Cover image of the review

Installation view of Jelena Telecki, Mothers, Fathers, 2024, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: Felicity Jenkins.

Mothers, Fathers


1 Jun 2024
Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) 9 Mar - 2 Jun 2024

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud describes a game played by his eighteen-month-old grandson Ernst. The toddler would repeatedly throw objects from his cot while making an “o-o-o” sound, which Freud and Ernst’s mother Sophie interpreted as the German word fort (“go, gone, away”). One day, Freud found Ernst playing with a wooden reel with a length of string tied around it, which the toddler would throw over the edge of his cot (fort), then reel back by its string, exclaiming da! Freud interprets this game of fort–da in two ways: in the first, the game restages the disappearance and reappearance of the mother with objects, thus affording the child control over her absence (she will return); in the second, the child satisfies a repressed impulse to “revenge himself on his mother for going away from him.” For Freud, Ernst’s fort–da is a working through of ambivalence—the unconscious knowledge that the things, or people, we love most are the cause of our greatest psychic suffering. In infancy, it slowly dawns on us that the mother’s breast or bottle (and by extension, the mother or guardian) is an external “other”: a gulf opens, between pleasure and fear of abandonment. There, gone, there, gone again. This vulnerability never goes away. Haunting our mutually dependent relationships, it is what binds us to one another—in love, in pain, in “angst and rebellion.” This, in Freud’s terms, is the central crisis of inheritance.

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