When Salvador Dalí visited Sigmund Freud in London in 1938, he showed the father of psychoanalysis his Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It is a painting about reflection. In the Greek myth of Narcissus, as told in Ovid’s Latin poem the Metamorphoses, beautiful, young Narcissus falls in love with his own image, and simply can’t stop gazing at his reflection in a pool of water. Dalí plays optical tricks to multiply the obsessive self-regard of Narcissus, as a head becomes an egg, becomes a stone, in a world of infinite reflection.
Mark Wallinger has transformed Freud’s study into a mirror-world that echoes the one Dalí painted. A crystal-clear mirrored ceiling turns reality upside down. It would be a dreamlike effect anywhere. But in the London home where the Viennese doctor who wrote The Interpretation of Dreams spent his last years after fleeing the Nazis, it becomes a meta-surrealist meditation on psychoanalysis and art.
The objects that hang up there as you crane your head at this inverted world are relics of tremendous import. Freud’s collection of ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese artefacts symbolise mythologies that for him illuminated the nature of the psyche. Now they are all doubled, multiplied, suspended, along with Freud’s ergonomically designed chair, his desk and, of course, the couch where his patients lay to unburden themselves.
If you reclined on that couch and stared into the ceiling’s glass pool, what would you see? Like Narcissus, you would see yourself. Wallinger’s mirror appears to enlarge space, to expand the room, but it also shows you your own self all over again. The effect is perversely claustrophobic, because it represents psychoanalysis as a nightmarish process of diving into the lonely pool of yourself.
This narcissistic despair is multiplied by Wallinger’s colossal black sculpture, like a column or a spindle, of the capital letter I, which is in Freud’s garden as a permanent work. You get a perfect view of it from Freud’s study. The effect of the black I, seen at the end of a mirrored perspective, is slightly chilling, a little funny and very monumental.
This installation, which marks the 30th anniversary of the Freud Museum, succeeds in making an ordinary house monumental. It is like an expression of astonishment. Just think: here on this quiet street in north London, one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world set up his study! The books lining its walls, including the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann, are those Freud read. The wear and tear on the leather upholstery of his chair was made by his back.
Wallinger’s installation heroically reflects Freud’s immense impact on modern culture. The Freud Museum, he reminds us, contains an extraordinary history. As for the more precise meanings of his intervention, I’m not so sure. That narcissistic I is repeated in other works scattered through the house: a big black I like the sentinel that inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Japanese landscape painting that belonged to Freud and is hung on its side to make – you guessed it – an I.
Like Freud’s follower Jacques Lacan, Wallinger dwells on the moment we recognise our mirror image, the moment a child becomes I. As a mordant comment on self-portraiture and selfhood, however, there’s something half-thought, something dry, about these big images of the letter I. Freud would want to know more, a lot more. “So when, Mr Wallinger, did you first dream of this giant column or spindle that for you is a giant ‘I’?”
His cigar smoke drifts up into the mirrored heights, wraps itself around the upside down statuettes. You lie there on the brink of the reflective abyss. This is a room where all the secrets of the world might be spoken.
- Mark Wallinger: Self-Reflection is at the Freud Museum, London until 25 September.
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