Witness the dissolution of a group therapy session in Leigh Ledare’s The Task, a two-hour video documenting the Tavistock method of psychoanalysis, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through December 31. Tavistock has been popular since the 1960s, and the group session, in which 30 people participate in an “unconscious mind” conference over several days, aims to reveal the racial, sexual, and relational roles we play in order to gain group acceptance. Members are encouraged to voice uncensored reactions direct from their unconscious, with uncomfortable results. A semi-circle of benches are arranged in the black box gallery at the Art Institute, so viewers feel like participants. For the two hours you are watching, there are fewer things more gripping than the breakdown of this group of strangers.
Trouble brews when the participants begin to complain about the presence of the cameras. Although all the participants agreed in advance to being recorded and having their conversation displayed in Ledare’s museum show, the cameras ultimately become a hindrance to opening the unconscious with honesty. They feel too much like performers, say some of them. Ironically, exhibitionism is the chief complaint.
Finally, the artist himself defiles the group’s rules by inserting himself into the circle’s center, overtly challenging the group’s structure and pushing on it until it breaks. Ledare knows better but he cannot resist, and it may have been his intention all along to disrupt the group dynamic; his artwork is often rooted in such relational provocations, such as his famous 2008 photoshoots of his mother having sex with her various lovers. The Tavistock group disbands, and it is a clear case of observer effect, wherein the scientist corrupts his subject by studying it.
Accompanying the video is an installation of collages on low tables and shadow boxes, like souvenirs, cut from magazines, porn, and other printed materials assembled in stream-of-consciousness narratives. The video was purportedly the source data for the images, although the connections to the video are difficult to follow because they progress like an exquisite corpse game. The collages are opaque, not unlike the video’s own conversations. Ultimately, The Task is an engrossing document of a little understood psychoanalytic process – not just the Tavistock institution but the nature of the human social mind.