'‘Icthyosaurus’ - Ellen Gallagher
The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, NW3.
28 July – 11 Sept 2005
Ichthyosaurus (pronounced IK-thee-oh-SAWRus) was a reptile that lived in the oceans some 200 million years ago. To Ellen Gallagher, the term evokes an arcane scientific code, a distant, deeply embedded memory and her site-specific work was inspired by Freud’s lesser-known early period of research into neuroscience and marine biology from 1876-1896. Gallagher’s project for the Freud Museum comprised a series of paintings and two 16 mm films installed in the famous study and library. While in his early twenties, Freud did his own research on sea creatures at the marine zoology laboratory in Trieste. Writing to his friend Edward Silberstein in 1875, Freud contemplates his future career, perhaps as an oceanographer: “...had I been asked last year what was my dearest wish, I would have replied: a laboratory and free time, or a ship on the ocean with all the instruments a scientist needs... “. By coincidence, Ichthyosaura was also a code used by the young Freud when writing to Silberstein, to describe a girl (Gisela Fluss) that he had a secret crush on. Freud’s early passion for marine biology is suggested by the so-called ‘Hollthurn’ dream published in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (˜1900). He describes a recollection of a dream about finding a starfish washed up on the beach at Blackpool, England in 1875.. . “When I was nineteen years old I visited England for the first time and spent a whole day on the shore of the Irish Sea. I naturally reveled in the opportunity of collecting the marine animals left behind by the tide...” .
Gallagher finds an affinity with Freud’s early fascination for oceanography and his surprisingly accomplished drawing skills. Before she embarked on an artistic career she was a science student and recalls spending a semester on a sailing boat in the Caribbean, catching, studying and drawing wing-footed water sails. Since 2001, she has made an ongoing series of drawings and 16mm film projections entitled ‘Watery Ecstatic’. They portray an undersea world as a dream-like space, which she relates to the mythical Drexciya, a utopian world like Atlantis, populated by black women and children thrown overboard from slave ships. Her drawings show fantastical seacreatures, crustaceans, exotic seaweed and the trailing tentacles of strange jellyfish. This imagery also appears in her films, made in collaboration with Edgar Cleijne, where she uses a variety of animation techniques that include working directly on the filmstrip by scratching into the emulsion layer.
Her two projections, sited within the highly ‘charged’ space of Freud’s study and library, feature a fictional oceanographer passing through the frames like a ghost, searching for these exotic sea creatures. She has also installed specimen jars containing eels and other marine specimens fabricated from paper and wax. These relate to Freud’s research into the nervous systems of the lamprey (Petromyzon) and his exquisite series of drawings were specially displayed in the study for the first time to coincide with Gallagher’s exhibition. Freud’s drawings reveal his keen observation and are full of precise details rendered very naturalistically. Scholars think that these early researches, inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, would have been an important influence on his entire oeuvre, applying similar principles in his search for the precise structure of the human psyche. Ernest Jones, his biographer, spoke of Freud as ‘the Darwin of the mind’ .
Gallagher also produced her own version of Freud’s celebrated photogravure of Abu Simbel, the original of which usually hangs above the library fireplace. “I give the picture a slightly less Eurocentric perspective, a more multi directional flow from ancient Egypt to Sun Ra to George Clinton.” (EG)