Art Reviews

REVIEW: An Internal Difficulty

REVIEW: An Internal Difficulty: Australian Artists at the Freud Museum London
Words by: Freya Hall


An Internal Difficulty, currently exhibiting at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in conjunction with the Perth International Arts Festival 2015, presents an intimate examination of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and controversial figures, Sigmund Freud.

The exhibition showcases works produced by seven Western Australian artists who undertook a residency at the Freud Museum London in 2013. The Museum is located within the townhouse that Freud and his family settled in after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Austria. During their residency the artists were given access to examine and handle many deeply personal items not on display, such as Freud’s psychoanalytical couch, and the radiographs of his skull that were taken when he had terminal cancer.

Accessing remnants of Freud’s corporeality allowed the artists to explore the many successes and failures that haunted the psychoanalyst throughout his lifetime with intimate precision. In this sense, the exhibition is permeated with acute biographical undertones. However, An Internal Difficulty is also laced with subjectivity and explores the artists’ attempts at reconciling their conflicting feelings of admiration for Freud, with their aversion towards his often contradictory practices.

The exhibition is housed on the second floor of the PICA building in the West End Gallery. The gallery’s wrought iron spiral staircase and hardwood floors are complemented in mystique by ominous velvet curtains that dissect the usually spacious interior into maze-like passageways. The entire exhibition is dimly lit, except for the artworks, which are under spotlight.

This manipulation of the gallery’s interior makes conscious reference to the décor of Freud’s personal study, and also heavily alludes to the feelings of claustrophobia, lunacy and nostalgia. Therefore, the curator, Andrew Nicholls, was successful in replicating what he described as a ‘difficult internal space: an incongruous, exotic world, secreted within a sedate London townhouse.’

Nicholls’ photographic works appear throughout the exhibition and focus upon Freud’s relationship with his male patients. He concentrates specific attention on the case of Sergei Pankejeff, a patient who is colloquially known as the ‘Wolf Man’. This name stems from a nightmare in which the patient dreamt that white wolves were sitting in a walnut tree watching him. Freud diagnosed Pankejeff with neurosis and theorised that this condition stemmed from an apparent Oedipus complex. Aligned with this narrative Nicholls’ works are accentuated with images of lupine sexuality and brazen homoeroticism.

I was also engrossed by the work of Tarryn Gill, specifically: Grubby Gods and Ego, Superego & Id. Unbeknown to many, Freud was an avid collector of antiquities. In fact, his study was crammed with more than 2,000 antique objects from Egypt, Rome, Greece, the Americas, and the Middle East.

In Grubby Gods, Gill remade idols found within Freud’s collection into hallucinogenic replicas with glowing eyes and demonically deformed bodies-possibly as an interpretation of how Freud’s often unstable patients may have perceived the objects. And in Ego, Superego & Id, Gill interrogates the anthropomorphic character that Freud assigned to his objects by photographing them in intimate headshot-style portraits.

The exhibition comes to a climactic conclusion in a small, dark, partitioned room, in the middle of which sits the sculpture of a man entitled Castration Portrait by Thea Costantino. Referential in design to the Louvre’s Sleeping Hermaphroditos, the sculpture interrogates Freud’s infamous musings on castration anxiety, penis envy, hysteria, and the uncanny.

There are also equally fascinating artworks on display by Susan Flavell, Travis Kelleher, Pilar Mata Dupont, and Nalda Searles.

Unrivalled by any recent Perth exhibition, An Internal Difficulty is refreshingly meticulous and aesthetically luxurious.  By drawing upon Freud’s psychoanalytical studies, personal collections, home furnishings, medical accoutrements, strained personal relationships, and historical context, this exhibition is successful in being as comprehensive as it is fascinating.

An Internal Difficulty is on display at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm until 15 April 2015.

Header caption: The artists in Freud’s study. Left to right: Thea Costantino, Nalda Searles, Susan Flavell, Tarryn Gill, Travis Kelleher, Pilar Mata Dupont and Andrew Nicholls. Photo by Pilar Mata Dupont , 2013.