin. The blanket on the couch – which initially I had taken for something left there by accident – is actually a tapestry: the woven image of a highly-magnified fibre from that couch.

Freudian dust

This is not the first piece of art to be generated from Freudian dust. In 1996, Cornelia Parker created a piece called “Exhaled Blanket” – a slide projection of dust and fibres also collected from Freud’s couch. The academic in me cries out for a reference.

According to the artists, this “exercise in forensics aspires to the language of science and, like psychoanalysis, it attempts something contradictory; the objective study of subjectivity”. I’m not sure there’s anything contradictory about the aim stated, but it’s true that Freud’s great project was to legitimise psychoanalysis as a “science”. Viewed in this light, the attempt to frame the physical traces of Freud’s sitters within a forensic, scientific context, has validity.

Sigmund Freud, 1922.

But so many questions are left unasked.

We are told that the dust “may include traces” of some of Freud’s most famous cases. But of course we don’t know whether the dust thus magnified is actually that of, say, Dora or the Wolf Man, or belongs to someone or something else entirely. We are not told whether the forensic team was able to discover anything beyond being able to identify any given fibre as “cushion” or “feather”. And so the claim that the tapestry is “an abstracted portrait of one of its sitters” does not quite ring true. And although we are told that most of the dust on the couch is composed of skin, the magnified slide images are not skin: rather each slide is labelled: Cushion, Feather, Hair, Coat, Rug.

I could fairly be accused of pedantry for picking on such details. But if we are aspiring to the language of science, then detail is key. Minor inaccuracies, such as stating that Freud’s final years were spent in London, grate. In fact, Freud spent only 15 months in London, 12 of which were at the house in Maresfield Gardens where he died in September 1939, just weeks after the start of World War II.

This pedant will further admit to disliking the tired trend that insists artworks be accompanied by explanatory – yet inadequate (and inaccurate) – prose. But in the context of Freudian psychoanalysis, the misfit is even more pronounced.

Forensic art. © Broomberg and Chanarin

Searching for meaning

Psychoanalysis seeks for meaning beneath the surface. Bloomberg and Chanarin’s work overlays meaning clumsily on the surface, obscuring what lies beneath. This “blanketing” is made manifest – unconsciously, one must presume – by the gaudy tapestry overlaying the couch. I suppose one could make the argument that Freud himself, and certainly many of his followers, did precisely as the artists here have done: superimpose their own impenetrable and subjective meaning over their complex subjects like a dense and opaque blanket.

Alone in an upstairs room, the actual rug from Freud’s couch is still on display. Covered in dust, it somehow has the moribund air of a viewed corpse prior to a funeral. Perhaps more so knowing that the dust covering it is largely composed of human skin.

It’s impossible to know to whom those human fragments belonged, just as if they were specks of ash, cremations. To know that Freud’s life and death in this house came so swiftly on the heels of war, and in the context of Nazi persecution, adds a sobering dimension to the fragments of human skin on the couch. The shadow of the Holocaust looms large.

This was not perhaps the meaning the artists intended, but it was the one I took away with me, into that London street, amongst the dropping October rose petals; through memory, association, and a series of unconscious displacements.

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