The Unconscious of the Landscape


Forgetting is not destruction — destruction is forgetting

In the text The Unconscious of the Landscape, an artist and psychoanalyst Teta Tsybulnyk examines the layering of memory in the psyche in contrast to the impossibility of ‘holding several contents’ in the physical space and landscape. Along with this, the author analyses her films Salty Oscillations, (ruїns collective, 2021) and Endless Sea of Sand, (ruїns collective, 2023) and thinks about the ways of symbolisation in art. 

Reflecting on the sources of religion in his work Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud describes the ‘oceanic’ feeling [1] typical of the primary phase of the development of the human psyche, when the ego experiences an all-encompassing and inextricable connection with the environment. In the course of its development, the ego gradually detaches itself from the outside world, but the primary feeling of boundlessness and belonging to the whole is preserved in the psyche along with the later feelings that arise from it. Freud advocates the idea that nothing that was once formed in one’s mental life disappears forever, and that under certain conditions everything can be rediscovered. Forgetting does not mean destruction. [2]

To illustrate this thesis, Freud refers to the story of the Eternal City. ‘Now let us make the fantastic supposition that Rome were not a human dwelling-place, but a mental entity with just as long and varied a past history: that is, in which nothing once constructed had perished, and all the earlier stages of development had survived alongside the latest.’ [3] With his characteristic eloquence, Freud conducts a thought experiment about how all the buildings and monuments of this city, which were built during different eras of history, continue to coexist in the same space. ‘And the observer would need merely to shift the focus of his eyes, perhaps, or change his position, in order to call up a view of either the one or the other.’ [4]

This bizarre fantasy serves as an example of impossibility to Freud, contradictio in contrarium, because physical space, unlike mental space, ‘will not hold two contents.’ [5] New buildings can arise only on the wasteland, on the ruins of previous times. Having enjoyed the inventive fiction of Freud the writer, Freud the scientist rejects the analogy as absurd, only proving ‘how far away from mastering the idiosyncrasies of mental life we are by treating them in terms of visual representation.’ [6]

However, it is possible to find something more than a false example in this poetic parallel. Isn’t this an involuntary attempt to imagine the urban landscape as a multi-layered construct, which could also have its own unconscious? Writing about the ‘memory of a place’, [7] Aleida Assman notes that the place itself can be a subject, a carrier of reminiscences that sometimes go beyond human memory. ‘After the space has been studied and opened in the horizontal plane, it is worth studying also its symbolic depth in the vertical dimension.’ [8] What if the vertical dimension of space makes it possible to hold two (or more) contents at the same time? Isn’t it similar to the mental dimension, where different layers of the past are superimposed onto each other?

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud proposed the first topographical model of the psyche, distinguishing the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious systems. [9] Although he himself positioned these systems on a horizontal plane, through the metaphor of an apartment with different rooms, [10] commentators most often depict these as an iceberg, where the unconscious hides deep under water. Later, Freud also made a choice in favour of vertical thinking, developing the second model based on the interaction of three psychic instances — the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. Such a topography solidified the spatial representation that locates the unconscious below, in the depths, underground. It also matches the canonical comparison of psychoanalysis with ‘an archaeologist’s excavation of some dwelling-place that has been destroyed and buried or of some ancient edifice.’ [11]

Psychoanalysis has always relied on spatial metaphors, and topographical thinking turned out to be a key heuristic tool for it. [12] And even when the images of physical space seemed unsatisfactory for the illustration of mental processes, they inspired the psychoanalytic imagination and were the aesthetic framework of the theory. Perhaps such a symbiosis indicates a deep affinity between the mental and the spatial. Then, the psychoanalytic method may turn out to be suitable for the study of real topos: landscape, city, infrastructure. If the dream space is the landscape of the unconscious, then what is the unconscious of the landscape?


This was the question that Elias Parvulesco and I addressed in the film Salty Oscillations (ruїns collective, 2021), which was shot in Soledar. This city is known primarily as one of the salt-mining centres of Donbas, which arose in the 17th century and developed considerable industrial power by the 19th century. However, the mythology of Soledar goes back to much earlier times: many millions of years ago this place sat at the bottom of the Perm Sea. This ancient past lived on in the mineral of salt that was the material basis of industry, the alchemical symbol of the city and the core of its identity. Mentions and ‘memories’ of the ancient sea constantly emerged in the autoethnographic narratives of the local community. [13] The industrial city seemed to retain the ‘oceanic feeling,’ that Freud wrote about, along with the later phases of its development.

Salty Oscillations (2021) by ruїns collective

Perhaps the descent into the salt mines — a sacred underground space where mining activity took place adjacent to a sanatorium, a museum, a concert hall and even a temple — meant plunging to the bottom of a phantasmatic ocean, into the unconscious of the landscape. The unconscious, where the past does not disappear, where different time layers coexist, where modern industrialisation hums to the beat of the hypnotic oscillations of primordial oceanicity. The physical space is permeated by numerous mental layers: memories, fantasies, myths, dreams; it ‘holds multiple contents’. At the same time, it shapes the topography of the personal unconscious. One resident of Soledar spoke of a dream she had about trees growing in a salt mine — her unconscious created a spatial condensation, a layering of terrestrial and subterranean landscapes, of living and non-living things.

Like a dream, a moving image can condense various topos and chronos — hidden and visible, present and absent, past and nonpast. The artistic image reveals the ‘vertical dimension’ of space, supplementing the real landscape with symbolic and imaginary planes. Audiovisual means such as montage, multiple exposure or sound design can reproduce the aesthetics of the ‘primary process,’ based on the preverbal flickering of images — making up a dream, fantasy or hallucination. [14] Assman writes about the mutual permeability of the visual and the psychic: ‘In contrast to texts, images adapt to the landscape of the unconscious in a completely different way. The boundary between image and dream remains fluid, with the image rising to vision and taking on a life of its own. With the crossing of this limit, the status of the image changes, it turns from an object of observation into a subject of experiences.’ [15]

Salty Oscillations was filmed in the summer of 2021, a year before the start of the offensive of Russian troops on Soledar — and a year and a half before its complete destruction. Today, this film has to be seen from a new point of view — when the city has already been erased, and its images have become memories of the missing. The moving image that documented the multi-layered memory of a place became a wound of interrupted memory, of violent oblivion.

‘It questions our choosing in particular the past history of a city to liken to the past of the mind.  Even for mental life our assumption that everything past is preserved holds good only on condition that the organ of the mind remains intact and its structure has not been injured by traumas or inflammation. Destructive influences comparable to these morbid agencies are never lacking in the history of any town, even if it has had a less chequered past than Rome, even if, like London, it has hardly ever been pillaged by an enemy.’ [16] This is what Freud wrote in 1930, between the two wars, a decade before the devastating London Blitz. As he grapples with the failed parallel, we again find in it an involuntary aptness. In order to preserve the past, the mental organism — like the body of the city — must avoid traumatic destruction. Trauma inflicts intrusive memories, and yet robs of memory as continuity.

After the end of the First World War, whilst observing the dreams of veterans, Freud discovered the phenomenon of ‘traumatic neurosis,’ which was characterised by repetition compulsion: ‘Now dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident, a situation from which he wakes up in another fright… The patient is, as one might say, fixated to his trauma’. [17] For a traumatised psyche, the past does not pass away, but continues to remind of itself with hostile insistence.

This bore some resemblance to Freud and Breuer’s early discovery that ‘hysterics mainly suffer from reminiscences.’ [18] It is those memories that were repressed in the unconscious that become pathogenic. Although the phenomenon of repression was discovered in the course of research on hysteria, psychoanalytic theory recognized it as a fundamental defence mechanism inherent in the ‘normal’ psyche. Through repression, the ego tries to protect itself from dangerous drives and unacceptable ideas, which, however, retain their power and seek to make their way into consciousness by detours. Therefore, the act of repression is necessarily followed by the ‘return of the repressed.’ The unconscious drive paves its way to satisfaction, bypassing the ego and returns in a distorted form — as a symptom.

Again, the past in the psyche appears indestructible: ‘What is forgotten is not extinguished but only “repressed”; its memory-traces are present in all their freshness, but isolated… They cannot enter into communication with other intellectual processes; they are unconscious — inaccessible to consciousness.’ [19] In his later work Moses and Monotheism, Freud expands the boundaries of psychoanalytic research and applies the theory to collective memory and history: ‘In my opinion there is an almost complete conformity in this respect between the individual and the group: in the group too an impression of the past is retained in unconscious memory-traces.’ [20]

While creating the video work Endless Sea of Sand (ruїns collective, 2023), we assumed that unconscious traces of memory are imprinted in the architecture of the urban landscape, its infrastructures. The film tells the story of the city of Enerhodar, juxtaposing two parallel audiovisual layers. The year 1972 is represented by archival footage of building the ‘city of energy workers,’ which was supposed to serve for the construction of the largest energy facilities in Soviet Ukraine — Zaporizhzhia Thermal Power Plant and Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. In contrast, 2022 is represented by found footage of Russian tanks invading the city and their advance to the nuclear power plant, which will then be occupied and turned into a nuclear time bomb.

Endless Sea of Sand (2023) by ruїns collective

The Soviet footage conveys the cheerful pathos of construction, industrialisation, social progress, subjugation of nature, and mastery of new types of energy. The narrator’s voice enthusiastically utters the lullaby of an ideology that promises a bright and peaceful future. From today’s perspective, it strikes a note which comes across not just as fake, but also as concealing a repressed meaning. Against this background, the eerie footage of 2022 demonstrates a symptomatic ‘return of the repressed.’ The nuclear infrastructures built during the Soviet era under the glorifying slogan of the ‘peaceful atom’ eventually revealed their dark side, becoming in the hands of the Russian occupiers exactly what they promised not to be — a military weapon and a tool of nuclear terrorism. [21]

‘Let the atom be a worker, not a soldier’ is a monumental inscription which was engraved on the urban landscape of Prypiat [22] as nuclear power plants were constructed throughout Ukraine. Retrospectively, it is read as evidence of a crime. After all, according to Freud’s observation, ‘To negate something in a judgement is, at bottom, to say: ‘This is something which I should prefer to repress… This view of negation fits in very well with the fact that in analysis we never discover a “no” in the unconscious and that recognition of the unconscious on the part of the ego is expressed in a negative formula.’ [23]

Each culture has a leading source of energy that sustains it materially and symbolically. But often such energy carriers and their infrastructures have many hidden aspects — geopolitical, ecological, affectual — that form the ‘energy unconscious.’ [24] The Soviet project that created the ‘peaceful atom’ was motivated by the phantasmatic confrontation of the Cold War, the idea of taming nature to establish a new order: the ideological and infrastructural colonisation of territories. The belligerent, invading impulses of the empire were never properly recognised and reflected upon, which led to the tragic ‘breakthrough of the repressed.’

Aleida Assman talks about ‘art as memory,’ [25] which appears at the scene of a disaster — it appears too late, after forgetting, unable to resist it. For such art, ‘there is no longer anything that can be reconstructed or restored, all that remains is to collect, preserve, organise and protect the traces that remain after the destruction of relics… Artists of memory do not document a willful act of remembrance that overcomes death, but bring balance to the scale of the loss.’ [26]

As long as the space preserves its memory as an indestructible latent trace, the artistic image can manifest this ‘vertical dimension’ and facilitate recollection. However, when the landscape that carries the forgotten and not forgotten past is itself destroyed, memory gets stuck in the trap of trauma and falls into the void of the Real. Then ‘art as memory’ can only wander around this void, documenting the fragments, hoping to find places and names for them. In other words, it will try to symbolise something that can hardly be symbolised.

Editing by Ada Wordsworth
Teta Tsybulnyk an artist and psychoanalyst based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She studied sociology at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, social anthropology at the Central European University and clinical psychology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. She was a participant of the course ‘Positions of the Artists’ organised by the Method Fund. Co-founder of ruїns collective, an art group currently consisting of herself and Elias Parvulesco. They collaborated on a series of films about human and more-than-human gaze on landscape, including dendro dreams (2018), zong (2019), and K-Object from LL group (2019), Salty Oscillations (2021) and Endless Sea of Sand (2023). She is a researcher of dreams and semiotics of the unconscious.  
Published 11 May 2024

This text is prepared within the Erasing and Recalling project supported as part of the (re)connection UA 2023/24 programme, which is implemented by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) NGO and the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund (UEAF) in partnership with UNESCO and funded through the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund.

  1. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere, (London: Hogarth Press, 1929), 15.
    2. “Since the time we recognized the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified destruction or annihilation of the memory-trace, we have been inclined to the opposite view that nothing once formed in the mind could ever perish, that everything survives in some way or other, and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to life again, as, for instance, when regression extends back far enough.” — Ibid.
    3.  Ibid, 17.
    4.  Ibid, 18.
    5. Ibid.
    6. Ibid.
    7. In the original text, Assman uses ‘Gedächtnis der Orte.’ This and further quotes are translated to English by the editorial team since the original German book was not translated to English. — Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, (München: Verlag C.H.Beck, 2003), 298.
    8. “Nachdem die Räume in der Horizontalen entdeckt und erschlossen sind, gilt es, ihre symbolische Tiefe in der Vertikalen noch zu entdecken.” — See 6, 300.
    9. Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 5, (1900-1901); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1958), 541.
    10. “Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower, room—a kind of drawing-room—in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him.” — Sigmund Freud, “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” (Part III), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 5, (1916-1917); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1958), 295.
    11.  Sigmund Freud, “Constructions of Analysis,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 23, (1937-1939); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1964), 259.
    12. Lacan also explored the structure of the unconscious through topology, but moved away from the vertical model in favour of complex topological constructions such as the Möbius strip, the Klein bottle, or the torus, illustrating the paradoxical relationship between binary oppositions such as internal versus external or Self versus Other.
    13. Interview with residents of Soledar, June 2021.
    14. Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Karnac and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1988), 339.
    15. “Bilder passen sich anders als Texte der Landschaft des Unbewussten an; es gibt eine flüßige Grenze zwischen Bild und Traum, wobei das Bild zur Vision gesteigert und mit einem Eigenleben ausgestattet wird. Mit Überschreitung dieser Grenze verändert sich der Status des Bildes; vom Objekt der Betrachtung verwandelt es sich in ein Subjekt der Heimsuchung.” — See 6, 228.
    16. See 1, 19.
    17. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 23, (1920-1922); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1955), 13.
    18. Sigmund Freud, “Studies on Hysteria,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 2, (1893-1895); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1955), 7.
    19. Sigmund Freud, “Moses and Monotheism,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 23, (1937-1939); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1964), 94.
    20. Ibid.
    21. “Nuclear Cyberwar: From Energy Colonialism to Energy Terrorism,” Svitlana Matviyenko, accessed April 2022:
    22. A town serving the needs of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
    23. Sigmund Freud, “Negation,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 19, (1923-1925); trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, (London: Vintage Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1961), 236-239.
    24. Yaeger, Patricia, et al. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA vol. 126, no. 2, 2011.
    25. In the original text, she uses ‘Gedächtnis-Künst’. — See 6, 359.
    26. “Für sie gibt es nichts mehr zu rekonstruieren oder gar wiederherzustellen, es gilt lediglich einzusammeln, Spuren zu sichern, zu ordnen und zu bewahren, was an verstreuten Relikten noch übriggeblieben ist. Diese Gedächtnis-Künstler dokumentieren mit ihrer Arbeit nicht den Kraftakt der Erinnerung, der über den Tod hinweggreift, sondern sie bilanzieren das Ausmaß des Verlusts.” — See 6,  360.