The Art of Pathography

The artists’ creation of a ‘true self-portrait’ is bound up in meanings of self-hood and individuation; by means of his/her practice becoming a method of developing the artists’ need for self-discovery. Through this self-exploration, the artefact becomes an attempt to reveal something of the artist, a therapeutic tool perhaps, by which the photograph is used as a form of depth psychology. A mixed methodology of autoethnography and thematic analysis is undertaken of the language of response – language generated from the viewing of purely visual data – to examine and record patterns or themes within this information that is relevant to the research question. Through this form of removed analysis - the interpretation of the photograph and not the artist - can a new internal world of the artist be revealed? Is there a particular reading that could be universalised or is this unique to me? Or is the analysis a series of projections, a more of an understanding of the readers? The concerns of this thesis are with the ways in which the production of these photographs and their reception can be incorporated into an art practice and a new self-portrait is revealed.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Self-Portrait as Phantastic Object


Much of psychoanalytic thinking has, as its starting point, the infantile sense of wishful thinking; omnipotence visualised through the medium of play as a way to reveal the relative awareness of the truths of experience. Freud speaks of this process in terms of a compromise, where ones capacities to express our place in the world are mediated, via language, to a sense of reality. This could also be said of art production, as generally the artist knows what is real and conscious, however during this state of production, there outcome can be seen initially as perhaps having a sense of unrealistic wishful thinking.

‘As people grow up, then, they cease to play, and seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing. But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up pleasure, which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and create what are called daydreams. I believe that most people construct phantasies at times in their lives. This is a fact which has been long been overlooked and whose importance has therefore not been sufficiently appreciated.’ (Freud 1908, p.144)

This thesis sets out to explore whether psychoanalytic thinking, based on interpretations of photography, expressed via language, can illuminate pre-verbal expression through the production of self-portraits.
Since standard psychoanalytic thinking significantly differs from other ways of the understanding of human psychology, (Tukett and Taffler 2007 p.389), it is suggested that this methodology may have a unique contribution to make to this area of research. The author suggests that with this psychoanalytic approach, language from interpretations can act as an interface between the image representation and affective knowledge; that it can also explain aspects unconscious functioning around art production, its realisation and appreciation.
I will introduce new ways of seeking to understand images psychoanalytically; and specifically within the realm of the self-portrait. A strength of this argument put forward is that it relies on widely accepted clinical thinking about the workings of the unconscious mind in clinical work; in both that of the artist and the viewer in this new dynamic.  It will examine the nature of unconscious phantasy and psychic reality, the relationship between these states of mind - the expression of the internal world of the artist and of the reader, the understanding of those internal worlds and how they interrelate. It has become an increasing area of interest, as the project has progressed, of the role of the viewers and interpretors in this process - the importance of an increasing understanding of this new intersubjective dynamic. The thesis will examine their role in detail, paralleling the relationship of the therapist/client in a therapeutic engagement, to enquire about the notion of what might be called a ‘blank screen’.
I will describe the artefacts in the context of them being ‘Phantastic Objects’, (coined by Tukkett and Taffler, 2003) and as such are the objects used in this process in an attempt to achieve a sense of perceived reality, derived from two psychoanalytical concepts. Object, which is used in the sense as in philosophy; as a mental representation, or a symbol of something that is not the thing in itself. This could also represent a part object or combination of internalised relationships. And the word Phantasy, as Freud speaks of in his quote above, as an imaginary scene in which the inventor represents the protagonist in the process of having latent (unconscious) content or wishes, fulfilled. (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973, p.314)
This project, as indeed therapy can be described as, is a documentation of the developmental struggle between the ‘reality principle’ and the ‘pleasure principle’. In the therapeutic engagement much is given to this interplay, the conflict between these two basic principles. The production of the photographs represent a negotiation of the resolution of (or partial resolution of) the conflicts of these two states of mind into which, in Freud’s words, ‘a new principle of mental functioning was thus introduced’ so that ‘what was presented in the mind was no longer what was agreeable, but what was real, even if it happened to be disagreeable’ Freud 1911, p219.

‘At the heart of the psychoanalytic understanding of reality is the assumption that individuals are always in some degree of unconscious conflict: in fact, we develop a sense of mature reality by finding an individual way to accommodate the ongoing and potentially creative conflict between our wishes and our real opportunities,’
Freud 1911, p.399

This series of self-portraits as Phantastic Objects, analysed, allows the artists deepest desires to be fulfilled. The artist in a state of infantile omnipotence, where the visualisation of conflicts and the inevitable display of antagonism between these two states that are reflected upon in the interpretations, offers insight and affective knowledge of internal worlds.

Spencer Rowell 2012

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