the psychoanalytic construction of the work of art
by Adam Welch
The difficult question at hand is what is the ideological point of Elise Siegel’s works of art. Art takes on meaning when the artist’s mediation between structure and object brings us, in the words of Martin Heidegger, “near” to the relationship between the object and its meaning-a fairly strict structuralist interpretation. Using language to formulate a diagnosis of the deeply psychological work of Elise Siegel will only be as accurate as the theoretical apparatus to which the work is held. Yet, a formal evaluation would be incommensurate toward an understanding of Siegel’s sculptures, which necessarily constitutes a psychoanalytic intent. One could not even begin to search for the truths expressed in Siegel’s artworks if one does not confront them psychoanalytically. Siegel’s work is about womanhood, the autonomous woman. Such a claim suggests she is a feminist and, if we only consider her earlier body of work, a radical feminist. However, in 1994, a paradigm shift commensurate with a new conceptual agenda, occurred in Siegel’s studio practice-a return to clay as her dominant material. Contemporaneously, Siegel’s practice is almost exclusively composed of figurative sculpture-ceramic dolls. There is a historical precedence within the ceramic continuum involving the manufacture of dolls. The material lends itself to this interpretation. Siegel transcends this pejorative connotation through sublimation-furnishing a concrete mediation between concept and object. She attains a conceptual height paralleling that of Hans Bellmer, the pioneer of the psychoanalytic construction of the doll. In addition to the figurative sculptures, Siegel’s artistic production includes drawings, large-scale ceramic heads, ceramic hands, and acrylic and wire clothing.
Through the late eighties and early to mid-nineties Siegel used acrylic modeling paste and wire to construct various articles of clothing associated with womanhood -aprons, dresses, corsets, and bras. Patterns were sewn together with wire, clearly suggestive of a masochistic passivity. Her critique could not be clearer; these sculptures express the bondage and the psychological and cultural construction of womanhood, her womanhood, through a rigid, stiff, and fixed display of otherwise soft and desirable objects, thus forming what is to be her raison d’etre. The corsets and bras she manufactured do not conform, comfort, and cradle the breasts as they lift and support. Hers are a prison for the bosom overturning masculine desire. In fact, they resemble early prototypes by Henry S. Lesher, who received the first U.S. patent in 1859, or Marie Tucek’s “breast supporter” of 1893, which is the precursor of today’s bra. Siegel rejects the glorification of the form and function and sculpts a scathing condemnation of the desiring machine. The sculptures are psychological self-portraits the antithesis of Victoria’s Secret selling a desire culture. These early and incipient works confront the culturally constructed identity of the woman, which surfaces in her later work with a psychoanalytic criticality.
Similarities appear in Siegel’s artwork both before and after 1994, although she suppresses the politically charged dogmatic works privileging sensuous experience. What does carry over is her quest to invoke a psychological experience while simultaneously challenging the authority of cultural constructs. The shift in studio practice, marked by the return to clay as the primary medium, came about after the birth of her daughter. Siegel equates the return to clay with an attempt to recreate or compete with the sensuous experience, which the birth of her daughter proved to be. Aside from the obvious association of childhood and dolls, in the context of Siegel’s figurative sculptures, the doll becomes a vehicle for Siegel’s investigation into the psychology of childhood. In 2001, at the Greenwich House Pottery’s Jane Hartsook Gallery in New York City, Siegel created the Site-specific, Into the room of dream/dread I abrupt awake clapping. This marked her first purposeful shift toward the figurative. Before this exhibition, Siegel’s works alluded to the human form, yet as an incomplete representation -heads, hands, and fragmented bodies. Dream/dread is illustrative of her embracing the underlying psychological component in the work.
This was the first exhibition where the uncanny proved itself to be a necessary component of Siegel’s aesthetic, invoking the uncanny in a tour de force of contextualization, a truly sight-specific work. She recalls that the gallery gave her the impression of a Victorian drawing room with large floor to ceiling windows and hardwood floors. The gallery resembles rooms where she imagined children played and were cared for. It is a world of childhood, imagination, and segregation, isolated from the realm of adulthood and separated from fear of transgression and contamination. Dream/dread is a window into her personal experience of the repression and anxiety associated with childhood. Siegel uses the doll to project a feeling of the uncanny. Freud describes this sensation not as something unfamiliar or new; but rather when something familiar suddenly becomes strange or frightening without explanation. Freud believed the experience of the uncanny is triggered by anxiety or the fear of the return of the repressed.
Dream/dread displays eight child-sized dolls, with seven of them seated in chairs circling around ~ single seated figure facing the front of the gallery. They all share similar anatomical features suggesting that they are manifestations of the same doll in the center of the circle. The entrance to the gallery is blocked by a large, heavy, gray drape identical to those covering the windows. When the viewer passes through this symbolic gesture, the gallery entrance becomes a “window’ and peering around the drape is a metaphor for insight into the mind. Everyone “enters” the space not suspecting the abrupt confrontation by the sculptures, which are as haunting as they are thrilling. The sculptures are frozen in place watching you, as if you had just interrupted a private conversation or have entered a room where you are not welcome, creating an uneasy and eloquent tension.
The dolls have a lifelike quality, which is no doubt why Freud aligned them with his theory involving the uncanny. The doll is the mirror image of the living; the uncanny is derived from doubling live bodies with lifeless ones, or dolls in this instance, effectively collapsing the distinction between animate and inanimate. During childhood, dolls often become surrogates -friends, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. According to Siegel, the uncanny appears as the anxiety due to the feeling of “vulnerability and the emotional chaos of childhood,” returns. As a child, the threat, or thrill of being caught in a compromising situation and the imminent punishment is cause for anxiety, which can follow us into adulthood. In Dream/dread, the uncanny as an aesthetical experience is most profound, and is far less resonate in her later works.
Twenty-one Torsos and Twenty-four Feet are both highly suggestive and provocative psychological works of art. They contain the most succinct conversation and implications of Siegel’s conceptual intention. Recently exhibited at Garth Clark Gallery’s Long Island City Project Space in 2004, these pieces were also conceived as a site-specific work. The only shortfall is their failure to attain the complete enfranchisement of the gallery into its larger contextualization. Superseding this criticism, however, is the commingling of aesthetical concerns. There is a wonderfully simplistic handling of the material paired with bringing into the I1nconcealed the difficult issues of childhood, cultural constructions and anxiety.
Twenty-one Torsos is comprised of twenty-one individual sculptures resembling boys, arduously articulated through handmade forms, from the top of the hip to the crown of the head. They are suspended several feet above the floor by metal armatures with castors, resembling dress forms-those used by the fashion industry to simulate a human body for purposes of garment making. Although the unconscious perceives these figures as individuals, their features and proportions are almost identical, again suggesting varying constituents representative of one person, or clones, without any individuality or control over their own life histories. This is reiterated through the use of dress forms, harking back to her earlier more feminist works that utilized clothing. The dress forms give the torsos an air of antiquity, which further defines her installations as illustrative of her disenfranchisement from the present. There is no specific anatomical feature that confirms these sculptures are boys other than their context. They are floating alone, in pairs, or in groups of three, poised in brawl-like commotion and visibly disgruntled. They.are acting out the classical polarized dimension of activity-passivity, stereotypically Freudian, symbolized here by masculinity and aggression.
Twenty-four Feet articulates a different complexity than found in Torsos. Twelve girls are seated in two rows of chairs, without seat bottoms, exposing their posteriors and metaphorically suggesting vulnerability. The girls are floating in place, rendered from the top of the hips to the tips of their toes. If combined with the boy’s torsos, they would become one complete figure, presumably an autonomous whole. It is apparent that the twelve girls are one individual, implicating a psychological dimension, which comes into being with the combined effect of the two sculptures. In a psychological sense, it expresses the lack of development of the one with the other and vice versa. As illustrated through Siegel’s clones, the loss of individuality is the result of the inability to achieve full development, marked by gender specific education.
The Torsos are hollow, though they are protected and concealed by their ceramic and fabric enclosed exteriors. The Feet’s hollow cavity, on the other hand, is exposed, offered up to the male gaze. This exhibitionist role of the passive female for the benefit of the voyeur represented here by the active male, allows for an unfettered look into the opening that she has laid bare. Without the inclusion of genitals, which Siegel has forgone in both sculptures, we are left to our own interpretations, our own completion. It cannot be forgotten that Siegel is articulating, through her sculptures, a stereotype of childhood behavior as processed through an adult’s experience, and not just any adult, but hers as a woman. Twenty-four Feet are all the same pair of feet and they all relate to Siegel’s childhood vulnerability returning to haunt her as an adult, perhaps brought on from anxiety over being a mother.
These characteristics, present in both sculptures, further the implication of activity-passivity and are suggestive of vulnerability. The boy’s hollow interior is protected by the facade of aggression and strength, while it essentially remains empty. The girl’s legs are slightly spread, simultaneously suggesting an unwillingness and vulnerability, yet unavoidable acceptance of her biological function. The manner in which children are treated by adults and the effect this has on the emotional development of the child·in relationship to the gender specific training is typified by the classical psychoanalytic belief in natural gender based behavior. Is this simply the reiteration of long held stereotypes-the aggression of boys and the innocence of girls-or a subtle and clever critique of something much more psychological? Looking at these two sculptures independent of the other would not fully articulate how they transcend redundant stereotypes.
Siegel’s interest in recreating childhood dramas as well as antiquated corsets and bras is illustrative of her return to the possible source of repression-an adult reconsidering how as a child, she perceived her own parents’ childhood. This reconstruction of the past is perhaps the result of, her experience of being a mother -how it invokes an uncanny experience and suggests that she is experiencing a sense of alienation from the present. Siegel is too young to have lived through the childhood and garment phenomenon that she portrays in her works, implying that she is working to resolve anxiety that may have been passed down to her from her parents. The division between adulthood and childhood was much more pronounced then; today’s society is apparently coming to grips with the falsity of the saying, the “innocence of childhood.” Elise Siegel’s most important achievement through her art is the mediation of childhood anxiety and aesthetical effect, which is manifested in the uncanny. In these works created over the last decade, she effectively communicates the truth-claims present in the works. She illuminates her perspective of the repression of childhood, though not from the point of view of the child, but rather by assuming the role of repressor. The psychoanalytical construction of Siegel’s artworks poses its own problems, not least of which is that the works are themselves the visual mediation and sublimation of her psyche. A psychoanalyst would indicate that these works are reflective of her unconscious projections, although through her art she consciously brings these projections into the unconcealed, perhaps in hopes of cathartically dispelling her anxiety. Whether or not Siegel sees her practice as therapeutic is beyond their ideological point. Leaving her identity unrationalized creates the eloquent tension that gives the work a psychological meaningful component.
Adam Welch is an artist and writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York where he teaches ceramics at Kingsborough Community College:He has written articles for “Ceramics Art £;[ Perception”, “Ceramics Monthly,” “Clay Times,” and The Quarterly Williamsburg Art Review .