Return into maternal womb

“In practical child-analysis, the tendency to reparation
manifests itself in a child demonstrating feelings of guilt
while trying to repair a ruined toy or with great seriousness
offering its dearest possessions as gifts
to people it has previously wronged [1]

Ole Andkjaer Olsen

It's all about ME, Not You (1996)

It’s all about ME, Not You (1996)
Mattress Factory
wood, vinyl siding, Astroturf, paint, artwork [2]

     The life and work of talented artist Greer Lankton are so extraordinary and controversial that it is hard to resist the temptation of hazarding a pathographical reading of them. It is useful to remember that the pathographical analyze is a kind of narrative psychoanalytic approach to the arts and it was introduced and applied by Freud in his remarkable essays on Leonardo Da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s work. Instead here we are attempting a more rigorous reading of Lankton’s practice and career through psychoanalytic topics commonly used in art history.

     Lankton was an installation artist whose grotesque and dismembered life-like dolls and figures, surrounded by romantic objects and religious images, point explicitly at what is her desire. Even if we knew nothing of her biography, of her transexuality, of her sexual-reassignment surgery, we could immediately perceive through her creations the struggled relationship with her own body and childhood, with the imperative desire of affirmation either of herself or her identity. The desire we are talking about regards herself in a quite egoistical way. “It’s All About ME, Not You” is the title of her last exhibition at the Mattress Factory (shown in the picture above) suggesting the autobiographical nature of her work as well as the proud affirmation of her identity and unorthodox femininity.

     Dolls and flowers are recurrent themes in Lankton’s work appearing like “transitional objects”, that is to say, according to Donald Winnicott’s theory, objects that enable a baby in his pre-Oediphal phase to separate from the mother. Jacques Lacan also calls this phase of the enfant the “imaginary phase” describing it as the time when a baby becomes aware of his body, when he formulates the idea of otherness, when he sees itself in a mirror and begins to develop the idea of the self.

     A relationship between mirrored self and bodily others is actually visible in Lankton’s installation at Mattress Factory where dolls representing the artist itself, unidentified women and allegories of commercial and popular puppets are arranged in a domestic, object-crowned environment where it is possible to find mundane objects as well as shameful personal things like more than 200 empty prescription bottles. The installation, which should replicate her own house, seems to address instead the house of her dreamed childhood and at the same time her actual misery and pain.

It's all about ME, Not You (1996)

     According to Rosalind Krauss’ claim that “the artist is not a master in control of the process of creating and viewing, so much as a force who releases unconscious drives and desires through represented seeing[3]”, we can argue, from the melancholic tensions present in her puppets and dolls, that Lankton drives not only toward issues of gender, sexuality and identity but consistently toward a nostalgia of her childhood and her lost innocence. Two forces seems to act in her unconscious: the ambition to fulfill the self and the desire to return close to the protective breast of the mother.

     Emblematic is at the center of the room a matriarchal figure with the huge breasts, beautiful in her opulence, opposed with the thinness of the other figures, looking almost anorexic. Also the theme of anorexia is recurrent in Lankton’s work and it may be read as a metaphor of conscious regret about her incomplete femininity. Anorexic women are thin as models, the quintessential object of male desire but they are not feminine since they are, as sick individuals, unable to experience maternity. Lankton’s feel of feminine incompleteness transpires also through Julia Morton’s memoires of the artist revealing that her desire is considerably affected by the male acceptance of her femininity: “While her public life soared, her private relationships were a constant source of heartbreak. Greer “passed” quite well, and guys were always interested. They’d date and start having sex, and then at some point she’d feel compelled to tell the whole truth, and the affair would end — sometimes violently[4]”.

     The disruptive attitude Lankton expressed toward dolls and figures, which are often dismembered, deformed, injured, ripped, altered in a grotesque look, is an evidence of her anxieties and unconscious sense of guilt. According to Melanie Klein’s theory of art as reparation[5], i.e. a way for atone for the fantasies of hatred and destruction that the infant harbored about the maternal body, her work may appear something similar to an auto-punishment, a punishment she may deserve even more because she had not been the “ideal” and “perfect” (heterosexual ed.n.) child. She destroys her creations as she would destroy herself. That way her destruction of the artificial bodies represents unconscious fantasies of dismemberment of her maternal “bad breast”, a stereotypical violent and subversive infantile fantasy but reversed on herself.

     In conclusion it should not be forgotten another important psychological issue that is relevant in Lankton’s practice: the theme of the uncanny. Dolls, dismembered bodies, sick figures looking dead, religious icons in a mundane environment are all classical types of uncanny representations. In a formal point of view the uncanny is a fascinating, seducing and at the same time frightening effect stimulated into the viewer by some representations that touch his unconscious. Psychoanalysis opens up a wide range of interpretations about the uncanny. Freud itself argued that “this species of the uncanny stems from its proximity to the castration complex[6]” which may seem a sentence even too explicit and literal in our analyze. He also claims that “psychoanalysis has taught us that this terrifying fantasy is only a transformation of another fantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all […] the fantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence [7]”. The uncanny in Greer Lankton’s work may assume value of unconscious representation of an intimate desire, i.e. to return at the former home of all human beings: the protective maternal womb.

[1] Ole Andjkaer Olsen, “Depression and reparation as themes in Melanie Klein’s analysis of the painter Ruth Weber”(2004) in “Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Revue n.27”. University Press of Southern Denmark; 2004. P.36

[2] Pictures courtesy by ;

[3] Anne D’Alleva, “Methods & Theories of Art History”. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd; 2005. P.104 ;

[4] Julia Morton. “Greer Lankton, a Memoir”. Artnet magazine. Last access 12/20/11 ;

[5] Melanie Klein, “Infantile anxiety situations reflected in a work of art and in the creative impulse” in “The Writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. 1)”. London: Hogarth (Reprinted from International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10); 1929. PP 436-443. ;

[6] Sigmund Freud. “The Uncanny”. 1919 Last access 12/20/11 ;

[7] Idem

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