I, Heather Allen, One, Two, Many _ or: Sigi Would Never Have dreamt Of It
Crowds of confusingly similar figures about the size of somebody’s hand and wearing everyday clothes have made themselves at home on a desk, a sofa, an armchair. Yer, wait a moment: this is no ordinary public place. This is without doubt Sigmund Freud’s studying its invasion by women rouses it from its hallowed lethargy, challenging it to respond. Certainly not warlike, rather in a spirit of enquiry, Heather Allen’s modelled clay doubles seek to explore this ultimate interior for the discovery of the unconscious, to temporarily set up camp on its site (At Home with Freud, 2001)
They take up various poses, stand about, or crouch on the desk amongst Freud’s famous collection of antiques, observe, search, marvel and reflect on the topography of the psyche. Resembling one another without being identical, these simple yet realistically modelled Sculpey figures more or less obviously share their author’s facial features, posture and hairstyle. They are naked, or casually, even sloppily, dressed in mid-blue tracksuit bottoms and black T-shirts – the impression fluctuates between that of an individual and one of a fixed type. Presumably unlike Freud’s female patients and co-inventors of psychoanalysis, their posture is as informal as their leisurewear: arms crossed under their breasts, elbows bent, legs swinging, knees drawn up under their chins. In other words: at home.
But what do these women see, crouching in front of Freud’s magnifying-glass and gazing at the glass like Narcissus athis reflection in the water? What do the soles of these naked feet learn from wandering through his autographs? And is it perhaps possible to understand more about Freud’s concept of female sexuality when eye to eye with a stone Isis?
This dialogue between precious sculpture and cheap Sculpey figures, between the unique and the reproduced could correspond to the discrepancy between the ideal and the everyday. It seems that this difference is not to be discerned without difficulty. Accordingly, Freud’s legendary couch becomes an arena in which ‘Heather’ and ‘Heather’ conduct a duel in the presence of ‘Heather’s’ 38 pairs of eyes. A number of the spectators stand or lie in the ranks of the kilim cushions, sympathetically accompanying the pair caught up in the ambiguity of a wrestling match or is it coitus, autoeroticism or aggression? Eventually, ‘Heather’ comes to lie flat out on her back on the torn leather seat of the armchair at Freud’s desk, her arms outstretched, her legs slightly open. At once as monumental and archaic as one of the idols of the Cyclades, the anthropomorphic constellation of arm and backrest appears to be bending over the toy figure. Was it not the case that for long the central role of sexuality was Freud’s most outrageous invention?
In her small-scale way, Heather Allen finds a way to translate back into a contemporary, visual form those things that Freud believed could not be diagnosed through the visual image, but which could be heard by listening to people speak, and were at best legible in the form of text, such as the relationship between the superego, the ego and id. But unlike the case with digital image technology, which make it easy to produce identical clones, Heather allen shapes her figures out of Sculpey and arranges them to form casual scenes. Whether she uses installations such as Group, 2002, or Raus!, 2002, or a photographic work (BdM Twins, 2001), both media convey the impression of a tableau vivant of a situation that, although it is everyday in the extreme, remains, at the same time, precarious. Both media allow viewers to participate in something intimate, be it the mood-related facial expression in the manner of a portrait (Heads, 2001), the conspiratorial whispering with expressions of tenderness (Chinese Whispers, 2001), or in the way we look when we look.
According to French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, not being able to see ourselves when we see is one of the central flaws in the subject who imagines himself to be in charge of things. This shortcoming marks both the subject’s fundamental dependency on the other and the insatiability of desire, the need to be permanently regarded and to have one’s existence confirmed by the eyes of the other. How much clearer does the infinite nature of this desire appear when replicated in the hoard of figures, whose principal function is to look. (Don’t we always cross our arms or place our hands on our hips, just so that we can see better?) Seeing ourselves reflected, whether in that little black number (Little black dress, 1998), that special pink skirt (Skirt, 2000) or naked in the gazes of other people (Naked, 2000), conveys the false impression of the ability to act autonomously. The imaginary, exposed in this, its smoothing over function, when the others present, female as they are, watch the watcher watching – by no means a relaxing experience. For gender difference is also written into the convention of the gaze. In the good old tradition of the subject, the act of seeing remains one of man’s phallic privileges and being observed characterises the position of the woman. The fact that Heather Allen’s small counterparts almost always step up and want to look tends to indicate the potential confusion arising with regard to all aspects of looking rather than their attempt to control the power of the gaze.
With Freud’s psychoanalysis as a theoretical tool, with her dextrous fingers the modelling material with its contemporary surface characteristics, and with her unerring eye for a convincing miniature screenplay. Heather Allen then also mixes in material that playfully describes the anthropological injury from a pre-modern angle – mythical material such as Eve and the Devil (Eva und der Teufel, 2002), classical material, demonstrated in the traditional pictorial genres such as landscape and (self-)portrait (Self-portraits in landscapes, 2001) or the physiognomic material, resembling Franz Xavier Messerschmidt’s 18th century “Charakterköpfen” (character heads). Here, the change of scale appears significant: on the one hand, we see her clay figures that attract attention due to their toy-like size, particularly when, with their uncanny similarity, they take the stage in crowds or groups. On the other, her photo portraits, enlarged to a size much greater that life, reveal the careful crafting of the heads as a touching form of intimacy that also references the small sculptural format.
Heather Allen has a strong understanding of metaphors for a sense of being inwardly torn, of standing outside yourself, watching yourself doing something and not being at one with yourself or wanting, in the end, to flee the confines of your nonbeing. She portrays the everyday drama wittily, using wit in the sense that it derives from the same root as wisdom.