(Under construction – more texts soon)
The ‘magical art of surrealism’ may have periodically felt the need to put its strength to a test, to brace up its revolt by plunging into the spirit of the peoples who were immune to the usual compromises with hell.
– Vincent Bounoure, Surrealism and the Savage Heart (1960)
There are connections between dream and desire, as between myth and history, that bring into our reach a knowledge that is otherwise denied to us; a knowledge that pushes against the petrified boundaries erected by our deeply-ingrained habits of rational thought. Surrealists hold the principle of analogy to be the pivotal trigger most capable of making a breach in these boundaries; this universal principle being the revelation of significant correspondences between two or more things. Analogical thought can enable us to explore intuitively, without any restrictions, those regions of life and death that remain forever closed to logic. The extension of the analogy principle can lead to the discovery of new constellations, new galaxies of relationships within the apparent chaos of reality, which, with rational thought alone, is otherwise understood as being no more than a multitude of discreet fragments that can only be separated, categorised, sold and consumed. It is on the analogical plane, for example, that the funeral spirits of the Vanuatu, temporarily displaced, encounter other ancestors, the Paris Communards of 1871, within the spiral time of a spiral city.
In the basement of the Museum of African & Oceanic Arts in Paris there is an aquarium, which is unusual in itself, but even more remarkable for its sunken pool of live crocodiles. Here, I am drawn back once again to a glass tank to look into the strange eye of the nautilus, this creature from millions of years ago, and to confront the return of its ancient, cephalopod gaze. A cross-section of the nautilus shell’s spiral chambers, lined on the inside with a pearl-like nacre, suggest to me the arrondissements of Paris that uncoil themselves from the Île de la Cité, in twenty distinctive compartments; a particular configuration that is also echoed in the spiral stairways that form the core of many of the city’s dwellings. The chambers of the nautilus are connected by a strand of living tissue, containing an artery and a vein, that passes through a small spout in each of the partitions. There are living strands of history that run through the streets of Paris, connecting place with place, memory with memory, the past with the present. This visual resemblance between the cross-section of a nautilus and the singular evolution of a city reflects not only the sense of regarding the past, but of having the past look back at oneself. For me, the nautilus is a cipher for a city that bears its historical traces as if they had been left but a few days before, as if the membrane between the past and the present can be dissolved at a precise moment when, to use a phrase coined by the English artist, Austin Osman Spare, the alignments are right. It is in such privileged moments that we are in touch with our ancestors. We pass between the secret chambers of consciousness and cross the invisible barriers that have been raised as cities have evolved, the divisions and social boundaries that have been imposed, always aware of the struggles that have taken place and the barricades that are yet to be built.
from MANTICORE No 4 (1999) available at Surrealist Editions
LOST & FOUND: Surrealism in Leeds at the End of the 20th Century
Neither a revival nor a survival, Surrealism continues to burn brightly over an international firmament, from its first conflagrations in the Paris of 1924 right up to the present day, hour, second… sometimes invisibly, sometimes with a dazzling fire. And, most recently, a spark of its collective imagination has taken flame in – of all places – Leeds.
The Surrealist Group in Leeds first realised its identity in March 1994, taking a lead from the Stockholm Surrealist Group in a game that, in many respects, set the tone for our future activities. One day, blindfolded, we each threw a dart into a map of our city, then visited the environs of where its point had indicated, searching for elusive evidence of utopian imagination, by giving free rein to the play of analogy. This started our explorations of the city we inhabit, to find, through collective games, the living poetry that is buried in the banality of this place, altering the way that we look at the familiar. Our contacts with other surrealist groups grew (Paris, Madrid, Prague, Brno, Chicago, São Paulo…) and we found that we were openly accepted into a movement of groups and individuals who share a creative vision and critical perspective. Their encouragement gave us the confidence to find our voice, to articulate our adventure, to make new encounters. Since then, we have been meeting on a weekly basis for games and discussions, experiments and interventions.
So, who exactly are we and what do we want? It is perhaps easier to start with what we are not. We are not an art movement. We are not a laboratory for literary experimentation. We do use images and words to explore the cellars and attics of consciousness, although falling upwards through trapdoors, sometimes the words and images seem to be using us for their own ends. We are not ‘interested’ in Surrealism, nor do we ‘study’ it; we are not an appreciation society. We want to re-enchant the world, not to separate thought from action in the safety of academia, nor to escape into the delusory comforts of solipsist fantasy. Surrealism is not some sort of virtual reality, not the creation of illusions: it is more reality, an intensification of everyday life. It is the reality of the material world that we want to transform. Revolution and revelation are for us inextricably entwined, and we want it both ways, without compromise. We want to raise the stakes over what anyone tells us is possible. By circulating utopian ideas, no matter how audaciously, one day they will take form: as André Breton pointed out, “The imagination is that which tends to become real.” (Either that or one might as well capitulate to hyper-consumerism, joining those glazed-eyed imbeciles of a post-modernist persuasion, revelling in the latest techno-babble served up by Capitalism, deceiving themselves that their moral cowardice is somehow ‘radical’ and ‘at the cutting edge’.) But we don’t just want to preserve utopian ideas for the future, we want to live them today, no matter how fugitively, to put the poetic fury of our ideas into practice.
And, where does ‘art’ come into all of this? Although very tempting, it would be disingenuous to say that it doesn’t, and that our activities haven’t really got anything to do with art. One thing we can say is that we have no interest whatsoever in the false dichotomy of the Art/Anti-Art quagmire. We have better things to do than chase our tails and become bogged down in this ‘avant-garde’ diversion. The counter-cultural vanguards who would suppress the creative impulse to make images disgust us as much as those artists (the majority of them?) who act as nothing more than exterior decorators for Capitalism. The art that interests us is outside of the pathetic career-jerking of gallery puppets, pulled tightly by the strings of PR and marketing. This is not to say that we sneer at people who sell their work. Far from it. We are all constrained by this world of exchange values, but, although we have to yield to the prevailing conditions just to make a living, this does not necessitate being reconciled to the ideology that makes this an expedient. And why not place our images in a gallery, particularly if in so doing we can challenge the élitist role of ‘artist’ and the separation that this makes between creative activity and daily life? The most important considerations for us are: in which gallery, for what purpose, and on whose terms. For surrealists, putting pictures on a wall somewhere or setting up an installation in a ‘non-gallery space’ is not enough in itself if we want to change life and transform the world.
Our traces are more likely to be found, secretly and anonymously, in the streets of the city that we haunt.
first published in Contact Point No 3 (1999)
SURREALISM and LOVE
“Objective chance led us to see in love the general, revolutionarly method proper to Surrealism.” – Gherasim Luca & Dolphi Trost, The Dialectic of Dialectic (1945)
Since Surrealism’s first stirrings, love has remained one of its central imperatives: both as an universal experience that can lead to the transformation of everyday life, and as an example of the strength of desire that, if allowed to reach its full potential, can change the world.
The brief accounts I will give is like a single lantern-slide projected into the future; one fleeting view, amongst many, of an indistinct and complex vista. It is an outlook that owes everything to André Breton and I make no apology for this.
Once upon a time there will be an amorous encounter the intensity of which convulses one’s life with its disturbing beauty; an encounter that is yet to be fully defined in broad daylight, that appears at first to be a foreshadowing, like a phantom taking shape of what will be. With a sense of anticipation that is both palpable and troubling, one can feel the approach of the person who will be both the object and the subject of love, culminating in a sublime moment of recognition of his or her identity. At this realisation, one becomes aware of “the great nocturnal beat of desire” (André Breton). In both a physical and psychic sense, pulling one ineluctably into its magnetic fields, in which the vessels of dream and waking consciousness begin to communicate in a language of amorous-erotic signs; in which one’s entire being seems to resonate with the magical play of chance. Here the lover who is never before seen (jamais vu) appears, astonishingly, as if seen before (déjà vu). Here the found object of love converges with the surrealist love of found objects.
It is not simply a matter of making a subjective interpretation of one’s inner feelings and their connectedness with outer signs, those examples of objective chance to which love seems to make one remarkably sensitive. Moreover, it is absolutely necessary to grasp the moment of another destiny; to make a break with the future, leaving everything behind and plunging into the hidden fire of love. Such a breach with life as it is involves a great risk. But only by a poetic act of daring can we know whether this love is reciprocal, whether destiny will fuse with destiny, because almost always that moment will never come again. Those who have recognised such a moment even once in their lives, and acted upon it, can count themselves as being uncommonly fortunate.
This love is not an idealised, ethereal yearning for an unobtainable goal. Far from such pale and sickly mysticism, the surrealist idea of amorous desire is very much corporeal; although the body is stirred in the most profound sense only if one’s heart is also moved, the heart can only be moved by means of the body. This surrealist sensibility consummates a union of sensual and devotional love. It embodies an erotic alchemy that suffuses everyday life to its core, creating a breach in ‘normality’, that narrow channel of existence which stems the imagination and constricts desire.
It has been questioned whether love can continue to retain its transformative power today, that it can no longer make the stars fall from the sky or the heart pump with the hot blood of revolt. Indeed, we seem caught up in an era of easy cynicism, in which the obsession with surface appearances, instant gratification and vacuous hyper-consumerism impoverishes real, lived experience; an era in which to talk about love is far greater a taboo than to talk about sex. But in such times, love is perhaps even more revolutionary than it was for the Romanian surrealists of the ‘forties or the French surrealists of the ‘twenties.
With them we can continue to claim that
If you love LOVE, you will love SURREALISM.
from MANTICORE No 3 (1998) available at Surrealist Editions