“Sun Stand Still” (2017) is the title of Gal Weinstein’s powerful, monumental work in the Israeli Pavilion. Absent from it, however, is the sun that was commanded to stop in order to win a great victory in daylight – the ground for war and triumph in ancient epics. Equally absent is the bright daylight that shone on the cultivated
agricultural plots of the Jezreel Valley in Weinstein’s earlier works (instead, we have Jezreel Valley in the Dark). Nor does Weinstein’s work express the human desire to arrest time in order to control its advancement towards our own end, our aging and death. Instead, we linger within a dark, desolate space haunted by memories of past events, memories of what once was.
At the beginning of the far-reaching, seventh and last chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud unexpectedly proposes that after “the work of interpretation” we veer to a new path – not “towards the light,” but into “darkness.” He writes: “Hitherto, unless I am greatly mistaken, all the paths along which we have travelled have led us towards the light – towards elucidation and fuller understanding. But as soon as we endeavor to penetrate more deeply into the mental process, every path will end in darkness”.1 Gal Weinstein’s work similarly leads us from sunlight to the depths of mental processes of darkness and of arrested psychic time.
Why and when does time stop like this, in a space of darkness, abandonment, and total desolation? In psychoanalytic thought, time stops, freezes, or breaks down within a state of massive psychic trauma and mental catastrophe. In my view, the most powerful statements in the psychoanalytic literature about the depths of intolerable trauma and mental catastrophe are those found in the work of the renowned British psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott. I am referring especially to his two important articles, which were only published posthumously: “Fear of Breakdown,” which appeared in 1974, three years after his death, even though it was probably written in 1963; and its continuation, “The Psychology of
Madness,” which was published in 1965.
Winnicott describes such an early breakdown at the beginning of life as being so terrifying and intolerable that it “happened but has not yet been experienced,” due to the psyche’s inability to withstand the breakdown of ego-organization and the danger of self-disintegration. A new massive defense organization, which is the person’s illness syndrome, is organized against it. Thus, extreme dissociation and the unexperiencing of the trauma cover up for the story of the breakdown and the dissociated reorganization in the name of survival. Yet the pervasive hold of such an underlying breakdown, which can be neither experienced nor thought, remains in the depths of the psyche under the defensive organization, persisting as a haunting, ghostly horror. Consequently, the individual becomes imprisoned in a dissociated, ever-present state that already happened. But since it has not yet been experienced, it cannot be put into the past tense, and is feared and compulsively sought after in the future. It is thus an ongoing catastrophe – then, now, about to happen – never and forever. In Winnicott’s unique words: “The breakdown has already happened, near the beginning of the individual’s life . . . but . . . this thing of the past has not happened yet because the patient was not there for it to happen to.”2
In his article “The Psychology of Madness,” Winnicott goes on to suggest a more complex picture – the breakdown happened, was momentarily experienced, and then not experienced: “there was therefore a split second in which the threat of madness was experienced, but anxiety at this level is unthinkable. Its intensity is beyond description and new defenses are organized immediately so that in fact madness was not experienced. Yet on the other hand madness was potentially a fact . . . the original madness or breakdown of defenses if it were to be experienced would be indescribably painful. The nearest that we can is to take what is available of psychotic anxiety.”3 He returns to this in another article, two years later: “Following traumatic experiences new defenses are quickly organized, but in the split-second before this can take place, the individual has had the continuous line of his or her existence broken by automatic reaction to the [maternal] failure.”4
The agony of breakdown or early madness described by Winnicott, which was dissociated, frozen, or annihilated due to the horror provoked by the massive trauma and subsequently covered by a defensive organization, is further explored in the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden’s “Fear of Breakdown and the Unlived Life.” Ogden, one of the central writers in the field of contemporary psychoanalytic thought, locates the breakdown in the rupture of the mother-infant bond, emphasizing how parts that were unexperienced become “unlived” regions in the individual’s psyche, so that the basic urge is to access and touch these lost, dissociated, and unlived areas and bring them back to life.5
In Gal Weinstein’s work, all these events are given powerful artistic expression. In the video Enlightenment (2017), the burning emotional charge of the early breakdown or madness, the momentary horror of disintegration akin to a stroke of lightening that the psyche could not withstand, short-circuits the human brain, so that psychic reality is overtaken by the darkness of trauma. The world remaining in its aftermath is a world that has broken down and disconnected from the possibility of a live experience, becoming instead a dark, unlived region. In this living-dead world, a world struck by destruction and oriented towards lifelessness and survival, only mold spores can survive, growing and expanding at a harrowingly slow pace.
Nevertheless, Weinstein’s work does not allow this dark and abandoned world to disappear from awareness and die. Rather, he is engaged in an attempt “to show everything in the darkness,”6 holding on tightly to the last thread that ties this world to us – the thread of bearing witness. From within the darkness and unstoppable mold, he narrates and structures its existence; “Out of the depths I cry to you,” the depths of this region of deadness. The mold speaks to us, mesmerizes us, giving expression to an existence that searches for a different hold on life.
The words spoken by the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in London in July 1978, just one year before his death, appear especially relevant and important in this regard: “We are presented with the debris, the vestiges of what was once a patient and what still could be analogous to blowing on the dying embers of a fire so that some spark communicates itself to others; the fire is built up again, although it appeared to be nothing but dead ash. Can we look at all this debris and detect in it some little spark of life?”7
This “spark of life,” the thrust for life, growth, and development, and the struggle against destruction, deadness and annihilation, are an equally constant theme in Winnicott’s work and writing. The big question, however, is whether such a spark of life can be built up and grow again, or whether human life will die out and come to an end. This question is imbued with critical power in Winnicott’s articles on breakdown and madness, a subject taken up again by Ogden. Winnicott describes a deep and unrelenting emotional struggle, since those depths of the traumatic past and of the agony of early breakdown that were frozen, dissociated, not experienced, or annihilated, also contain the memory of the traumatic experience as the kernel of a life that can be truly experienced. This is where the individual’s dread of the traumatic breakdown and the resolve to never again experience it, are embedded together with the great need to, and hope of, reaching this original trauma. For only by once again risking the return of the early trauma, and experiencing an extremely difficult and traumatic emotional truth in its lived state, may experience and meaning break through. This is a struggle for life. This struggle between the space of darkness and deadness and between the will to live is enacted, in my eyes, during the ascent of the pavilion’s staircase and on its upper level. In the work El Al (2017), the mold is replaced by flames and columns of smoke that are released suddenly in a powerful and stunning eruption, in stark contrast to the time frozen within the internal space. They carry within them both destruction and hope of another possibility. Weinstein’s work corroborates the survival of deadness and the annihilation of time and of human existence, while confronting the necessity of emerging from the living-dead place to embrace a violent hope for life.
1 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), part 2, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: The Hogarth Press, Vol. 5, pp. 510–511.
2 D.W. Winnicott, “Fear of Breakdown” (1963?), in G. Kohon (ed.), The British School of Psychoanalysis: The Independent Tradition, London: Free Association Books, 1986, pp. 173–182. Also in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis (eds.), Psychoanalytic Explorations, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 179.
3 W. Winnicott, “The Psychology of Madness: A Contribution from Psychoanalysis” (1965), in C. Winnicott, R. Shepherd, M. Davis, Psychoanalytic Explorations, p. 127.
4 W. Winnicott, “The Concept of Clinical Regression Compared with That of Defence Organization” (1967), in ibid.
5 T.H. Ogden, “Fear of Breakdown and the Unlived Life,” in International Journal of Psychoanalysis 95, 2014, pp. 205–223. Also in Reclaiming Unlived Life, London and New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 47–67.
6 Quoted from Israeli poet Leah Goldberg’s poem Selihot [Forgiveness].
7 W.R. Bion, The Tavistock Seminars, London: Karnac, 2005, pp. 44–45.