Tim and Sue At the Freud Museum



How do you picture the unconscious? A bubbling cauldron filled with entrails? Or a minimal space, white and empty? My favourite is the definition by the analyst Edward Glover, who saw the unconscious as a cross between a butcher’s shop, a post-mortem room and a public lavatory under shellfire.


This is certainly a vision close to the hearts of Tim Noble and Sue Webster. Their new work ‘Scarlett’ is a dense, seething kinetic sculpture like a giant Mouse Trap game for adults. Body parts, electric wires, junk and human debris jostle in an aimless but unceasing frenzy. A baby drinks its own urine compulsively from a feeding bottle; a head is being cracked open in a vice; excrement exits then re-enters a doll’s anus; severed arms flay jerkily in endless repetitive agony.


We can find their sculpture in the Freud Museum, half way up the placid, tree-lined Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead. Entering the Museum hardly prepares one for the work. Its atmosphere is calm and still, quiet and almost dusty. One feels a bit like a trespasser entering some hallowed space.


Finding the sculpture upstairs in the Anna Freud room is breathtaking. Imagine a toy railway set complete with passengers that had been pulverised in a crash. So much movement, so much to see, so graphic; impossible to take in all at once and so different from the surrounding displays. But Tim and Sue’s sculpture is not incongruous. In fact, it couldn’t be in a better place. It shows what psychoanalysis all about: the sexuality and violence that Freud discovered at the core of human life.


Reminding us of these unpalatable facts is all the more important today when psychoanalysis is being progressively sanitised. The government hope to regulate the talking therapies in 2008 and there is less and less space in our culture to develop Freud’s ideas. No one wants to know that children have a sexuality just as perverse as that of adults. In their search for respectability, some analysts have tried to cleanse psychoanalysis not just of sex and violence but even the unconscious itself.


In a recent book, two well-known analysts define the self  as “a rational agent with predictable desires and beliefs who will act to further his goals in the light of these beliefs”. This extraordinary definition could be lifted straight out of an economics textbook. There’s no distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, no idea that we might enjoy harming ourselves and others, no notion of self-sabotage.


Freud had shown how we are divided subjects. We might imagine ourselves as autonomous beings in charge of our destinies, but we are in some ways more like puppets, playing out scripts we have no conscious knowledge of. Our unconscious drives strive ceaselessly for a satisfaction quite alien to our conscious wishes. They continue blindly in the same self-destructive loops, like the repetitive circuits of Tim and Sue’s sculpture.


Many talking therapies today are trying to create a distance from psychoanalytic ideas. They dispense with the unpalatable aspects of psychoanalysis, and this is where art is so important. The YBA generation, from which Tim and Sue issue, show us how sexuality and violence are the forces which shape our everyday reality. They avoid categorically the biological determinism and false ideas of ‘Science’ embraced by many psychologists and even contemporary writers. They show us a world of fragmentation, anxiety and horror steeped in sexuality.


This is not sexuality in the usual sense of the word. Like Freud, these artists realise that sexuality isn’t just about fucking. It’s about the strange mixtures of pleasure and pain that can fix on any part of the body. Sexuality for them involves a violence which can literally tear the body apart. How different from the homely view of caring sensitivity that some therapies see as normal, mature sexuality.


Tim and Sue’s show should be essential viewing for anyone in danger of forgetting the darker sides of human life. Curator James Putnam had been working with the artists when he noticed the skeleton of what would become ‘Scarlett’ on their worktop. This strange cycle of destruction and asocial pleasure struck him immediately. The sculpture was developed over the next few months, and Putnam knew it belonged in the part of the Museum dedicated to one of the founders of child analysis, Anna Freud. The Museum’s director Michael Molnar was enthusiastic, and so the work was installed.


Putnam has created a continuing dialogue with contemporary art through several shows at the Museum. After working with Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas and Tim and Sue, his next project will be with Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka. Instead of whitewashing the disturbing realities that Freud brought to light. each artist articulates them in their own way. Tim and Sue’s sculpture is so perfect for the Museum they should make it a permanent feature.