By Katharine King, Clinical Member, OSP
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of prOSPect
Projection by Andrea Fraser, 2008. Part of the Poetry and Dream exhibit at Tate Modern, 28 October 2013 to 31 August 2014; Currently on display at Tate Modern.
“I’ve always been ambivalent about my field. I made a career out of that ambivalence, to some extent.”
Recently I spent the better part of my first day ever in London, England in a dark room at Tate Modern, watching artist Andrea Fraser’s video performance of a therapy session in which she plays both psychotherapist and client. Titled Projection, the piece is based on transcripts of Fraser’s own therapy and explores painful dilemmas of being an artist.
The video “session” is actually 12 alternating monologues projected on opposite walls, with chairs placed in between so that the audience has the sense that Fraser is addressing them as well as the image on the other side. Fraser appears life size on each wall, sitting in an orange Arne Jacobsen chair and dressed in the same clothes — a black tunic and flats, her dark hair tumbling loose. There is no definite beginning or end to the series of monologues where she embodies, in turn, a cool and collected psychotherapist and a distraught, reflective client. “I feel like I’m producing this for you. I am trying to figure out what you want,” she says, covering her eyes.
I was unaware of Fraser’s work but afterwards learned that she is known for her Institutional Critique of the art world. Artists, as well as art institutions and art scenes, often aim to challenge the status quo by exposing power relations and inequality. But, as Fraser has expressed in her extensive body of work over the past two decades (see Official Welcome, 2001 and Untitled, 2003), art itself is a commodity. Art by well-known artists commands astronomical prices that strain the resources of the museums and public institutions that acquire it. Some of the most avid art collectors today are key players in the global economy, where the gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider while the wealthy use art as investment vehicles.
Fraser draws on theorizing from sociology and psychoanalysis to lay bare the troubling paradoxes of the art world and art production. In particular she uses sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of Habitus, which essentially means that the all-encompassing social systems that imbue meaning and value (in this case, to art) are the same ones that reproduce inequality. Artists cannot stand on higher ground and lob their artistic commentary at society, like cannon balls fired at castle walls. They cannot position themselves outside of systems of power, because there is no outside.
Projection is a more personal reflection on the themes that run throughout Fraser’s work. As therapist she is challenging and watchful; as client she struggles to confront her privilege and responsibility, which sit uncomfortably with her own emotional needs. “I’m caught between loving enough and hating and wanting to destroy,” she sobs. “It’s just that if I do that I still don’t get love.”
My travelling companion and I sat and watched the monologues all the way through… and then watched them twice more (she’s a star). Is that what it’s like? She asked, fidgeting. I shrugged. Other people trickled into the room. Generally they stood for a moment, probably adjusting to the low light and the image on the screen, but most left again pretty quickly. Maybe it was enough for them to know this was a portrayal of therapy and that’s all they needed to satisfy their curiosity? Or maybe therapy was not what they came to the Tate to see?
“I’m caught between loving enough and hating and wanting to destroy,”— Andrea Fraser
Thinking about it later I wondered, is that what it’s like? Fraser as therapist is believable, with all the tropes — expressive hand gestures, leaning forward, asking “how does that make you feel?” But in Projection, Fraser is quite literally talking to herself. Therapy is something we do with someone else — that’s a necessary part of what makes it therapy. For example, my therapist may be like me in a great many ways — subject to the losses, joys and terror that come with being human. But my therapist is not me. She tries as hard as she can to understand what it means to be me, while still grounded in the knowledge of what it is to be her. Hopefully, the conversation in therapy creates the possibility of empowerment and change.
Katharine King is a relational psychotherapist in private practice, in downtown Toronto.