Psychoanalysis, Art and the Occult: Cutting Up a New Conversation
Dr. Vanesa Rawlings Sinclair, a tall beauty in black with ivory skin and scarlet stained lips, unassumingly graces the worn-in wood floors of The Candid Arts Trust. Artwork which she meticulously curated punctuates the white walls of the industrial studio space where a public art opening is being held to kick off the weekend-long symposium “Psychoanalysis, Art and the Occult.” Dr. Sinclair was up all night carefully arranging the pieces with her co-organizer Carl Abrahmsson—a quiet man humbly observing the scene through the lens of a camera hung so comfortably around his neck it seems to be another limb. In a way, the gallery is an invocation of the cut, an idea developed famously by poets William S. Borroughs and Bryan Gyson, which Dr. Sinclair will address in depth tomorrow alongside Katlyn Foisey, her co-author of a project1See Chaos of the Third Mind: https://chaosofthethirdmind.com from which this conference was birthed. Along the gallery’s walls, each artist’s work seems to intervene in the space between those positioned alongside of it, altering the context of the gallery space and framing the podium from which the presenters will speak over these next three days.
Dr. Sinclair, a psychoanalyst in private practice and founding member of the free association for psychoanalysis Das Unbehagen, together with Carl Abrahmson, a freelance writer and lecturer, organized the symposium to stitch together the ongoing split between psychoanalysis and the occult—two ethical disciplines which raise specific questions and assert possible answers about what it means to be in the world. Hosting this pre-conference gallery opening was a way of lending art as the subject of the discussion as a representation of that which both systems take as its object: the human experience, the human mind.
With a glass of wine in hand, I scan the room. My eye lands on a cream surface, the work of Steingrimur Eyfjord, a conceptual artist based in Iceland. Writing inscribed upon it in red, some of it redacted by a heavy stroke of solid black paint, reads:
“Look at the numbers…and start counting in silence…Keep counting until you go to sleep. The day after you…will reach temporary state of psychosis.”
On the wall opposite this painting is the work of Roberto Migliussi, which suggest the inverse of Eyfjord’s work, that is, a return to meaning from madness. Across an orange surface, chaotically rendered black lines approaching a kind of hieroglyphic lettering repeat again, and again, as if attempting to create a kind of referential system.
Next to this, the work of Annete Rawlings—Dr. Sinclair’s mother, an accomplished artist in her own right—depicts a blue and green surface demarcated by a yellow line, suggesting the inextricable ideas of finitude and infinity.
In another, blocks of blue and lavender paint toned with heavy grey create the form of a seated woman from behind, outlined by the lines these blocked colors make when they meet on the page.
Dr. Vanessa Rawlings Sinclair’s cut-up art appears next in the series, like a semi-colon, an unconscious extension of, and intervention in her mother’s work. Against a white background, segments of text from her own academic and creative writing are positioned in a poetic sequence amidst spontaneous gestures of red, black, and beige paint. The lines are reminiscent of those in Annete Rawlings’ work but, rendered fluidly, evoke less the extreme edge of negative and positive space than they suggest a communicative gesture at this same edge.
Each piece seems to be created at the boundary of meaning and meaningless-ness, chaos and order. Some, like Sinclair’s or Eyfjord’s work explicitly invoke symbolic systems. Others evoke concepts inherent to the visual medium, raising the oppositional and inextricable ideas of negative and positive space, color and line, content and form. Together, the works of these artists raise a question about meaning and madness. These artists create from this edge, a line their work crosses, it seems, in order to define. The positioning of Dr. Sinclair’s work next to her mother’s situates this question within a psychoanalytic context. If Rawlings’ paintings represent two infinitudes divided by a line—the boundary between one color and another, one self and one other—Dr. Sinclair’s work represents the system of meaning which must emerge in this space between two bodies.
For Freud, this space is demarcated by the bodily drive, and by the repression of it, which invokes the division between self and other. For Lacan, a theorist who followed him, it is organized in language punctuated by grammar and syntax. For Jung, it is to be found in projections—in images. If Jung’s focus on the imago as the domain of subjectivity invites a discussion of the occult, the theoretical implications of mapping the mind at the level of both the body and language are perhaps helpful to consider when to traversing the space between these two disciplines, one embodied, the other ideational.
The historical exclusion of the occult, from psychoanalytically informed discourses, has its origins in the split between Freud and Jung. The cause and consequence of this split was addressed by two panelists, Dr. Steven Reisner, a clinical psychologist and activist currently running for President of the American Psychological Association, and Gary Lachman, a writer formerly of the band Blondie. While Lachman believes that Freud’s resistance to the occult stemmed from his personal neurotic fear of the dissolution of rational thought, Reisner argues that Freud’s hesitation was ethical and concerned the occult being incorporated into his theoretical system as a rejection of the death drive—a fear which, in Reisner’s estimation, was “practical and temporary.” As a creator of discourse, Freud was very concerned with the integrity of the system he was creating. Interestingly this discursive dimension is also that which lends an entrance point for this new discussion. These words from an audio clip played before the first panel took the stage echo:
“writers and artists, in that they work with the manipulation of symbols, are the closest thing to shamans you will find in modern culture.”
Peter Grey, a writer and co-founder of the occult publishing house Scarlet Imprint, offered another perspective, one from the other side of this conversation: the occult. For Grey, the root of the problem in psychoanalysis’ rejection of the occult is not Freud and Jung’s split regarding its legitimacy, but in each theorist’s failure to seriously take the body into account. Because the body is the thing that inquires, he argues, its nature must be taken seriously. He poetically explains the significance of the human form: “The human body is a gnomon, the shadow placing us in time and space. By reading the shadow we know both who and where we are in relation to the light.”2Read Peter Grey’s paper here: http://scarletimprint.com/2016/05/fly-the-light/ The idea of the shadow in relationship to the physical body is analogous to the idea of the unconscious mind in relationship to the conscious mind. If the unconscious is the repository of memory, repressed, the shadow is the negative of the body in which those experiences live and is evidenced.
Alkistis Dimech, a dancer and artist who, together with Grey, runs Scarlet Imprint, expanded upon this idea. Dimech insisted that while psychoanalytic theory once held an understanding of desire as corporal, the body became alienated in an over-emphasis on discourse which has since been treated as primal. Through her practice, Dimech “reaffirms the authority of the body,” a movement which represents a return to Freud by re-contextualizing his ideas within the body of his own work. For Dimech, who dances in the Butoh traditon, the body of flesh is the body of desire, much like for Freud, “the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego.” Although deeply informed by philosophy, Dimech’s ideas3Dimech’s writings can be found here: http://sabbaticdance.com/corpus/dynamics-of-the-occulted-body/ give primacy to her practice as a dancer and in so doing demonstrate a reverence for the creative process. This perspective was shared by those contributors speaking from their experience as creators. This perspective—one rooted in the body and the creative process which emerges from it—lent this conference an uncommon depth. For Dimech, the important question to ask when framing a psychoanalytic question in relationship to the occult is if language emerges from the body or is imposed upon it.
Val Denham, a multi-media artist and musician, expanded the context within which this question is asked. For Denham, much like Dimech, the creative process emerges from the body. And like Gray, Denham situates this body within a world. Importantly, this world exists in a universe which came out of the collapse of another universe—from its dark matter. The black hole out of which emerged the world as we know it is analogous to memory, to the repressed, as is Grey’s conception of the human being who belongs to this world. Against the backdrop of this portrait of a world, Denham proposed the principle which informs her creative process of “proclaiming the present time over.” To ‘proclaim the present time over’ means to give primacy to the reality of the present as something which we cannot grasp in any way other than retroactively. What follows is the idea that we are always dreaming—the idea that we are always remembering in an unconscious way.
The body positions us in relationship to darkness and light, space and time, life and death. Human subjectivity is that which emerges on these axes and requires symbolization to demarcate them. These symbolic systems, as Denham points out, relate always to the past; they emerge from embodied memory and orient us to our personal and cultural history. While the professional artists in the room offered insight into the process of creativity and its relationship to self-making, those practitioners speaking from a position rooted in occult traditions understood the importance of cultural context and history. These practitioners understood the function of initiation—that each of us is initiated in this life into an ancestral history; that we are born into the traditions that have been built to perpetuate this story; that we are burdened with continuing the narrative. This notion about our origins is the essential idea with which psychoanalysis grapples. Thought of in this way, psychoanalysis is nothing other than the meta-theorization of occult ideas.
Speaking from a perspective informed by formal clinical training as well as his initiation as a shaman in the Maori tribe of New Zealand, Dr. Ingo Lambrecht addressed the relation between psychoanalysis and shamanism. For Dr. Lambrecht, both intervene at the level of symbolic discourse regarding personal and cultural history to influence the unconscious organization of self-structure. Dr. Lambrecht expressed how the Maori people conceptualize health as an affiliation between the self and the ancestors. Illness, therefore, does not so much emerge from one’s being, but rather between oneself and one’s ancestors. “The ancestors”, he explained, “wake you up with symptoms”—an idea echoed by Khi Armond, Jesse Hathaway Diaz, and Demetrius Lacroix.
The impartation of the body—its desire, the lineage it is born to—through our ancestors complicates the question raised earlier about the direction of this relationship between the body and language. It does so by acknowledging that it’s not just one’s own body, corporal or otherwise, that mediates subjectivity, but the bodies of others, many others, the whole lot of our ancestral lineage. By addressing the esoteric—the shadow—as real, this notion of illness also makes the ethereal space between waking and sleep, past and present, seen and unseen, part of the question. Each representative from this diverse community offered a multiplicity of perspective so nuanced it would be impossible to provide a summary of them here. What I believe we each felt as we stepped out of the gallery space and onto the unusually sun-soaked London streets is an open-hearted desire for an on-going discussion. Just like it is the psychoanalyst’s job to listen to the story of how the analysand came to be who she is in the world, any discipline which takes the study of psychology seriously has an ethical responsibility to listen to the story of the earth—to the histories, beliefs, and practices, of her people and their cultures.
I think of Dr. Sinclair’s painting depicting overlapping and concentric circles, some in continuous, others in fragmented strokes of the brush. These delicate, but deliberate, smears of black and red paint frame cut-up fragments of text that read:
“as a fictional
don’t belong to one
We communicated very well.
Sorry to be absent so long.”
The three-day long symposium initiated a long absent dialogue that will continue through a series of events Dr. Sinclair will curate in conjunction with The Morbid Anatomy Museum. Join us. We have so much to discuss. A street-art installment on the corner of Torrens’ street, where the conference was held, is illuminated in my memory. It greeted us with these words as we left after the symposium had ended: “All You Need is Love.”
If you were unable to attend the symposium, you can visit it’s official page on Facebook.
The next event in the Psychoanalysis Art and the Occult lecture series hosted in conjunction with The Morbid Anatomy Museum will be “Event on the Dance of Occult and Unconscious in Freud,” held on October 6th in NY.