“In the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state.” No points for guessing who wrote that one. In Freud’s opening salvo from The Interpretation of Dreams, he sets out a project that is equally expansive and quixotic. With the benefit of hindsight, one could be forgiven for sneering. The idea of a “senseful psychological structure” in our waking life increasingly seems absurd, as thinkers from across the social and cognitive sciences have demonstrated (witness the “Behavioural Economics” project of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and the recent Nobel laureate, Richard Thaler, for accessible and demonstrative, if suitably dismal, examples). Opinions differ on the status of dreams in contemporary, post-Freudian psychology, but the urge to find meaning in dreamed experience remains as quite powerful. Happily, one need not make this a matter for exact science. Sofia Stevi’s current exhibition, Turning Forty Winks into a Decade, at the BALTIC gallery in Gateshead can attest to the value of allowing dreams to be dreams, unresolved, semi-formed, and gnomic though they may be. Her show brings together a number of large scale wall-works created with Japanese ink, a table top of small booklets, and a selection of fabric works to create a space suitable for dreaming if not sleeping.
Stevi’s images are often both allusive and elusive, a daintily-cuffed hand appears here, rubbery bones there against fields of pink and black and grey. Seeking a “senseful structure” for the images and proto-images that appear in her work is as pointless as trying to nail Marmite to a wall – perhaps fitting subject matter for a dream, or some future Stevi work – but for all their ambiguity, they retain an aesthetic integrity and sufficient stylistic unity to span the various media presented as part of the show. A show like this could easily descend into gossamer fumblings, or a quasi-authoritarian polemicism (you WILL believe the Freud! You WILL believe!), but Stevi keeps the things that need to be tight tight and allows the things that must be untethered to float about in organic ways. The BALTIC’s spacious galleries allow the works the opportunity to breathe and to expand, never quite integrating into something as banal as a narrative, but always continuing from one another whever the viewer joins the parade of colour and figure. The gallery text makes much of the literary and philosophical references in Stevi’s work, and the reader can find potential nodes on which to hang this assertion: perhaps the artist has recently been reading Gogol, perhaps not. In one sense, it hardly matters; if interpreting dreams is a mug’s game, interpreting works about dreams is a game for the muggiest mug. The works certainly establish dialogues with illustration and cartooning, but they seek no approval from these genres. The lightness of touch was, for me, a positive thing, but someone with a different frame of mind could perhaps argue that the stylistic references mash aesthetics up without fully metabolising them. In this way, the images can function somewhat like another early psychological diagnostic: the Rorschach blot. The viewer sees what the viewer comes to see, but, Stevi does not appear to be interested in diagnosing anyone, even herself, rather she simply seems to enjoy limning the boundaries of her perception and letting the viewer experience her results.
Turning Forty Winks into a Decade
Until 22 April 2018
Images: Sofia Stevi, Turning forty winks into a decade installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison
© 2017 BALTIC