Museums at Night October 2015: Alinah Azadeh on Burning Books at the Freud Museum

By Ben Miller | 24 October 2015

The Connect! competition vote for Museums at Night paired fire-watching artist Alinah Azadeh with the Freud Museum - and the artist has loved the partnership

A photo of female artist Alinah Azadeh looking at a colourful art installation
© Cristina Pedreira, courtesy Urban Dialogues
Alinah Azadeh’s recent live art project, Burning the Books, was a brave and brilliant, redemptive-feeling deconstruction of the psychology of debt and its impact on a society hyper-focused on money above all other values.

Shame, guilt, power, dysfunction, the shadow of wealth and death were only some of the themes entwined in the tour, on which the artist – originally spurred by her surprising experiences when her own home was at risk of repossession in 2011 – told stories, lit fires and drew people to talk openly about an issue perceived as more painful than mortality itself.

For an artist unravelling the psyche of the mind, London’s Freud Museum, where some of the performances devised for the festival will take place around Sigmund Freud’s couch, seems a poetic fit.

“I’m hoping that people will kind of give and receive and connect with strangers, in this kind of serendipitous way where you’re given things to do that might be slightly out of your comfort zone, so you meet people and have conversations,” says the artist, outlining her expectations for a night with music inspired by Freud’s famous porcupine, a display of some of the gifts given to the father of psychoanalysis and a replica writing desk for visitors to scribble at and a fire.

A photo of female artist Alinah Azadeh looking at a fire burning in a concrete yard
Burning the Books (2013, Lewes)© Lilian Simonsson
“I think it’s an important time to be talking about what we can give to each other and receive that isn’t just around the money economy. The gift economy is everywhere but we don’t always acknowledge it. It’s emotional, social, and it’s coming into play a lot now with the refugee crisis.

“People are giving their time, resources and energy because you have to help people who are in need. We focus a lot on difficulties, fear, separation – them-and-us and who’s got what. It’s playing around with that idea that we are programmed to give and receive and that’s the way that we keep our bonds – it’s not just about money.”

A photo of female artist Alinah Azadeh looking at a colourful art installation
Child's Play (2014, Imperial War Museum North)© Courtesy Joel Chester Fildes
Home to his remarkable collection of around 2,000 items, the Hampstead museum is best known as the house where Freud and his family lived following their escape from Nazi Austria in 1938, remaining the family home until 1982.

But as well as the couch – “people travel long distances and just burst into tears when they see it, because it’s hugely emotional, an iconic thing”, says Azadeh – the venue has an impressive record of working imaginatively with the artists it attracts.

“It’s a small museum but they do big stuff,” she says. “It’s a historical museum but they’re very contemporary. I love the venue, I understand why artists want to do stuff there. It’s so rich in things to be inspired by.

“I realised, going there, how relevant that whole field of psychotherapy and psychology and anthropological stuff in the collection is to what I do. It was like a lightbulb thing – this is part of what I do anyway, but they were reflecting back its relevance.

"It’s just so interesting, particularly around debt and gratitude and envy. It’s been very enriching and very inspiring for me.

A photo of female artist Alinah Azadeh looking at a giant book surrounded by people
© Cristina Pedreira, courtesy Urban Dialogues
“I’ve been thinking about the conscious and the unconscious influences on artists’ work – the use of dreams and the image, earliest childhood traumas or using rituals or objects. It’s really given me some new things to think about with the work that I do.”

Freud’s bedroom and the landing will be among the areas open on the night. “It’s quite a charismatic place. They’re very flexible so they’re really up for using all the spaces. They’re very generous – they’re not like, ‘you can only do this one thing here’, because they’re used to working with artists for lots of interventions and performances,” reflects Azadeh.

“In a way it’s quite a natural partnership to work with them. They’re also very creative in their thinking.”

A photo of two people in a glowing gallery space grinning at a table
The Bibliomancer's Dream (2009, South Bank Centre)© David Ramkamalon, courtesy South Bank Centre
Even the much-vaunted couch will receive a different slant. “It’s great to have objects like the most famous piece of furniture in the world as part of a live thing that you’re making. People can tap into them and they’re familiar, but perhaps they don’t always think about how they’re relevant to them.

“I hope people will feel like it’s a generous space and feel inspired.”


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an art installation containing lots of coloured cones in a darkened room
All is not Lost (2014)© Museum of Picardy
A photo of an installation of colours on small poles inside a modern art gallery in Bristol
The Gifts (2010, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)© David Emeny, courtesy Bristol Museum and Art Gallery & the shape of things
A photo of an installation of colours on small poles inside a modern art gallery in Bristol
The Gifts (2010)© Sogand Bahram
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