Published on the occasion of group exhibition, The Split, 2017.
This separation of oneself from one's needs and feelings is an instinctive maneuver in order to shut off excessive pain. We call it the split. The organism splits in order to protect its continuity.
I came across a book, The Primal Scream, Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis, authored by Arthur Janov, on the street. I had found the tattered copy of the original edition (published by Dell Publishing Co. in 1970) sitting in a gutter in Manhattan's Upper West Side, just a block or so away from the Dakota on West 72nd Street. I was drawn to its enigmatic cover image (in this particular edition: a mouth, wide-open and apparently screaming, emerging through the cover of what appears to be a bolted box or book), its promotion as a cure for neurosis, and its title promising a potential link to the Reichian method, a specially painful form of a regressive therapy that my partner had undergone in previous years.
According to Janov's Primal technique, patients absolve themselves from their neurosis and deeply layered repression, while simultaneously avoiding psychosis, by reliving the original trauma through the seemingly simple task of screaming one's pain away. Since its initial release in 1970, the book has sold more than one million copies internationally and has been translated into various foreign languages. It quickly became infamous perhaps because of its profound effect on superstars John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who underwent Primal therapy in early 1970, and who also lived in the neighborhood in which I found my copy of the book. The album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December of the same year neatly and loudly records their involvement with Janov. Lennon and Ono, and Vietnam, were of course the cultural reality of my parents' generation, not mine.
My main interest in Janov's unique view is how early childhood trauma is experienced (both in minor and severe forms) and how, to cope —as a protective maneuver— the organism instinctively splits, thus suppressing unfelt feelings and creating unreal needs. Through a successful primal therapy session, by figuratively touching the pain the trauma is relived and thus resolved. I also enjoy that fact that Primal Theory is essentially anti-Freudian as it bypasses language and focuses on 'the organism that knows but cannot feel'.
If the task of critical culture, in Freudian terms, is the return of the repressed, illustrated by pitting subculture against culture, low against high, and oppressed against canonical; then, in Primal terms, the task of this exhibition is not to thematize Primal theory and its subcultures, but to investigate the method of how each artist arrived at the work they create: the primal practice.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the implicit simplification inherent to a pop-psychology item of the early seventies, I found the idea of "the split" resonating with many things I've heard in my conversations with artists. Through the simple idea of a split I could look at artists as "organisms" and find commonalities more methodological than cultural. The primal is beyond culture. It's both acultural and anti-cultural. What unites the works in The Split is more "how" the artists arrived to them than "what" they purport to represent —this exhibition hence rejects the thematic or the illustrational while still aspiring to address our contemporary condition.
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This exhibition looks at Primal theory and the notion of The Split through work by eleven artists, Karel Appel, Michel Auder, Sofi Brazzeal, Nicolas Guagnini, Brook Hsu, Dawn Kasper, Sarah Kurten, Jason Loebs, Michael Mahalchick, Ebecho Muslimova, Davina Semo.
This separation of oneself from one's needs and feelings is an instinctive maneuver in order to shut off excessive pain. We call it the split. The organism splits in order to protect its continuity. (Janov, 22)
The exhibition begins with a seminal film by Michel Auder, Talking Head (1981, converted to video in 2009), in which the voyeuristic camera peeks in on a private conversation that a young girl is having with herself. In her monologue, she reminisces about a 'thing', a thing that is loved but is never coming back again. The repetition of her pining for this 'thing' invokes a trauma; the young girl is unable to fulfill her desire for having this wonderful 'thing' and obsesses on the fact or fantasy about the things' possible or impossible pending return. This moment enacts "The Split", the moment where trauma is split from one's conscious and formed into a displaced neurosis in order to cope.
Neurotic needs are unnatural ones -- they develop from the non-satisfaction of real needs. (Janov, 23).
Jason Loebs' documentation of the results of rolling a 20-sided di over and over again is an unnatural need. The toss of the di exists only for the artists' desire to document the results. For the purposes of this exhibition, a hyper-repetitive act such as rolling a di thousands of times simply to document the results, represents a symbolic behavior in defense against excessive psychobiologic pain. In the process of creating this work, Loebs tossed and recorded the results of the di nearly 500 times. This neurotic di-rolling is self-perpetuating, because symbolic satisfactions cannot fulfill real needs. In order for real needs to be satisfied, they must be felt and experienced (Janov, 23). If those needs are not met, the pain is suppressed and tension endures, leaving the individual seeking to satisfy those needs in any way possible.
The need to express oneself as a child can be suppressed, even by the lack of anyone listening. Such denial may turn into a need to talk incessantly. (Janov, 23-24)
Sara Kurten's audio work, The Room (2016), is a harmonic audio round where the artist's voice overlaps on itself, monotonously repeating a series of contradictory descriptions of a space, "The Room," which is both there and nowhere, contains nothing yet has everything. Repeated exposure to The Room evokes a dissonance between what is felt and what is real.
What distinguishes psychosis from neurosis is the degree and complexity of symbolization. In neurosis there is still an ample hold on reality. In psychosis that hold may be lost, and the person may be enveloped by symbolism, no longer being able to differentiate between symbols and reality. (Janov, 352)
A selection of drawings by Sofi Brazzeal are displayed from floor to ceiling in the gallery. Through thousands of sketches on paper, the artist illustrates fantastical and surreal --as well as banal and inane-- scenarios involving a range of characters in a myriad of landscapes. The variety of symbolism is vast, and leaves the viewer to become lost in the distinction between realism and surrealism. Brazzeal leaves the compositions loose, and seemingly unfinished -- certainly never canonized on canvas. The artists continually draws, always moving to the next leaf of paper, at an anxious pace.
Anxiety is felt but not correctly focused fear. Anxiety is evoked with the defense system is weakened, allowing the feared feeling to near consciousness. (Janov, 50).
Dawn Kasper's collage, MOUTH (2009), depicts two mouths: one is obscured and thus closed, while another is supposedly wrenched wide open. This piece both represents tension, or unfelt feelings, as well as release, or contact with feelings. Janovs' Primal hypothesis is that this memory [trauma] is stored with the Pain and is restored by feeling the Pain. This single composition depicts both steps of the Primal process.
Pain is both the way in and the way out. (Janov, 35)
Nicolas Guagnini creates ceramic objects of bodiless noses, ears, hands, and penises, reconstructing the lost formations of antiquity, yet resurrecting them violently with oozing glazes reminiscent of blood, bile, or mucus. Ebecho Muslimova acts out extreme scenarios through the guise of her alter-ego, Fat Ebe, who has let all traces of proper femininity go as she farts, burps, bleeds, and lets the curves of her body roll into every nook and cranny of her environment, endlessly acting out against normative ladylike behavior.
Primal Theory indicates that a defense system maintains neurosis and prevents from psychosis; however the neurotic tension forms by these layers of defense may enable a person to function better outwardly, but cause him to be raved by inner tension. (Janov, 20)
In Brook Hsu's painting Vital Agency (2016), the figure rapidly morphs into its own cranial synapses, magnified so greatly that they appear to take over the composition, which is split in half, like one's brain whose cerebral hemispheres dominate different personality traits and control behavioral instincts. Janov posits that personality develops as protection, and thus, it is these nerval networks that determine what makes one calm or agitated, passionate or ambivalent, angry or at ease. The distance between these outward behaviors depend on how strong one's neural defense system is built; in Primal theory, the stronger the defense, the stronger the neurosis.
In an unreal society, those who show the least feeling may be held up as models, while those who show a good deal of feeling are often termed "hysterics" and overemotional. It seems so inverted... In an unreal milieu, dispassion is safe and passion suspect. (Janov, 388)
A collage by Michael Mahalchick repeats the image of a smiling middle-aged man, whose face has been printed on the paddles that were used to bid in a benefit auction for a Northeast nonprofit organization. Mahalchick, whose work often pushes the boundaries of physical limits through Primal Scream-invoking performance, has held nothing back, layering the collages with items from his pockets, street detritus, gum, rubber, resin and more. The steady repetition of the picture-perfect smile of the auctioneer projects assured confidence amongst a chaotic mess.
Insanity is a defense against a crushing reality. People go crazy to keep from telling the truth. (Janov 377)
Finally, the show concludes with a 1963 audio recording of Musique Barbare, an album produced by Danish artist and Cobra co-founder Karel Appel. This 28-minute example of musique concrète demonstrates a cacophonous audio example of a visual artist most well known for his brutish abstract paintings. Drums are banged, metal objects are clanged and cranked, bells are smashed, jars are tinkered, wires are slapped, all leading to a psychotic crescendo in which the artist screams, in what seems almost like an exonerating release, "I don't paint, I hit!" repeated over and over into oblivion.
Janov, Arthur, Ph.D. The Primal Scream, Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis. Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 1970.
Image: Installation view (with Michael Mahalchick, Brook Hsu, Sarah Kurten, Sofi Brazzeal, Michel Auder, Nicolas Guagnini, and Dawn Kasper) of The Split, GRIN, Providence, RI, 2017