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  • Dirty Gods:An Exhibition on Freud's Archaeological Collection
  • Lydia Marinelli
    Translated by Joy Titheridge

"Why are the figures placed at such a distance? They are what I came to see."

—An exhibition visitor

Exhibitions exploring literature and theory are faced with a paradox: They attempt both to reveal that which defies visibility and at the same time to assign the often banal objects of the visible world a significance that will always remain extrinsic to them. This paradox is generally circumvented by making the author the subject of the exhibition, invoking the monographic illusion of the unity of life and work, which are seamlessly juxtaposed. Display cases gather a couple of illegible, handwritten manuscripts, a few yellowing photographs, a pipe; the accumulation of biographical material is used to shed light on literary or theoretical content, or vice versa. To put it negatively, the effrontery that texts represent in a visually oriented culture is palliated with biographically charged, visual "extras"; more positively, however, forms like this can effect a rehabilitation of literature.

The reading that emerges for the visitor from this translation into biographical/iconic material is unambigious. The unknown is translated directly into the known in the manner prescribed, and is largely divested of any element of surprise. The intended illustration risks the "stultification" described by Walter Benjamin in a 1928 conversation about exhibition technique: "For any illustration which lacks the moment of surprise must have a stultifying effect. What is there on display must never be the same—or simply more, or less—as the description given by the accompanying text, but it has to carry with it something new, a trick of evidence that can never be achieved with words" (qtd. in Tiedemann, Gödde, and Lonitz 1990, 7). [End Page 149]

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Figure 1.

The initial idea for the exhibition, "My . . . old and dirty gods"—From Sigmund Freud's Collection,1 emerged within the context of these convergences and potential pitfalls inherent in conventional exhibition practice. Freud's collection of antiquities was to provide the point of departure for an exhibition about his theories and texts. This gave rise to the following questions: Can something that is implicit in the texts also exist outside of the written word? How can we avoid reducing the unknown to the known, how can we avoid dictating a particular interpretation in an exhibition?

Reflection also involves the detours and concepts that are later discarded. The form that initially came to mind was a historico-cultural exhibition on Freud's collection of antiquities that would place his passion for collecting in the context of the contemporary enthusiasm for antiquity. But the collection would then have become one of many at the turn of the century, and its relation to the writings of its owner would have largely remained concealed. A second possibility under consideration presented a more multimedia-based solution. Here, the mute figures were [End Page 150] to be presented as the sole witnesses of Freud's analyses. One of the peculiarities of Freud's collection of antiquities is that it was only displayed in the rooms of his practice and not in his private quarters. As a result, there was a close spatial relationship between this collection and his work. A sound installation would have allowed visitors to listen to excerpts from the only surviving case notes on the "Rat Man" in conjunction with certain figurines. This presentation sought to contrast and compare the muteness of the figures with the role of the spoken word in psychoanalysis. Although this option made greater use of media, an obvious choice for curators today, the application of aural media to the figurines raised another difficulty. On the one hand, the notes were written comments that Freud composed following the analytic sessions, not authentic records of the monologues or dialogues within the therapy session. On the other hand, a recording of the notes read aloud would have had the effect of a halting reanimation, giving the listener the sense that he or she was witness to an analysis. However, this acoustic experience would be diminished because of the principle of third parties being excluded and all the...


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