text > Contemporary Romantic Speculations on Janet Malcolm’s Collages

For a long period before the advance of Enlightened modernity, artists directed their gazes at a variety of objects, some visible but many more invisible – things that are not instantly accessible to the eyes. They were, in other words, things unreal, mystical, metaphysical, cosmological, things imagined. Sculptors sculpted and painters painted satyrs, pans, sirens, centaurs, angels, demons, unicorns and saints, representing for us imagined beings with whom the pre-modern mythological consciousness had populated the skies, the dark earthly and watery realms. With the advance of modernity, and the discovery, colonization, and exploitation of all those dark and unknown places, the mythical and mystical beings could only flee from their earthly, watery and ethereal worlds. The sputniks and the rockets have frightened away the angels; piles of cosmic garbage have polluted the ether beyond the clouds where these divine beings used to abide; the cherubim, seraphim and angels have been replaced by robots, computers and satellites whom we choose instead to obey. Today they are our guardian angels and protectors, who literally and figuratively direct our daily lives through geographical positioning systems and through the global communications and media that have invaded our minds and bodies. The same thing happened beneath the clouds. What artist would dare today to try and convince us of the existence of mermaids, sirens or harpies when manned and unmanned submarines and drones seek and destroy every last inch of the unknown, when the living creatures that once caused us to believe in centaurs and unicorns have been tracked and hunted down, and their tusks and skin have been turned into jewelry, belts and bags to carry our vanity, pride, and envy—sins which were once within their authority? Where do artists turn then to seek the nature of our humanity, to seek the divine when the new religion in town proves again and again that there is no red line when it comes to objective truth, reality or universal morality?

The Lori Bookstein Gallery has put on display collages made by the American writer and journalist Janet Malcom. The works consist of paper scraps, photographs, graphs, and charts woven together with the notes of an European psychoanalyst unearthed by Malcolm. I walk around, studying these works and picking from each one an excerpt, a phrase, a range of numbers. I do realize that I am committing a great sin here, for collages are not meant to be read but only to be looked at. But we live in a sinful world.

El Paso, Tex…….45.0, 63.4, 81.1, 63.5, 48.1…We cannot look long at the sun in the clear light…3010, 2590, 1980, 1570, 880, 750, 650, 500…Felt very much relieved after psychotherapeutic session because she feels that now, if anything happens, the doctor takes the responsibility…The Sun Hidden Behind the Moon…Dan Flavin…Uman Sov. Un. Eu 39,221 D3….this is impossible in organic anesthesia, since the sternum vibrates as a whole….Maple Syrup Disease… Guam 69.0…Satellites…Hysterical anesthesia accurately bound by the midline… Carnegie Steel Company…Two variety of instrumental tables…0.055, 0.085, 85, 0.060, 0.092, 92, 0,089, 0.0137, 91, 0.086, 0.0133, 89, 0.128, 0.0197, 99.

What does all this bring to mind?

My unproven theory is that Malcolm’s collages are snapshots of the unconscious. They are pictures of that realm to which myth has retreated after its dislocation from the physical world. Ever since Science—and by science I mean the ideology of the Enlightenment with its belief in universal moral principles, progress, and pure reason—intruded into the divine realms, its mythical inhabitants began to wander, seeking new lodging. Constantly pursued by science, power and capital—the holy trinity of the Enlightenment—they found only one last resort (along with Disney Studios)—our psyche. But not all of it, or not its conscious part. They went to hide deep down in the unconscious. But having arrived at this new address they began to revolt and attempt to take power; they started to punish their landlords, constantly reminding us of their lost realms and how we turned them into obsolete, good-for-nothing symbols used only for entertainment and advertising. Once they had complete authority over human lives, but today they are used to sell soap and other hygienic supplies. This relocation of the gods and spirits into the most obscure parts of the modern psyche has led to pandemics of unhappiness and low spirits among those nations which have claimed to be the most advanced and enlightened on the planet.

The European Romantics were among the first to understand that the repression of mystery and divine spirituality would impoverish the modern world. They poured scorn on enlightened reason, accusing it of demystifying the world, of bringing before its tribunal of reason all those nymphs, mermaids and sylphs, dragging along with them the libertines, the gypsies and other bohemian vagabonds who dared to question the supremacy of empirical fact and of the socially engineered reality. It was the Romantics who asked in loud voices where the angels and spirits had been chased away to. Their questions were later answered, when Sigmund Freud discovered, or rather invented, a new realm called the “unconscious,” and when some early twentieth-century students of the mind argued that this was the domain where the repressed beings of the imagination had escaped from our increasingly disenchanted world. Carl Jung was perhaps the most persistent among them, insisting that this new domain, which was not individual but rather collective, harbored enduring mythical archetypes.

Malcolm shows us this place. She takes or rather constructs pictures of this realm, showing what the unconscious might look like. One can only wonder whether the mystical beings have been transformed into numbers, figures, indexes, operating tables and the voices of psychoanalysts and other medical personnel, or whether they are still in hiding behind the modern debris of positivism, empiricism and utilitarianism, just as they once hid behind the clouds.

But having said this, I must also add that these snapshots of the unconscious are starting to yellow, like old midcentury Polaroids. The material used to construct these collages is seemingly old-fashioned: weather charts, captions from magazines, charts of steel production, and of course what holds everything together: the notes of the émigré European psychoanalyst that the artist found and used to create portraits of a collective modern unconscious. This is also an unconscious that is treated with respect, just as the inventor of this realm, Dr. Freud, once advised us to do. In these collages there is the talking cure, there is the attempt to convince the angered displaced spirits to cease tormenting us, there are traces of psychoanalytic transference and of negotiations through which the analyst and the analysand seek a common ground on which they might tolerate both each other and the angels or demons within them.

These collages made me wonder what a more updated picture of the unconscious might look like, one which has been exposed to even more figures, links, ads, apps, and stats. I would like to see a contemporary portrait of the unconscious and how it responds to the glorious march of enlightened reason.

Science cruises around in its Mercedes-Benz, the emblem on its hood pointing towards earth, water and sky as conquered frontiers; it devotes its time and resources to convincing us that mystical beings never inhabited these conquered realms, for neither astronauts nor earthly or watery explorers ever brought home any empirical proof (only madness, of course). Accordingly, these beings must have been products of our ancestors’ frightened imagination, genetically passed to us. Enlightened reason then directed its attention towards the mind, chasing out those beings, frying them out with electroshock therapy, force-feeding them with Prozac and Abilify, hoping to flood them out with dopamine and serotonin or drag them one by one into the searchlight of reason and discipline them with behavioral therapy. What would a collage of a contemporary unconscious look like, today when psychoanalysis has become a luxury item for the rich, or in the best case a method of literary analysis; when enlightened reason tries to convince us that the root of our suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with dark psychic domains inhabited by runaway angels and demons, or with what Freud and Jung believed to be conflicts and puzzles entangled in Oedipal structures and the mythical archetypes of our historically evolving collective psyche; and when “half-crazy” left-leaning Marxists like Wilhelm Reich, who once found the cause of mental torment in sexual repression and orgiastic accumulations, have been silenced by mainstream science. Instead, enlightened contemporary reason (backed by corporate interests) is telling us that the cause of human suffering is the lack of certain necessary stuff in your brain, and that you could get all that stuff if you had more money. And if you had more money, obviously, you would be happy.


Octavian Esanu, Published in ArtExperience: NYC Winter 2012