Amy Winehouse: Fragments

Asif Kapadia’s documentary (Amy, 2015) paints a portrait of the singer Amy Winehouse through a montage of material: archive footage gathered from television and radio broadcasts, home videos and interviews with people whose lives were intertwined with her own. Presenting the subject in fragments through myriad lenses, the film raises the question, who really knew this woman? What does it mean to be known?

In an interview with the Guardian, Kapadia has made clear his intention to challenge the media image of Amy and present a ‘true version of events’. He dismissed comments by acquaintances which he felt to be inauthentic, telling his interviewees, ‘I don’t think you really met Amy. The person you describe, that’s not Amy.’ The truth, of course, is elusive, filtered through subjective perception. In his selection of material, the director is showing us his own version of Amy. However, the unconventional absence of a guiding voiceover leaves the film open to interpretation. We are invited to form our own opinions from the material at hand and revise them in the light of new information.

Amy is presented as a young woman rising to fame whilst becoming increasingly lost in her addictions to drugs and alcohol. A conflict runs throughout her life between creative and destructive forces, culminating in her death aged 27. She died alone at home, by then estranged from potentially supportive friends and family. The film is more a celebration of her life than an investigation of her death, but the knowledge of her tragic ending haunts the narrative throughout and provokes curiosity about what went wrong as well as what went right.

As in psychoanalysis, what is concealed is as significant as what is revealed: the unknown can only be inferred from the known. The more visible Amy becomes in the public eye, the more material there is available for analysis. The roots of her struggles are obscured, but there are hints from which we might create our own version of the story.

Amy is first presented as a teenager, at once precocious and diffident, shying away from a camera’s glare and playing up to it, in turns. We then circle back to her childhood, although the material is scarce. Photographs and voiceovers give an impression of Amy as a playful and creative child, deeply affected by her parents’ separation when she was nine years old. We might infer from the separation that her parents’ relationship was troubled in Amy’s earlier years, although the details are missing. Her infancy is a void to be wondered about.

Amy’s mother makes her only appearance at this point, not as a physical presence but as a voiceover, taken from a radio interview: ‘I didn’t know how to control her. She used to say to me, Mum, you have to take charge.’ Connections have been made in psychoanalytic theory between infantile feelings of emptiness and the later attempt to contain unbearable feelings through recourse to drugs (Weegman and Cohen, 2002). Her mother’s brief but revealing comment indicates a lack of containment in Amy’s early life, which may have influenced her addictive tendencies later on.

Her father is much more present in the film, although his avid involvement in her career highlights his lack of attention to her emotional and physical state. Having apparently shown little interest in his daughter during her childhood, he reappears when she is emerging in the public eye. Amy’s adoration of her well-intentioned but disappointing father elicits sympathy. His advice that she shouldn’t seek professional help for her alcohol dependency led to the song that elevated her to world fame. The apparently defiant lyrics of ‘Rehab’ mask the vulnerability of a young woman so devoted to her father that she colludes with his view that she is fine when she is visibly becoming ever more fragile.

Her passionate but destructive relationship with husband Blake Fielder-Civil seems to echo patterns with both parents. Like her father, Blake disappears when times are tough for Amy, but reappears to enjoy her success. The couple is shown to oscillate between phases of fusion and of separation. Bonded by their addictions, it is likely that both are seeking reparation for an early lack of maternal containment, but repeating patterns of self-destruction which compromise the capacity to sustain a loving relationship.

The tragedy, in Amy’s case, is that we can see that, as a teenager, she had the sense that her music offered a creative solution to difficult feelings. ‘I’m lucky to have my music’ she says, where ‘some people don’t have an outlet for depression.’ We see her quietly composing songs on her guitar: she seems to have integrity and focus and to take real pleasure in the creative process, rather than being driven by the desire for success. She says, somewhat flippantly, ‘If I ever became famous, I think I’d kill myself.’ Even though this comment is dubious in the light of her later success – she did not rise to fame by accident – there is still some indication of an early awareness that celebrity could exacerbate her destructive tendencies and stifle her creativity.
Paula Heimann (1963) regarded fame as ‘love from the distant many, needed when there is not enough from the few near ones.’ This kind of love from a distance is bound to be deficient, since it is based on projection rather than intimate contact and genuine understanding. As Amy’s story develops, so the audience watching her grows larger, from one-to-one home videos to vast auditoriums. As she grows in the eyes of the distant many, so she seems to shrink, both physically and psychically. Images of a gaunt, pale Amy intoxicated on crack cocaine bring to mind John Steiner’s concept of ‘psychic retreats’, states of mind experienced as ‘places of safety in which the patient can seek refuge from reality.’ (Steiner, 1993) The more renowned Amy becomes, the more estranged she appears to be from herself. At her final show in Serbia, she appears on stage like a lost little girl, refusing or unable to perform. A commentator remarks, ‘She doesn’t know where she is.’

Kapadia shows people drifting in and out of Amy’s life, just as she drifts in and out of her own mind, implying that being known in a helpful way has something to do with consistent relationships. There is a sense that people let her down, that no one helped her – but there is also a sense that she was difficult to help. At one stage she does manage to conquer her addictions and abstain from alcohol. She appears to be delighted as she wins a Grammy Award, then confides in a friend backstage, ‘It’s just so boring without drugs’. At the end of her life, it seems that potentially supportive friends had given up trying to stay in contact with her, having been repeatedly rejected.

What comes to light is that, to be known and intimately understood, we have to allow ourselves to be contacted on a deep level. The boundlessness of the unconscious means there will always be areas of us that are inaccessible to others and to ourselves, but the endeavour to stay open to the possibility of being known can make the unknown areas less frightening. In Amy’s case, substance misuse made her less and less available for the kind of relationship that might have helped her to draw strength from her creativity.

Weegmann, R. and Cohen, R. ed. (2002) The Psychodynamics of Addiction. London: Whurr Publishers
Heimann, P. (1963) Joan Riviere (1883–1962). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 44:231
Steiner, J. (1996) The Aim Of Psychoanalysis In Theory And In Practice. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 77:1076

Published in the British Psychoanalytic Council’s magazine New Associations 18, November 2015
Articles. dreamlands


The Photographers’ Gallery, London
15 June – 2 August 2015

Dreamlands, a new body of work by British photographer Rob Ball, comprises a series of tintypes created on the site of a disused amusement park in Margate, Kent.

Entering the exhibition, we are invited into a world that, like a dream, is emotionally charged and whose meaning is ambiguous. Faded images of the derelict site create an atmosphere of mournful decay. The scaffolding of dormant rides with their twists and turns evoke the faint sound of distant screams: excitement takes on an ominous tone. Run-down cafes with empty tables and broken umbrellas whisper of desertion. There are no people in these images, but people from the past are everywhere present in their absence, giving them a haunting quality. Overgrown weeds encroach on the relics of buildings: the park becomes a kind of graveyard testament to the death of a childhood dream.

Articles. dreamlands2Freud thought of the dream image as a layered one, consisting of a day residue superimposed on a stored long-term memory. The method of tintype photography employed by Ball creates a sense of psychic layers. The image is made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer. Residues of dust, debris, fingerprints and the quality of daylight are recorded on its surface, whilst the landscape emerges in the background. This adds to the sense of layers of memory, both recent and distant, and speaks of the past in the present. An interesting feature of the tintype is that each image is direct, meaning that text in these photographs reads backwards. It is as though, when looking at these images, we are looking into a mirror at a world of reflection and disorientation, not quite finding ourselves.

Wandering around the gallery space, the viewer becomes a dreamer in a strange setting created by someone else, but also recreated in his or her personal experience of the photographs. Other people in the gallery appear as strangers in the exhibition-as-dream. We become aware of our own movements in the space, around other people who may at times obscure our view or divert our course. This echoes the experience of being in an amusement park, or any other public space designed for leisure.

The language of dreams, as Jung observed, provides images which appeal to the deeper strata of the psyche. These photographs make an impression on the mind and linger after the experience. The effort to put the experience of the exhibition-as-dream into words is an attempt to understand their emotional charge.

As an internal world, Dreamlands appears to be devastated, even traumatized. However, the artist’s words offer a sense of hope. Rob Ball said: ‘I have childhood memories of going to Dreamland as a boy and noting its decline and state of disrepair even then. Having spent the past two years in the space, I do feel this series has become about restoration and the restorative. There is a sense of ‘something that was broken and slowly being put back together again.’

A decade-long campaign to restore the site has recently come to fruition. The opening of the exhibition coincided with the re-opening of the transformed amusement park. This offers hope that, with enough determination and collaboration, the ruins of the mind can be repaired and revitalized.
Articles. parthenon

Sculpture: Bodies in Space

Defining Beauty: The Body in Greek Art
The British Museum
26 March – 5 July 2015

Defining Beauty: The Body in Greek Art, an exhibition of Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum, invites us into a realm of disconcerting, awe-inspiring objects whose emotional charge is perhaps not as straightforward as the quotes on the wall imply. Aristotle states that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation,’ giving a mathematical view of aesthetic appeal. Socrates speaks of bringing together the best features of many models in order to portray ‘ideal types of beauty’.

The notion of the ideal was prevalent in Ancient Greek art. The subjects worthy of portrayal seem to be mythical gods and goddesses and the occasional human being who was considered to be exceptionally heroic. However, what we are presented with in the current exhibition is a gathering of forms rendered imperfect by those standards, although powerfully beautiful none the less. Presented as original ancient relics, rather than glossy marble reconstructions, they appear as fragments, weathered by time and movements in transit. Bodies have been mutilated, decapitated, castrated. We gaze into faces without noses, witness limbless men locked in combat and wonder at headless women dancing wildly in the wind.

This is an assemblage of part-objects that carry the implication of whole objects and evoke an impression of violent destruction. This brings to mind a Kleinian internal world, ‘an inferno of mental sexuality and violence, occurring in a realm called unconscious phantasy’ (Royston, 2001) As viewers, we become witnesses to the destruction of valuable objects. The fact that they exist for us to see today is testament to the lengths various people have gone to in order to preserve them. In the background, a debate rages on about where these sculptures should belong – to the British Museum, or to their home country, currently in economic distress? The exhibition is a statement about entitlement in defence of ongoing accusations of plundering and depriving a country in need. This creates a sense of unease when wandering freely amongst the sculptures – there is a sense of suppressed, unspoken guilt.

The director Neil MacGregor asserts that the British Museum is the best custodian for these ancient treasures and refutes accusations of plundering by reminding us that, of its many loans, not one of them is from the Greek Museum. The borrowing (or theft) is therefore widespread and goes back many years. This is testament to the universal appeal of the objects and emphasizes the Jungian view of the collective unconscious which, he maintains, speaks to us through myths. This collection bears witness to the enduring significance of myths, featuring deities of the sun, earth and sea in postures depicting expressions of the human passions.

If we say with Keats, beauty is truth, then the truth emerges from the tension between the contradictions in this exhibition: endurance and decay, preservation and destruction, stasis and movement. In Jungian terms, the conflict of opposites gives rise to the possibility of transcendence. The experience of this exhibition does have a transcendental quality.

In an eighteenth century treatise on Laocoon, Gotthold Lessing defined sculpture as ‘bodies in space’. Rosalind Krauss in 1977 pointed to the power of sculpture to make the viewer aware of his or her own body in the space, in relation to the inanimate objects. These sculptures are larger than life, originally positioned high up on the Parthenon, towering over the viewers. Here they are set lower down, their feet or torsoes at eye level, so that we are given the view of a child among powerful adults.

As in psychoanalysis, it is the interaction between bodies in space that facilitate an emotional engagement with internal objects projected onto an external figure. Representational images of the sculptures cannot have the same impact on the viewer as direct experience of them in real space. The power of this exhibition lies in its ability to bring out passionate feelings rooted in childhood in a visceral way.

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