Autumn 2006

The Couch

Abbott Miller’s installation for the Freud Museum in Vienna puts exhibition design theory into practice

This Freud Museum installation has been set up in an apartment one flight above the one where Sigmund Freud had his revolutionary practice – a space that he and his wife, Martha, coveted for decades. While the show’s inspiration is the place of the couch within the psychoanalytic encounter, it gestures toward a cultural history of reclining.

Displays of artistic, consumer, historical and literary artefacts deepen the meaning of lying down, and situate Freud’s famous ‘divan’ in its context. From sexual indiscretion to sloth,

for fin de siècle Viennese society, the couch was to be feared as an accomplice to breakdowns in morality and self-control.

In a nod to consumer culture and design history, the exhibition begins with a collection of couches from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It proceeds through displays of early psychotherapeutic methods, from alpine fresh-air treatments to sensory deprivation. In a reading / listening room, one can sample the therapeutic literature and music of the time.

The exhibition continues in the apartment’s former bathroom, where both tub and sink are retrofitted to display electroshock therapy. A tall-legged white metal cage dominates another small room with a straitjacket dangling overhead. A screening room provides a reminder of psychoanalysis’s impact on popular culture, with clips from films and television, including one of the cartoon character Homer Simpson playing analysand to his son, Bart.

Another room houses two carpeted plywood ‘listening chaises’. These forms, more punitive than interactive, play recordings of Austrian psychoanalysts through built-in speakers at ear level. Photographs by Shellburne Thurber depict present-day consulting rooms in North and South America.

The exhibition space, a recent and unrenovated addition to the museum, conveys an apt ‘in process’ feel, a sense the installation magnifies with heavy use of plywood and unfinished lumber. The distraction of the pocked and stained surfaces is subdued by ‘floating floors’ lit from underneath, which snake through passages and fill rooms, producing an effect that is both dreamlike and diluvian. Overhead, the ‘ceiling path ornament’, sinuous black Plexiglas forms provide directional cues.

‘The Couch’ portrays innocuous domestic furnishing as a rich symbolic object. The effect is an informative visualisation of a famously opaque medical discourse.