Ersatz Freud: Natalya Hughes’s “The Interior”

Installation view, Natalya Hughes, The Interior, 2022, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photographer: Joe Ruckli

Natalya Hughes’s The Interior, presently on view at the IMA in Brisbane, is in essence an abstraction of Freud’s consultation rooms during and after the Second World War, from Vienna to London. Hughes cordons off the threshold of her exhibition with a blue curtain on a metal rod, reminiscent of a makeshift hospital ward. The curtain is decorated with a pattern of blankly staring eyes, a motif repeated in neighboring objects and furnishings, which includes imagery corresponding to Freud’s most prominent case studies. Signs invite viewers to take off their shoes, sit on a lounge, or survey a shelf of mythological sculptures – knockoffs of Freud’s robust collection of antiquities and prized deities. The sculpted deities are endowed with grotesque features: Demeter has two faces, one in lieu of genitals, a once-youthful flying Eros, sans weaponry or instrument, has a potato-shaped torso replete with udders, and there’s a falcon-headed figure with an elongated drooping neck. The Sphinx is presented in a more conventional, if inscrutable, guise as if she’s enough of a riddle to leave as is. 

Installation view, Natalya Hughes, The Interior, 2022, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photographer: Joe Ruckli

In the absence of any deep and meaningful conversation, it was all too easy to slump into a lounge of my choosing – the one I chose presumably saying something about me, though it was selected mainly in order to get a closer contemplative view of a mural portraying silhouettes of suspended fainting figures that overlap in a theatrical dance. According to the exhibition text, this mural refers to Pierre Brouillet’s depiction of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, with whom Freud studied for a time, shown with his colleague, Dr. Babinski, clutching a fainting female patient as she collapses in a swoon. Freud kept the print of this arrested moment above his couch. Imagine seeing this reassuring picture in your weekly therapy session! Public displays of such susceptible patients were a kind of spectator sport at Paris’s Salpêtrière Hospital. Charcot interpreted hysterics as mimetic parodies of religious rapture, akin to that of Catholic mystics in medieval times, and Freud described the hysteric as one who “suffers mainly from reminiscences.” For her mural, Hughes converts imagery from Italian physician Gaetano Rummo’s Photographic Iconography of the Great Hysteria—Hysteric Epilepsy, showing women in hyperbolical Exorcist-style levitations, tumbling and writhing. Hughes turns the women into bald androgynous figures, for no clear reason, though she may be hinting at a throughline linking the performative nature of suffering with the publicly brandished trauma in current cultural conversations.

Hughes’s lounge chairs are fused like Siamese twins, promoting the notion of thinking in pairs, just as Freud’s logic was formulated by pairings of instincts and of matching concepts that never operate in isolation: love and destruction, sadism and masochism, mourning and melancholia, repression and sublimation. Hughes shows how seated couples can be situated at different angles, not as opponents but as correspondents. It’s possible that Hughes has devised her three seating arrangements to convey the id, ego and superego, or perhaps they each convey the dynamic among them. (Freud described the id as a horse and the ego as a man on horseback who has to hold the horse in check. Perhaps this is what Hughes is hinting at with the leather bondage strap situated behind a circular chair?). Another lounge, viewed side-on, outlines the curves of a pregnant woman. Then two connected lounges, shaped like the underwire of a bra, offer the analyst an equally recumbent position with the analysand, a bit like two conjoined hammocks, only more rigid. In this last configuration, neither analyst nor analysand can see each other and there is no mastery of experience. 

Installation view, Natalya Hughes, The Interior, 2022, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photographer: Joe Ruckli

The cushioned lounges are decorated with imagery from classic cases: burning houses and rats, and even letters spelling out “Frau K” and “Herr K” interchangeably, in reference to “Dora”, Freud’s notoriously problematic case study of hysteria. Decorative white flowers are set against a crimson backdrop mingling with butterflies and black serpents and twirling rat silhouettes. Freud typically interpreted flowers as symbols of genitalia and sexual vitality, yet also conceived of gardens and flowerbeds as indicative of civilization, in which a sense of orderliness co-exists with discontent and the pain of desire. 

While there’s nothing magical about the couch in itself, lying down is a way to promote introspection and make oneself vulnerable. Freud asked his patients to lie down for several reasons: one being that he disliked having patients stare at him all day long and another being that it is a tried and tested method carried over from his early studies in hypnotism. It was also a way to allow himself to give over to his own rippling thoughts and to “isolate the transference and to allow it to come forward in due course sharply defined as a resistance.” Freud here is speaking of resistance in terms of ego-defense.

Installation view, Natalya Hughes, The Interior, 2022, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photographer: Joe Ruckli

I’m not convinced this exhibition “offers us the tools of psychoanalysis to confront the unconscious biases we hold and examine society’s ‘problem’ with women,” as a portion of IMA’s exhibition text proposes, though that’s not what I’d want to get out of this experience anyway. Hughes instead invites frivolity, whimsy and delight, and well, what’s the problem with that? This work is not combative or “down with the patriarchy” in nature; it is rather a satirical and fanciful rendition of the work of a profound thinker, referring to lost objects and rich metaphors that sprang forth in the space between two vivid minds recollecting together. Given the basement-like nature of the museum space, the exhibition feels overall like a cold Freud salad rather than a hearty Freud soup. It is threadbare and minimalist, compared to Freud’s actual consultation room, where every nook and cranny is worn and cluttered, and no one thing is displayed to stand alone. It has been observed that Freud’s tastes were not exactly those of an aesthete but rather of a compulsive collector.

Hughes seems to be more interested in orienting her work around the fraught and necessarily contrived nature of the psychoanalytic framework itself, including the notion of the countertransferential, where projection inevitably moves back and forth in the consultation room, and analysts get weary from holding the burdens of other lives and other thoughts alongside their own. We each, in turn, need to take a collective rest on these goofy and somewhat sordid lounges. For me, the most humorous objects in the exhibition are the tufted rugs of cotton and wool yarn, laid out on the floor. One rug is derived from Freud’s famous patient, Sergei “Wolf Man” Pankejeff, who as a child dreamt of white wolves sitting in a tree outside his bedroom, their haunting eyes transfixed on him. Pankejeff made a sketch of the dream for Freud and later produced paintings of it. In this show, the painting is rendered as a doormat, only the white wolves look more like spooky cats. Another door mat reiterates the cartoon image of the burning house with smoke jutting out of the windows – welcome home! Out of respect for the unconscious, I did not step on them.


Jessica Almereyda has work published in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Brooklyn Rail, Caesura, Fence, Hotel, Liber Feminist Review, Manhattan Art Review, Overland, and others. She is based in New York.

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