My painting draws together references to Joseph Beuys, Sigmund Freud and Richard Wagner through the famous Bruno Bettelheim case study of 1959, ‘Joey the Mechanical Boy’, about an autistic boy named Joey who behaved as if he were a machine: “he could not drink, except through elaborate piping systems – liquids had to be pumped into him”. Born in Austria, Bettelheim was a Freudian child psychologist who had spent 11 months in Buchenwald concentration camp before emigrating to America. The case study describes how Joey created his own prison-heterotopia: imprisoned in his own mechanical fluids (Bettelheim states that for a long time Joey spoke about ‘master-paintings’ and a ‘master-painting room’) – Joey paradoxically became the driver of his own machine.
In the painting itself, a charred frame within the frame contains an unauthenticated work on paper by Beuys (dated 1955, the year Beuys’s studio caught fire) bought by myself at auction, of a circle and hearts, using hare’s blood and fat as the medium. Forms in the Beuys original are echoed throughout the painting as a whole (circular saw, ball-cock, melting Wagner vinyl records). Like Schrodinger’s cat, the work on paper within the painting hovers uncomfortably between things that are and things that aren’t: whether the work is indeed a Beuys; whether ‘social sculpture’ and the high aspirations of Wagner, Beuys and Bettelheim for humanity and society (the Wagnerian ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ which Beuys espoused) can square with their own self-generated fictions and personas, or even with their ambiguous relationship to Judaism/social fracture.
The Beuys hangs from the copper tubing outer-frame. Controlled and calibrated by taps, spray-pump and meter, tubes from the copper frame send vital fluid into two halves of a pew chair (an allusion to Beuys’s seminal work ‘Fat Chair’ – and to Bettelheim’s descriptions of Joey referring to butter as ‘grease’ and water as ‘liquid’). A swatch of cloth acquired by me from Sigmund Freud’s household couch bandages the broken leg of the chair, in the way that Beuys’s broken body was wrapped in animal fat and felt and nursed back to health by Tartar tribesmen after he was shot down on the Crimean front while in the Luftwaffe (this story has been disputed). Horsehair from Freud’s couch fills the prayerbook holder. There are two Wagner vinyl records of Tristan & Isolde which are melted, fat-like, by the heat of the copper-tube plumbing system across the chairs: one has a pipe skewering its centre, the other emerges from the frame itself. A third Wagner record, stretched by a lavatory pull, slides out of the frame above. A fourth, fake-mirrored vinyl record creates two prostheses for the severed chair. The LP labels have a picture of an angel (as a young boy Wagner played an angel in a theatrical production by his stepfather): some musicologists identify the so-called ‘Tristan chord’ as the beginning of modern atonality, inspiring Debussy, Schonberg and others; while many of the ideas in Tristan & Isolde, like the association of love and death (eros and thanatos) pre-date Freud’s investigation.
For me, the Bettelheim case study exemplifies the difference between the suspended disbelief of a wall-piece, as against the actuality of a piece of sculpture. Crucially, the wall-piece is a way of describing what happens when you look through a frame to examine a world within a world. The frame and its fractalised ‘windowness’ is my painting’s defining characteristic: the frame denotes where one world ends and another begins, and yet in my painting the worlds collide: the circular saw travels around the painting as it attempts to cut through the frame and escape, just as Beuys, Freud, Wagner and Bettelheim are entangled in the entropy of a historical framework from which there is no escape, but from which there may be profitable dialogue.