More than referring to Freud’s essay, ‘Totem & Taboo’ is a reflection on the visible and the invisible. There is no one particular key to look for or find, the viewer is free to walk through the rooms of this historical brownstone; though perhaps the most engaged visitor will find a key – the very key Alice found and used on various occasions. Be prepared: the same action rarely produces the same effect. In Daniel Horowitz’s world and logic, the Cheshire Cat and Schrödinger’s are close friends. Before taking o the veil, you never know what is hidden. Totems are stable things, unchangeable, whereas taboos change all the time: something usually forbidden unless it’s not.
François Michaud, Head Curator, Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris
Totem & Taboo – is a body of work that draws from Sigmund Freud’s 1913 seminal book, Totem & Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Bringing together works that explore the parallels between the material legacy of animist cultures and psychoanalysis as a means of understanding the subconscious, Totem & Taboo investigates the nature of re-appropriation, the heritage of colonialism, and the West’s fascination with primitive art, while contemplating the existential crisis ushered by the onset of The Anthropocene.
Why are some of the foremost collectors of ‘tribal art’ also leading psychoanalysts? What is the relationship between psychoanalysis and ethnographic culture of the 20th century and what can it tell us about the precarious times we now live in? What can the representation of mankind and his various states of consciousness in traditional tribal artworks tell us about our present post-colonial ambiguous selves. Perhaps Marlow’s voyage up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness, can serve as an allegory for a passage into the unconscious. As both fear and fascination with elements unlike ourselves, are expressions of elements within one’s own psyche, as described in Freud’s Unheimlich.
The visual image has been the dominant mode of communication for the since at least the 20th century, and with the help of photography has great- ly contributed to the Western perception of the ‘other’ as well. Indeed the binary of self and other is perhaps one of the most basic theories of human consciousness, though with psychoanalysis one discovers great fluidity be- tween the two, and perhaps they are interchangeable one and the same.
Questioning the ontological role of the museum, the exhibition, and the historical artifact is at the heart of the immersive series of exhibitions, which debuted at Tillou Fine Art in New York in 2016. Paintings on historical engravings and photographs, or on linen stitched with reappropriated textiles are paired alongside tribal art and artifacts from various private collections. In fact, the pairing of seemingly disparate objects and images across an expanse of time and space, is at the heart of this associative approach, allow- ing the narrative to ultimately be completed by the viewer themselves.
Totem & Taboo, the 1913 essay by Sigmund Freud, draws an equivocal line comparing the mental lives of savaged and neurotics. Freud believed that in order to understand our own neuroses one must look towards primitive society. Primitive only in terms of technology, the psychic lives of traditional societies are incredibly rich and the evidence of this can be easily observed in the many fetishized or coveted artifacts that were brought back to the west by missionaries and anthropologists. However erroneous Freud’s assumption is, the dichotomous marriage of psychoanalysis to animism, the overarching belief system of tribal society, is clear. In animism, the universe functions as an externalization of the human psyche.
These objects fetishized in the West as tribal art, were largely ritual tools to appease the spiritual forces at play in the external world. These objects served to restore order to the natural world; the weather, human fertility or agriculture, and virtually every aspect of existence, if not tended too through ritual intervention, revenge would be taken on the unsuspecting human. The shaman in traditional society was the interlocutor between the physical and spiritual worlds. Since the Enlightenment, Europeans have turned inwards towards subjective experience and away from tradition. Therefore the assumption would be that the role of the psychoanalysts and the treatment of mental aberration through analysis is a perfect metaphor for the shaman and ritual activity in traditional culture. However, today the forces that need to be tamed are our own thoughts.
Werner Muensterberger, a professor of “ethno-psychiatry” and preeminent collector of primitive art in the 20th century, is a fascinating example of an individual whose quest of understanding human consciousness straddles the traditions and belief systems of both west and non-west. Photographic plates from his book, Sculpture of Primitive Man , serve as grounds for a series of paintings called Tribalphilia. This sort of intervention directly onto historic photographic or printed material is a hallmark of Horowitz’s practice. Many of the paintings on linen are also derived from anthropological photography as a source material. Images that once posed as fact, having greatly contributed to the Western perception of the ‘other,’ have been reappropriated and subverted in order to exploit the perceived dissonance between the observer and observed.
To further explore the questions raised by the artist, Totem & Taboo, serves as a platform for cross-disciplinary conversations and collaborations including lectures, performances, and panels. Topics such as the philosophy and the psychoanalysis of the image, museological objecti cation, and dream interpretation are investigated by guest panelists including, Francois Michaud, chief curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Lawrence Weschler, author & former New Yorker staff writer, and 2-time George Polk Award winner; Jamieson Webster, psychoanalyst and cultural commentator, author and professor; Chiara Bottici, Associate professor of philosophy at the New School; Clarina Bezzola, performance artist and sculptor, and Alan Steele, tribal art expert among others. A book is in the process of being published, titled Totem sans Taboo, a gathering of various transcripts and text from guest panelists paired with reproductions of artworks by Horowitz and other photographic content.