'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 12 December 2011

The work of French conceptual artist Anne Deguelle is engaged in the poetic task of locating the universe within a single atom. She leads us, in her search for all that is, to the most unlikely places. Always her attention is on the intimate detail, the overlooked, the rarefied.

Not so long ago her key preoccupation was a tiny star shaped biscuit the prodigious writer Raymond Roussel had been served whilst lunching with astronomer Camille Flammarion in the late 1890s. Rather than consuming the biscuit with his coffee as presumably did the other guests, Roussel placed it in his pocket, took it home and preserved it in a small glass case which he inexplicably retained for the rest of his life. For the exhibition currently showing at the Freud Museum Ms Deguelle focuses her attention upon the subtlest details of a highly decorative rug woven by the nomadic Qashqa'i tribe of Iran, that was sold to Sigmund Freud by his merchant brother-in-law and subsequently used as a cover for the famous psychoanalytic couch, first in Vienna and then in London.

In both cases the question that occupies Ms Deguelle is: why? Why would Raymond Roussel choose to preserve a seemingly innocuous petit four for decades on end? And why would Sigmund Freud drape the piece of furniture on which his most important work was conducted always with one very particular Iranian floor covering?

Sigmund Freud moved to the house in Maresfield Gardens that is now the Freud Museum in 1938 having left Vienna upon its annexation by Nazi Germany in the same year. There, in a downstairs room overlooking the garden, his patients lay on the couch talking of their dreams. There now we may see his consultation room just as it then stood. It is in this room that we encounter Anne Deguelle's first intervention into the home of the father of psychoanalysis. Above the iconic couch hangs a white neon that reads “to sleep to dream no more,” a quotation from Shakespeare's Hamlet, a play Freud interpreted in essay form using his theory of the Oedipus complex.

'To sleep to dream no more' comes from the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy, itself an examination of the virtues of life lived to the full and the uncertainties of death, particularly death by suicide; which ties in with Freud's own death in the very same room in 1939, when he allegedly drew a line under his agonising battle with terminal cancer by means of a deliberate over-administration of morphine. Deguelle weaves a complex web. But what of the eponymous rug?

A Persian rug is a work of art in itself, every knot bathed in rich symbolism on levels individual (the weaver's personal story), cultural, tribal, spiritual and cosmological. One of the most common themes, and a theme of Sigmund's Rug, is that of lush garden, abundant with flora, fauna and heavenly bodies of water, the later symbolic in Islamic iconography of Paradise, that place wherein the faithful shall dwell in the afterlife, in psychoanalytic terms of the subconscious. The insignia of the cross that peppers Sigmund's Rug represents stars, the cosmos and the Infinite. If the viewer were to attribute an element of the spiritual onto Freud's choice of couch covering she might therefore interpret some link between the individual and the eternal, between that which stands without space and time and that which perceives itself as rooted very much within space and time.

Upstairs Ms Deguelle guides her enquiry into further intricate nooks and crannies, this time art historical. Strong similarities are highlighted between a rug that appears as a table covering in Holbein's The Ambassadors – a painting weighty with spiritual and cosmological reference and again foregrounding the momento mori - and another piece from Freud's twenty strong antique rug collection.

Perhaps amidst all these narrative twists and turns one might begin to sense the influence of Deguelle's fellow French speaker Hercule Poirot, and perhaps a shadow of reservation in light of that might not be entirely misplaced. Certainly the exhibition is heavily research based and not easily accessed on a visceral level. That said, it is so charming, so intelligent, and in many ways so subtly multi-dimensional that I feel to allow it a little elusivity is the least I can do. After all what is psychoanalysis but the search for the elusive, the uncovering of the hidden, perhaps even, ultimately, the locating of the universe within a single atom?

Anne Deguelle
Sigmund's rug - To sleep to dream no more
Curated by Yvan Poulain
at Freud Museum until 15 January 2012

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