Under the Influence invites artists to discuss a work that has had a profound impact on their practice. In this edition, ceramic artist Holly Stevenson, who makes fluid forms that explore Sigmund Freud’s favourite ashtray and last cigar, dissects the impact that the psychoanalyst and his work have had upon her art
I’ve been working on my ashtray project for almost six years. I go to psychoanalysis every week and have done for a long time. I was really interested in Sigmund Freud and snuck into the Freud museum in London a while ago as a volunteer [Freud’s desk is housed there as the psychoanalyst left it]. The desk has 65 objects on it but the one that captivated me the most was the ashtray.
The ashtray is a very simple, minimal object. It’s made of marble and is definitely yonic. It could be seen as an eye or a vulva. In my mind it is one of the great abstract sculptures of the 20th century. He had four ashtrays, but this was his favourite. It originally came from Russia, which is interesting to me as my grandmother was a Russian refugee.
My early sculptures in the project were replicas of Freud’s ashtray. Even the patina. Then I started making theatres of these little faces that were psychodynamically working with each other in the arena of the ashtray. And from that it grew. There are different characters that repeat now and relate to different ideas or traumas that I am working through. The figures are almost like actors in my world.
It’s funny that this piece is called Under the Influence, as it becomes a kind of Freudian slip. He was under the influence of cocaine and nicotine, to the extent that in his later years he suffered very badly. He had a prosthetic jaw. He had to prop his mouth open with a clothes peg to smoke cigars, never cigarettes or a pipe. It was his big passion. You can still smell the smoke in that study, and there is a phallic cigar in the ashtray.
“The ashtray and the cigar have become my alphabet. In the sculptures generally there is always the vessel and the cigar in some form”
I imagine the ashtray was important to Freud as he used it every day. To me this beautiful object became an analytical metaphor for psychoanalysis. It’s a place to put your traumas, addictions, problems, thoughts. The ashtray in and of itself also became a solution for making sculpture. It became a kind of plinth. My place to put what I wanted on top of it.
The ashtray and the cigar have become my alphabet. In the sculptures generally there is always the vessel and the cigar in some form. I am very interested in androgyny, gender, and pushing form to arrive at some tension between male and female where something else might be configured.
I studied at Chelsea College of Arts, which has a long line of sculptors who make very psychologically originated figurative work. You have Elizabeth Frink, Gavin Turk, Helen Chadwick, the list is quite endless. Even John Latham, Barry Flanagan. I think that type of expression really interests me.
“The ashtray is a very simple, minimal object. It’s made of marble and is definitely yonic. It could be seen as a vulva”
I wanted to understand psychoanalysis through making. From faithfully remaking the object in clay, I had the chance to learn very basic hand-building techniques within the form of the ashtray and cigar. I also wanted to talk about gender and my position as a woman. And between those two forms I saw the possibility of making a conversation about the things I was interested in.
I love the idea of being serious or intellectual and at the same time having a frivolous edge. Playing is so important. My favourite quote about Freud is from Louise Bourgeois, claiming that his collection is basically just his toys. He spent ages arranging things and going off to collect things. Toys are really important. I think artists retain that sense of play all their life. It’s probably why ceramic classes are having such a resurgence.
I am always searching for animation within the work. Often I will put one external clay object onto another so they seem to be looking at each other. I want to make my work feel like it’s doing something. There are lots of verbs in the titles, the works are not meant to be still. That desire to animate objects is also quite Freudian. The uncanny thing that moves on its own.
“I think Freud would have found my sculptures ghastly, which is so sad. He didn’t really like contemporary art”
Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, which is a really complicated, sprawling movement. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I think ridiculing it through penis envy is a bit too easy. Also, if having penis envy as a woman essentially means I am annoyed that men earn more and can do what they want, then I’ll go with that! Freud worked in a place where they electrocuted and waterboarded women, and he decided that wasn’t right. What people need is time and the chance to talk.
I think Freud would have found my sculptures ghastly, which is so sad. He didn’t really like contemporary art. Salvador Dalí chased him all around the world and he said: “Oh that bloody mad Spaniard”. It wasn’t until the end of his life that he allowed Dalí in. He appreciated that Dalí really could paint, and Dalí did that lovely drawing of Freud with the snails on his head. But he certainly didn’t like the surrealists’ direct approach to psychoanalysis, and he argued with André Breton.
I think the best response I ever saw to Freud’s study was Mark Wallinger’s mirrored ceiling. That was just perfect. That space is so about reflection. I’d love to go and lie down on that couch. Sophie Calle famously put her wedding dress on it. It’s definitely the atmosphere and domestic side of the space that interests me, rather than the antiquities, because individually they could be anywhere.
Emily Steer is Elephant’s editor
Holly Stevenson’s appears in Born From Earth, an all-woman show at Richard Saltoun gallery, London, until 14 August
© Holly Stevenson. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery