Free / Not / Free / Association

Dr. Gohar Homayounpour


“I was in a room full of furniture, the furniture reminded me of the type of furniture one imagines in a psychoanalyst’s office. The room was so full that upon any attempt at movement I was bound to hit or be hit by a different piece of furniture, to the left and right. I was destined to hit the furniture, unless I became paralyzed, stayed still, with no movement. I kept thinking of ways out of this conundrum. Then you walked in, very mobile. But the moment you walked in I woke up”.


This dream was reported by a patient on the couch yesterday. I know this patient well, and listening to her associations, I understood the meaning of my own associations to the dream. The dream immediately led my own associations (as the analyst) to a piece I have been thinking about writing on Terence Gower’s installation Free Association. In this case a hall of mirrors becomes a hall of free associations.


Gower’s installation is made up of two elements: The mobile (inherently about movement) and the mobilier (supposed to have movement, but we know that is just an illusion). Mobilier is really immobilier, it is fixed, immovable. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this is what Freud called thing representation vs. word representation; or what Lacan called the signified vs. the signifier. Here is how I would explain it: A thing representation is comprised of images, it is primary process, it is the language of dreams, the language of psychosis, of the imaginary order. (This is different from imagination, which belongs to the symbolic order.) It is concrete; it is fixed. A word representation, or signifier, is secondary process. It is the symbolic order; it is made up of symbolic elaborations. It is mentalised; it is the territory of neurosis, and it has movement.


In Free Association, Gower is trying to illustrate how we—or how artists—move from thing representations to word representations. How we access our minds and what we have stored there and turn the material we find into symbolic representations; words, paintings, installations, writing, etc. How does one turn the images of a dream into images that are symbolic? This is the process of sublimation; this is precisely what artists do and what we as psychoanalysts do in order to turn the imaginary order into the symbolic. And to achieve this we all use the process of free association. This is what Gower was describing when he wrote to me: “I feel the intuitive process of scrolling through and accessing those “random files” (in the mind) is not unlike the technique of free association, hence the title of the work.”


But are these really “random files”? I do not think so: When we hear a chain of signifiers in a patient’s discourse it is never really random. This linking makes fee association seem not so “free” after all. The patient’s statements are all somehow related, in a seeming attempt to both reveal and at the same time hide a message.


The real storehouse is of course the unconscious, so intuition comes into play. But we should look at intuition as something not inherent in the human experience but as something that our mind produces. In this sense intuition is the result of free/not-free associations coming directly from the unconscious in at attempt to turn the thing representations into word representations.


This notion goes hand in hand with Gower’s idea of a shared collective storage; that would be the collective unconscious. This idea is clearly elaborated in another of the artist’s works, Maquetas del inconsiente escultural (Models of the Sculptural Unconscious) in which he suggests that mid-twentieth-century cartoons that depict artworks operate as direct downloads from the collective unconscious. It is also clearly there in his description of the installation Free Association, in which he says,

“The shapes of the mobile are flat representations of fragments from post-war sculptures—some forms clearly evoke works of modern artists like Barbara Hepworth, Isamu Noguchi, or Henry Moore. In this way, the installation acts as a 3D model of the swirling maelstrom of imagery that comprises the storehouse of forms that we artists access to create our work. I think this imagery is accumulated through a life of research and observation, and it is this storehouse of existing forms and ideas that might just constitute the artist’s imagination. This does not just apply to artists, of course—I think we all have a storehouse of imagery, and in addition to this we share a storehouse in the collective imagination. These “modern” forms that make up this piece are clearly from my own inventory.”


One has to have courage to listen to one’s intuition, to symbolize it, because the moment we let these associations find their own space and time, we never know what will happen next. We never know in advance what truths we will have to face about ourselves, about everything we already know but refuse to know. This takes courage.


Now I will offer an interpretation of my patient’s dream: She is trying to do the same thing I describe earlier; to find a way out of the concreteness and the deadness of the imaginary, represented in her dream by the furniture. But the moment she tries to move, she hits a piece of dead furniture. When her attempts are frustrated, she calls me (the analyst) into the room, (represented by the mobile of this installation). But the moment the mobile/analyst is invited into the room, the resistance wins and the patient wakes up, leaving her without conflict resolution, and within the horrors and fixity of the moblilier …without the mobile/analyst.


In his installation Gower encourages viewers to keep dreaming, not to wake up. He takes us beyond the mobilier into the exciting and terrifying world of the symbolic; out of the paralysis and concreteness of thing representations into the mobile world of word representations.


This is exactly where my patient needs to go. She needs to keep dreaming…