A Journey of Self-Recognition and Return

Earlier in May this year, I visited the Freud Museum in London, where Sigmund Freud spent his last year of life with his family. Entering the house, I stepped into the space where Freud once lived. I examined his writing desk, his famous psychoanalytic couch, and his carpets, which have become exhibits now. I felt like I was a detective, profiling him through evidence he left behind, bridging the gap between objects and him through my imagination. I entered the study room, and was stunned by his antique collection. It looked as if it was an archaeologist’s office. There was bulk of items in his collections which were from Egyptian, Greek.


Figure 1: Freud’s working desk in the study room, Freud Museum London

Figure 2: ‘Athena’, Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD, Collection Freud Museum London

Freud liked to put antiques on his working desk as well. The Greek masculine goddess Athena was his favourite work. He used to put her in the center of his desk. When he had to flee from Vienna in 1938 and could only have two works to be selected to be smuggled out, he chose Athena. According to Burke (2007, p.34), when Princess Marie Bonaparte returned Athena to Freud, he said he felt “proud and rich under the protection of Athene”. At this point, Athena carried not just her Greek origin and myth, but also the story of Freud. His friend Lou-Andreas Salome suggested that these antique objects were actually the recreation of the past that created the psychoanalytic elements in Freud. Freud thought that archaeology and psychoanalysis were closely connected. During a conversation with his friend Pankejeff (1972), he compared psychoanalysts to archaeologists, suggesting they both uncover layers of the psyche ‘before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures’. Inspired by his Athena, which he described as ‘perfect, only she has lost her spear’, Freud later developed the well-known penis envy theory.


These collections seem to be more than merely objects. These objects undergo metamorphosis. They carried not only their historical and mythological stories, but also the memories and stories of the collector, forming some kinds of relationship between the object and the owner. This reminds me of Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Curiosities which are like the miniature worlds. In his art project “Tropical Nature”, he sent the museum materials including notebooks, tools and insects and plants specimens he collected without any instructions, so that the museum had to create an order to display them. This becomes a process that shows how people make sense of nature. Sheehy (2006) suggested the cabinets represented a transformation in knowledge acquisition: the cataloged order of display showed ‘our sense-making is a human construction and not necessarily a truth of the natural world’.


Figure 3: ‘On Tropical Nature’, by Mark Dion, 1991

Perception and Projection

We always transform and project our experience onto an object. It is then more than just itself. Stewart (1984) suggested that an object becomes a narrative of the possessor instead of the narrative of the object. This not just affects how we perceive things regarding its context but also its visual.


It is interesting that we always see these abstract qualities of human nature in the nature. We all have experienced the moment of pareidolia in the nature that we thought the trees or the stones look like faces or other human characteristics.  According to a scientific study on learning process by Takeo Watanable (2007), it was shown that the more frequent we see an object, the higher sensitivity we will develop it in our brain. In other words, if we are exposed to a certain repeated object, we become highly sensitive to that object that we will easily mistaken other things that look like that object. Guthrie (1993) suggested this anthropomorphism ability helps us to survive. We will be prepared to run by mistakenly imagining the nature object as a living enemy. This eventually interferes with our perception of reality because we see things even when they are not really existed.


Uexküll (2010) stated that every animal lives in its own subjective realities that it only distinguishes objects that it can carry out action in its environment. Take the living room as an example, a human (Figure 4) can see many objects including the books and chairs, whereas a fly (Figure 5) can only recognize food containers as objects but fails to see others because it doesn’t have any interaction with those objects. For a fly, those objects are just part of the background. Uexküll (2010) then used an oak tree to explain how the same object is seen differently in different environment. The forester (Figure 6) only sees the oak, which is merely just a tree for doing his job to measure the tree whereas the little girl is scared to see the face feature of the oak (Figure 7).

Figure 4: ‘The human being’s room'

Figure 5: ‘The fly’s room'

Figure 6: ‘Forester and oak'

Figure 7: ‘Girl and oak'

 illustrations from “A Foray into the worlds of Animals and Humans

Contrasting to Uexküll‘s argument, psychologists believe such kind of pictorial form can be seen not only because of the need of organism but also the mood and act as a mental reflection of the person. In relation to Arts, Arnheim (1968) suggested that Arts can be interpreted psychologically by means of isomorphic symbolism, and “structure characteristics of visual form which are spontaneously related to a similar characteristic in human behaviours.” This means that the relative reality we see involves the projection of our minds and visions, and when we reconstruct the subjective reality through Arts, we project our personality and mood in it. In addition to this, Jung’s views on ‘otherness’ and ‘the shadow’ (1995) supported that monsters are the projection of our unconscious personality which is the part of the personality we choose to repress and reject. In addition, Freud (1913) saw these monsters as the ‘projections of man’s own emotional impulses’, so that he could ‘meet his internal processes again outside himself’, and this helps the man to make the world he wants it to be. Stewart (1984) suggested the constant projection of ourselves to the world image returning to us onto the mirror, the animals or the artistic image. We project ourselves to nature objects and see the illusion as the returned images. This returned images are the result of metamorphosis of nature objects, which are also our doubling and the imaginary creatures represented in myth, paintings or other mediums of arts.

Object-Personage in Animism

When talking about the personage in animism, Hume (1757) suggested there is ‘an universal tendency amongst mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.’ Human projection of minds seems to be the foundation of animism. According to Graham Harvey (2005), animists see humans share this world with wide range of persons, and only some of whom are human, and these ‘other-than-human person’ refers to not only other living species but also places and some of the objects. The tricky part here is that not all objects are person. So the question here is how does an animist recognize persons? Why some of the objects are alive but not all?


First we have to know how an ‘object’ differs from a ‘person’. In older days, animism always associates with the belief in spirits and souls, and the nature of religion. Frazer (1860) thought that the world is animate to primitive people. For example, many trees animated are worshiped by the primitive people because they believe there are tree spirits inhibiting in the body of trees. Harvey (2005) suggested that ‘religion is an animist mistake about the nature of the world’, and Tyler (1913) thought animism is still remained “definitive of religion.” Tyler (1913) then explained that based on their experiences, ‘primitive’ people believed that there was a ‘soul’ inside everything that gave life to the material form. It is the soul that makes something ‘person’ but not merely ‘object.


Irving Hallowell interviewed the Ojibwe hosts in Southern central Canada in the 1930s. According to Hallowell (1960)’s experience in Ojibwe, he talked about the Chief’s stone which was used in the ceremony. The stone had contours that suggested eyes and mouth. In the time of the Chief’s great-grandfather, this stone had been animated and was said that its mouth will be opened when tapped with a knife and would give the Chief a medicine sack. Hallowell (1960) suggested although the stone ‘no longer possessed these attributes of animation’, this showed a human and a stone interact socially, that ‘this stone was treated as if it were a person not a thing, without inferring that objects of this class are’, the stone was ‘conceptualized as persons.’


To answer the question what makes the difference between object and person, Harvey (2005) suggested that ‘persons may be spoken with… objects are usually spoken about.’ In other words, persons are those who can interact with other persons. It is the self-consciousness and its communication marks the personhood out of the objects, more than just being alive. Harvey (2005) then concluded there should be ‘actual human persons/agents “in the neighborhood” of these inert objects.’ It was the human persons’ intention to affect the objects to become subjects. By interacting with the objects in daily life, various events, ceremonies or mythology, a living personage is created within the object. On the other hand, ‘enemies’ are always de-personalized and de-humanized. Viveiros de Castro (1998) stated that this depersonalization of animals transformed them into ‘flesh’ for human food. In the end, it is still the psychological mind of human and the relationship they formed to determine whether an object is a person or merely an object.

Metamorphosis in Arts

The hybrids in Arts are always the fantasy beings from folkloric, mythology and religious context throughout the history. They are monsters combining different animals and human parts such as minotaur, medusa and centaurs.  Then when it comes to the increasing role of science and technology in the modern era, integration of technology with human beings has started to form, such as the creature from Frankenstein and the humanoid robots in Metropolis.


According to Wood (2008), it was the World Wars and the downfall of human ideals that drove the desire of artists to search for ways of articulating new statements about men by fusing the human figure, with vegetal forms in particular. This seems like a continuous of Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, war artists, who were commissioned to record the war events. Unlike Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland’s works didn’t put the war and nature together. Instead, the curious organic forms were vague with personal interpretation projected into them. According to P.Morton Shand’s writing (1939) on Nash’s paintings, Nash referred these metamorphic objects as ‘personage’ in 1934. Nash saw these personage objects as a kind of human being with distinctive personality. Dean (2005) thought the animistic landscapes in Nash’s painting were not merely resemblances to animals or humans, but ‘embodied something of their actual creatural animation’. George Shaw (2018) thought these vegetable hybrids are only metaphoric in the way that they are presences, like figure within a landscape, and suggested that these are their potential self-portraits. Shaw (2018) also thought that Nash is more conscious and in touch with his subject while Sutherland is a bit vague and doubt if he was fully aware of what he was doing. These human-plant hybrids have included the quality of imagination and projection of creator. The fallen trees in Nash’s paintings were projected with the fallen humanity and death witnessed in the world war.

Figure 8: ‘We are Making a New World’ by Paul Nash, 1918

Figure 9: ‘Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods’ by Graham Sutherland, 1940

Metamorphosis and Recognition

In the book ‘Fantastic Metamorphoses’, Marina Warner (2002) defined metamorphosis as an ‘organic process of life itself keeps shifting’, and that the bodies are in ‘the process of changing shape’. In many religion stories and myth, metamorphosis is always a punishment to the sinners and condemned, whose identity is reduced or lost. When talking about a hellish scene in the drawing of ‘Dante's Inferno’, where the thieves were comingling with diabolical snakes, Warner (2002) described that is the eternal punishment: losing their identity and the “repeated agony of losing the self”. During the medieval time, metamorphosis always referred to the devils and witches because they can use magic to cast mutation and hybrid themselves in monster forms. Apart from magical beings, Plato (1888) also commented that animals are humans reduced to a degraded form as punishment for excess. It seems that metamorphosis is the process of degrading and punishing.


However, in pagan metamorphosis, Warner (2002) pointed out that metamorphosis changes only the physical appearance but not the inner soul of the subject. In many tales and myth, metamorphosis is actually a recognition process to reveal the truth or finding one-self. Warner (2002) stated that in traditional storytelling, the heroes and heroines always ‘arrive at selfhood’ through numerous ordeals, misprisions and neglect then transformed and arrived into their personal fullness. Take Athena as an example, her father Zeus was afraid that his child would overthrow him, so he tricked his pregnant wife Metis to turn into a fly and swallowed her. Later Zeus suffered from unbearable headache and asked Hephaestus to split his head with an axe, and there leaped Athena, fully grown and armed. Zeus was made delighted and full of pride. Through being denied and swallowed by her father, Athena eventually hatched from Zeus’s head and achieved her identity of the goddess of wisdom and war, redeemed from being ceased.


Metamorphosis is not just a shape-shifting process to lose oneself, but a journey of recognition and self-seeking. Even though the appearance and form are changed, the inner core soul remains the same. Comar (1999) suggested we rely heavily on the idea of metamorphosis in our self-representations. Comar (1999) wrote ‘This use of metamorphosis and metaphor reveals our frustrated yearning to exercise unlimited power over the body… we give corporeal shape to the insubstantial part of ourselves that we value most...a body to our emotions and fears, beliefs and desires. We clothe our soul in flesh.” Hence, paintings are the projection of our mind, the form we give to make our souls visible, and through the process of painting, our thoughts undergo metamorphosis and the truth we seek will be found when the painting is finished. Paul Nash (1949) also suggested that it was the inner life of the subject rather than its characteristic lineaments that appealed to him. It is also inseparable from its physical features.


Figure 10: ‘The Destruction of the Father’ by Louise Bourgeois, 1974

During the conversation with Paulo Herkenhoff (2003), Louise Bourgeois said that creating is an act of liberation. Bourgeois’ works are always related to her painful and traumatic past. They are the reconstruction of the past, putting fragments and pieces together into an object that represents the present. She created the work ‘The Destruction of the Father’ after her husband’s death in 1973. In the work, she transformed her repressed anger and pain about her father’s infidelity into a womb-like cave, where she depicted her childhood fantasy of killing her father. The installation looks like a vague mixture of a cave, dismembered body parts and a dinning table. One of the materials in making this hybrid are actually real joints of lamb.  This forms an incomplete grotesque body of parts with, and this exaggerated part becomes an independent life displaced on their own. This must be what Bakhtin (1981) said about grotesque body as “body in the act of becoming.” The memory and the emotions from the past are now clothed with the ‘flesh’ of the work. Bourgeois (2008) said that the purpose of her works was to express her emotions, which she described that they were her demons. ‘The surrealists strove to integrate and bring the forgotten and the represses in the human being to light.” (Pfeiffer, 2011). The forgotten and the repressed must be the shadow that Jung mentioned, that is the hidden personality we want to abandon.


Transformation of the Death

In animism, metamorphosis is always related to the transformation of the death and the migration of the souls. Many primitives religions and myths believe souls remain exist when the body died. In the view of metamorphosis, Warner (2002) pointed out Pythagoras believed souls are deathless. They left and passed to other forms of living through transformation when their bodies died. Viveiros de Castro (1998) suggested the spirits of the dead are logically attracted to the bodies of animals after leaving the human bodies. It seems like these souls are not only attached to animals and plants but also in the forms of objects.


Freud (1939) once commented ‘No other people of antiquity did so much [as the Egyptians] to deny death or took such pains to make existence in the next world possible.’ Harvey (2005) stated that ancestors are present in the forms of their self-expression. Freud actually started to collect artworks and antiques after his father Jacob died in 1896. These artworks can be considered as the self-expression of the creators. It is possible that Freud somehow thought or hoped that his father’s spirit will migrate onto material form, perhaps the antiques he collected. Freud collected many Egyptian funerary antiques including Shabtis that are used in the rituals for rebirth, and Freud saw the process of collecting these historical items as mourning, and a journey to bring him from grief to recovery.


The transformation is not just about the decay of the body, as Harvey (2005) pointed out, ‘death is not a fixed state opposed to life, but a transformation of the living and their relationships’. The way of how primitive religions and myths illustrate this idea may be subjective and involved a lot amount of imaginations that is too magical to believe, but there is a modern scientific aspect to look at this concept. During my research of my interdisciplinary project on Richmond Park, the tree guide of the park told me the reason why the park keeps the fallen trees on the ground. Even if the tree is dead, it can still become a habitat for small animals, insects, fungus or other plants. The trees may decompose and decay. Its organic matter breaks down, recycles, returns to the natural ecosystem, becoming nutrients to other organisms and lives in other life forms.

Landscape and Human Body

Both Stewart (1984) and Harvey (2005) stated that there is always “an abstract projection of the body upon the natural world.” This is indeed a valid argument as human body is always used to depict the geographical features of the nature. In the mythology of world creation from a different version, there is always a primeval giant who sacrifices their body parts and transforms them into natural environment and various life forms. Munn (1984) suggested that we view the land as the ancestor’s body, where the ancestor buried, and so the ‘place-name is the ancestor’s proper name’. This is probably one of the factors to produce the feeling of ‘sense of place’ and why Paul Nash called the natural place “the genius of loci”, in which he believed spirit existed in the landscape. The presences of ancestors are now in the form of places. This explained why places could also be seen as persons in animism.


In The Timaeus, Plato (1888) suggested the cosmos is a living organism and is a copy of the transitory world of “becoming”. Based on this, Stewart (1984) added that there are abstract qualities of human ”nature” and physical aspects of the universe, while Napier (1870) suggested that these human characters are illustrated in all departments of nature and Tyler (1913) thought this is a ‘widespread human predilection’.


These abstract qualities of human nature are shown in many landscape paintings. There are a number of artists who have depicted the nature with human features. In Paul Nash’s World War I portrayals of the battlefields, the trees always look like body parts of corpses, which resonate with his experience of the war. Similar kind of nature-human hybrids can also be found in the landscape work of Graham Sutherland, but in a more ambiguous way. In his painting 'Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods', the wood looks as if a body of unknown creatures lying on the ground. It acquires the human features like legs or the curve of a lying body with the non-human elements, creating sense of uncanny.

Landscape as a Product of Culture

Jung (1995) and Frazer (1860) believed that the nature myths were created for the primitive people to deal with the ignorance and fear of the nature. Schama (1996) stated these myths, memories and obsessions shaped our ‘landscape tradition from the product of shared culture’. Gibbons (2007) wrote ‘Memories are linked to imaginary objects and images…for the easy retrieval of information or experience.’ We will always see things more than it actually is. In the book ‘Landscape and Memory’, Schama (1996) wrote, ‘Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.…once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, ….becoming….part of the scenery.’ In Dion’s art projects such as ‘The Tale of Two Seas’ and ‘Tate Thames Dig’, the process of cataloging and displaying also reminded us that our ideas about nature are always part of culture, which responded to Rugoff (2000)’s statement ‘nature’ is a culture invention and our whole idea of ‘culture’ is fiction.


Figure 11: ‘Tate Thames Dig’ by Mark Dion, 1999


Figure 12: ‘Tate Thames Dig’ by Mark Dion, 1999 (Detail)

And the most fascinated part is that the forests always regenerate and proceed, and what happened will happen again. George Shaw (2011) once said the landscape absorbed time. It is the ‘landscape of forgetting and of the forgotten’. Shaw (2018) explained further that everything is consumed by the present tense because we are the present tense. In the tradition of landscape, this contemplation of the present tense becomes tangible. The past, present and future events are witnessed by the nature. The famous 19th-century journalist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl wrote that ‘a village without a forest is like a town without any historical buildings’.


In the end of Freud’s life, he chose to die in his study room surrounded by ‘his ancestor’s choice’. Burke (2007) saw this as an imagery of nostalgia or a kind of homecoming that Freud returned in death to ‘memories of an idyllic past’. Turner (2007) also suggested that the bell krater which holds Freud’s ashes is womb-like, he also claimed that Jones (Freud’s friend) suggested Freud saw death as ‘a reunion with a loved mother’. To me, Freud was returning to the nature through the surrounding of historical and mythology antiques.


‘The work of art defined as an experience turns out to be a Gestalt of the highest degree.’ (Arnheim, 1968). Therefore, the work of art will always be the remnants of our past and the projection of our personality. Arts are all about metamorphoses. Nature and culture are like body and soul. We project our experiences and memories to the nature We view other living things, objects and places as personages, and in return they echoed back in evolved forms as the fictional creatures in arts. All these antiques, artworks or even specimens are not only the cultural products that illustrate our ideas of the nature, but also the mental representation of what we experience inside. I wonder if this could also happen on functional objects that are artificial and not from the nature. There will always be a way to trace back their origins, but also resonate with the present at the same time, and proceed in the future. That is how a work associates with the creator’s personal experiences and creates a new context and connection with other individuals – with their metamorphic forms that allow memory to be in flux, providing spaces for others to interpret.



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