Sigmund Freud had a strange way of sitting in a chair. With one leg slung over the edge, he would read with his head thrown back and a book held aloft. His daughter Mathilde commissioned the architect Felix Augenfeld to design a chair that would more comfortably support her father’s habitual reading posture. It was built especially for his body, his way of sitting.
Melbourne-based artist Claire Lambe reconstructed this chair. The chair itself, along with images of documentation, are included in her exhibition ‘Mother Holding Something Horrific’ at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). One shows the chair ‘frankensteined’ together using an existing mechanism, cut plywood and paper, all held together with screws and tape. Another depicts a more finished product on a white paper backdrop, lit from a single source, as though the object were being shot for a furniture catalogue. But the photograph includes more than the chair on the backdrop; it encompasses the artist’s studio, insistently revealing the space of production, the process of making. Lambe is committed to that process. Her work embraces the shortfalls, the awkwardness of materials that don’t quite fit together, the imperfection of reconstruction, the act of struggling to make something, and of getting lost in translation.
It is the act of trying to reconstruct Freud’s chair, not the reconstruction itself, that matters. It is the work of measuring against an original that is somewhere else, through photographs cobbled together from the internet. One of the images is captioned, making it look like a still from a foreign language film with subtitles. The caption reads, enigmatically, ‘she never speaks about herself she could be anything’.
Though they are only a small part of what is a sprawling and ambitious exhibition, these two images embody Lambe’s generative and contingent approach. The exhibition traverses a wide terrain; it includes a suite of photographs showing the artist’s family wrapped up in plastic, her sister being buried, a boy/man covered in chocolate, a woman with a motorcycle wearing short denim cutoffs. There is a mirrored corridor and a collection of plexiglass sheets that, while referencing a Pier Paolo Pasolini film and window designed by Gaudì, are also props for Atlanta Eke, the dancer who will perform in the space throughout the exhibition.
Littered with art historical and personal references, Lambe’s work takes a highly subjective path through an array of art historical and filmic influences, from Duchamp’s ‘Étant donnés’ to Pasolini and Jacobean architecture. The artist has visited Duchamp’s last work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where one can approach the rustic door in a little room off to the side of ‘The Large Glass’, bend down and look through the peephole to the disturbing diorama within.
For Lambe, it is not only the work as you encounter it in the museum, but the accompanying ‘Manual of instructions for the assembly of Étant donnés…’, for sale in the museum’s bookshop, that serves as an inspiration. Indeed, her exhibition is like an exploded manual of instructions, an array of scenes in varying stages of assembly.
Drawing inspiration from production stills on film sets, she tries to reenact that space of production in the gallery “I want to catch everything in production” she says. This obsession with process, creating a freeze-frame of an assembly that might shift at any moment, is also a refusal of completion. A refusal to settle.
And just as Lambe refuses to settle her works into completed, static objects, she refuses to settle on a single theoretical framework or interpretation of her practice. She builds cultural references into the work, invoking various figures of aesthetic and theoretical import, but won’t give you a theoretical checklist, framework, or rationale. That resistance to solid meaning is bound up with her resistance to the closure of completion. It is why her works are so contingent and unfinished – there is this persistent desire to remain open and unresolved.
This is why Freud’s chair is at the center of this exhibition. It is as though she made the chair to conjure the man who thematised the unconscious, but in this exhibition the chair, and the analyst who might occupy it, is one small part of a larger body of work. The father of psychoanalysis haunts this show. ‘Mother Holding Something Horrific’ is a labyrinth born out of the artist’s own psyche, an unconscious made concrete, refusing to be categorised, wreaking havoc with the ways that we have made sense of it, eluding analysis. It is as though Freud stood up and walked out of the room in exasperation.
Macushla Robinson is a writer and curator based in New York.
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)
Until 25 June, 2017