Archive for Surrealism

Interesting articles from “Papers of Surrealism” journal

Posted in Art History/Theory, Critical theory, Reading notes, Surrealism with tags , , , on September 28, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

“Fantasy, the Uncanny and Surrealist Theories of Architecture”, Anthony Vidler (2003)

“Rather what Surrealism motivated was the uncanny of the Other, which for Surrealism was the ‘real’ – the uncanny sense that the normal was nothing more than a complex of repressed objects. In the aesthetic sense of Surrealism, this normal was modernism itself and the uncanny of Surrealism was no more than the repressed of modernism, an apparent normal that in fact was a mask for the ‘real’ pathological.
In architectural terms, this search for modernism’s repressed underlife was concentrated in three domains – domains that the modernists had clearly and polemically identified as the basis of their attack on tradition: the solid, load-bearing wall that afforded traditional protection and privacy; the bourgeois house and its kitsch-like trappings of ‘home’ or ‘Heimat’; and the objects of everyday life, which, while for the most part mass-produced, were still encumbered with ornament and encrusted with historical references. Against these three hold-outs of tradition in modernity “

“All posed a volatile and elusive sensibility of mental-physical life against what was seen as a sterile and over-rationalized technological realism: the life of the interior psyche against the externalising ratio.”

Freud in the Uncanny: ‘over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparison with material reality,’

Sigfried Giedion observes of the interiors of Ernst’s Une Semaine de bonté:
“The room, as nearly always, is oppressive with assassination and non-escape”

“Surreal Dreamscapes: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades”, Michael Calderbank (2003)

On Benjamin’s essay of 1925 entitled ‘Dream-Kitsch’:
“this inter-penetration of the two realms is not a ‘natural’ constant, but a historically specific phenomenon. 10 Kitsch objects, the banal by-products of culture subsumed under the logic of industrial production, are assimilated into dreams, thereby obscuring the oneiric ‘blue horizon’ of the Romantics, with a ‘grey coating of dust’. Correspondingly, as Marx first diagnosed with his analysis of the commodity fetish, at the height of capitalist modernity, ‘ordinary’ commodities become invested with a magical, quasi-religious and dreamlike aura.”

“In ‘Konvolut L’, Benjamin notes: ‘Arcades are houses or passages having no outside – like the dream.’”

Comparing Benjamin and Breton:
“For both writers, what is significant is not the waking state per se, which could quite easily carry on in the same drearily prosaic way, but the moment when consciousness is shocked into the recognition of possible forms of cognitive experience from which it is excluded in reality. Both writers also, therefore, develop a notion of a single material reality, in which ‘dream’ and ‘waking’ experience are both inextricably grounded, and which progresses not in a gradual, seamless, linear continuum, but instead proceeds unevenly in jolts, leaps and unexpected reversals.”

“Giorgio de Chirico and surrealist mythology , Roger Cardinal (2004)

What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic.

“a collection of talismanic embodiments of the twinned novelty and absurdity of modern life. By deliberately fetishising the bric-à-brac of twentieth-century urban culture, surrealism was able to draw up a formula for the surrealist Marvellous and to elicit a striking mythology out of the banalities of the contemporary world. “

On Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris:
“a kind of archaeology of the contemporary unconscious “
‘the vertigo of the modern’ [‘le vertige du moderne’]. (Aragon’s words)

Breton’s essay on de Chirico (1920):
‘re-appraise the basic perceptions of time and space’ [‘reviser les données sensibles du temps et de l’espace’].

Aragon’s quotation, unknown book:
‘Though substituted for the natural myths of antiquity, [the new myths] cannot be truly opposed to them, for they derive all their strength, all their magic, from the selfsame source.’
‘Substitués aux antiques mythes naturels, [les mythes nouveaux] ne peuvent leur être réellement opposés, car ils puisent leur force, leur magie à la même source.’

“The Uncanny”, Margaret Iversen, 2005

“Schelling defined it [The uncanny] as something that should have remained hidden but has come to light. In a more Freudian idiom, it is a feeling prompted by the return of the repressed.”

“The scene for the emergence of uncanny strangeness is, after all, the familiar, conventional or banal. This is so because the ‘familiar’ is constituted by the repression of childhood traumatic experience or the real of unconscious fantasy. The familiar must inevitably have a simulacral quality because the real has been expelled. David Lynch beautifully demonstrates this mutual dependence in his film, Blue Velvet (1986). The white picket-fenced world of Lumberton shown in the opening sequence has such stereotypical clarity that one’s gaze slides right off the image, unable to get any purchase. Lynch makes it clear that the bourgeois residential area has this two-dimensional simulacral quality precisely because reality (here a criminal underclass and the unconscious) has been marginalized, banished to the other side of the tracks. For me, the uncanny is not the simulacrum itself, but that which agitates its shiny surface.”

Dana MacFarlane, 2003, reviews “City Gorged With Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris” by Ian Walker

“One of the explicit claims Walker makes is that the ‘stricter’ the reality presented by the photograph, the more potentially subversive and surreal its effect. In the process of being represented photographically, the everyday world is transformed. The surreal appears in those photographs in which the logic of realism presented by the photograph is interrogated, undermined and transformed.”

Breton’s Nadja: ‘the space between’

‘Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.’ Susan Sontag, ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography (New York: Penguin, 1979), p. 52.

Walter Benjamin on Surrealism and Photography

Posted in Art History/Theory, Critical theory, Photography, Reading notes, Surrealism with tags , , , on September 27, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

Surrealism The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia (1929)

“Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself where, sound and image, image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called “meaning”.”

“In the world’s structure dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth. This I loosening of the self by intoxication is, at the same time, precisely the fruitful, living experience that allowed these people to step outside the domain of intoxication.”

“ But the true creative overcoming of religious illumination certainly does not lie in narcotics. It resides in a profane illumination,  a materialistic, anthropological inspiration.”

“ perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the “outmoded”, in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects .that have  begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. […] No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution—not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors/enslaved and enslaving  objects- can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism.”

“convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys (railways are beginning to age), on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense forces of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion.”

“And no face is surrealistic in the same  degree as the true face of a city. No picture by de Chirico or Max Ernst can match the sharp elevations of the city’s inner strong-holds, which one must overrun and occupy in order to master their fate and, in their fate, in the fate of their masses, one’s own.”

“The Surrealists’ Paris, too, is a “little universe”. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. It is the region from which the lyric poetry of Surrealism reports.”

“ the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry”

“ the philosophical realism of the Middle Ages was the basis of poetic experience. This realism, however—that is, the belief in a real, separate existence of concepts whether outside or inside things—has always very quickly crossed over from the logical realm of ideas to the magical realm of words. And it is as magical experiments with words, not as artistic dabbling, that we must understand the passionate phonetic and graphical transformational games that have run through the whole literature of the avant-garde”

Apollinaire, L’esprit nouveau et les poetes:
“ their synthetic works create new realities the plastic manifestations of which are just as complex as those referred to by the words standing for collectives”
about Dostoyevsky:
“No one else understood, as he did, how naive is the view of the Philistines that goodness, for all the manly virtue of those who practise it, is God-inspired; whereas evil stems entirely from our spontaneity, and in it we are independent and self-sufficient beings.”
I think the Surrealists moved away from this preoccupation and it’s rather George Bataille that continued to pursue this idea ?

“ we penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday […] The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug—ourselves—which we take in solitude.”

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)

“Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. […] With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature. This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art. In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental. This much is certain: today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.”

“The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime,
too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. The directives which the captions give to those looking at pictures in illustrated magazines soon become even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones.”

“What art has been granted a dream more poetical and more real at the same time! Approached in this fashion the film might represent an incomparable means of expression.”

“The film has not yet realized its true meaning, its real possibilities. . . these consist in
its unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural.”

“art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance” which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive”

“the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.”

“The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion”

“The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”

“this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction
whereas art demands concentration from the spectator. […] Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who
concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of an the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.”

A small History of Photography

“The most precise technology can give its product a magical value, such as a painted picture can never have for us. No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye: other in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”

“optical unconscious”

“photography reveals in this material the physionimic aspects of visual worlds which dwell in the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and capable of formulation, make the difference between technology and magic.”

“Atget was an actor who, disgusted with the profession, wiped off the mask and set about removing the make-up from reality too. […] He looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift, and thus such pictures too work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they pump the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship. What is aura, actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be. […] The stripping bare of the object, the destruction of the aura, is the mark of a perception whose sense of the sameness of things has grown to the point where even the singular, the unique, is divested of its uniqueness – by means of its reproduction.”

“ a salutory estrangement between man and his surroundings”

“The camera is […] ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder.”

History and theory of Surrealism (through historical Surrealist texts)

Posted in Art History/Theory, Critical theory, Reading notes, Surrealism with tags , , on September 27, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

André Breton , What is Surrealism? (Lecture in Brussels on 1/6/1934)

In this lecture, Breton explains the principles of Surrealism to a non specialist audience, and the history of the movement 15 years after its creation in 1919.

He distinguishes 2 eras:

1919-1924 (From the publication in 1919 of the first surrealist automatic writing experiment “Les champs magnétiques” to the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924: a “purely intuitive epoch” characterised by “ the view that thought is supreme over matter”.
1924-ongoing: a “reasoning phase” characterised by the belief in “the necessity of crossing over the gap that separates absolute idealism from dialectical materialism” and “the supremacy of matter over mind”. This a phase of politicisation of the movement, triggered by the “outbreak of the Moroccan war” in 1924 and deepened by the rise of Fascism and the opposition with Stalinism during the 1930’s.

Oddly enough, it is this politically motivated desire to bridge the gap between dream and material reality that will take Surrealism away from its original experiments with automatism which, though fascinating in principle, tended to lead to repetitive results, and lead to the concepts of “the everyday marvellous” and “modern mythology” explored in Aragon’s “Paris Peasant”, Breton’s Nadja, the fascination with Atget’s photograhs, and the Surrealist unstaged photography tradition (Brassaï, Eli Lotar)

“a desire to deepen the foundations of the real, to bring about an even clearer and at the same time ever more passionate consciousness of the world perceived by the senses.”
“avoid considering a system of thought as a refuge, to pursue our investigations with eyes wide open to their outside consequences, and to assure ourselves that the results of these investigations would be capable of facing the breath of the street.”
“ to present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification, or finally becoming one. This final unification is the supreme aim of surrealism”
Description of Surrealism as an “invisible ray”.

Aragon, Une Vague de rêves (1924):
“It should be understood that the real is a relation like any other; the essence of things is by no means linked to their reality, there are other relations besides reality, which the mind is capable of grasping and which also are primary, like chance, illusion, the fantastic, the dream. These various groups are united and brought into harmony in one single order, surreality… This surreality—a
relation in which all notions are merged together—is the common horizon of religions, magic, poetry, intoxications, and of all life that is lowly—that trembling honeysuckle you deem sufficient to populate the sky with for us.”

René Crével, L’Esprit contre la raison (1928) “Mind against Reason”

“ the drift of surrealism has always and chiefly been towards a general and emphatic crisis in consciousness”

Salvador Dali’s “Paranoïac-critical” method

La Femme Visible (1930):
“I believe the moment is at hand when, by a paranoiac and active advance of the mind, it will be possible (simultaneously with automatism and other passive states) to systematize confusion and thus to help to discredit completely the world of reality.
In order to cut short all possible misunderstandings, it should perhaps be said: “immediate” reality.”
Paranoia uses the external world in order to assert its dominating idea and has the disturbing characteristic of making others accept this idea’s reality. The reality of the external world is used for illustration and proof, and so comes to serve the reality of one’s mind. “

‘Surrealist Intervention’ number of Documents 34, Dali Essay ‘Philosophic Provocations’:
“Paranoia: Delirium of interpretation bearing a systematic structure.
Paranoiac-critical activity: Spontaneous method of “irrational knowledge” based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations.
Painting: Handmade colour “photography” of “concrete irrationality” and of the imaginative world in general.”

Breton comments:
“In order to form a concise idea of Dali’s undertaking, one must take into account the property of uninterrupted becoming of any object of paranoiac activity, in other words of the ultra-confusing activity rising out of the obsessing idea. This uninterrupted becoming allows the paranoiac who is the witness to consider the images of the external world unstable and transitory, or suspect; and what is so disturbing is that he is able to make other people believe in the reality of his impressions.”

Influence of Rimbaud

“The Manifesto of Surrealism has improved on the Rimbaud principle that the poet must turn seer. Man in general is going to be summoned to manifest through life those new sentiments which the gift of vision will so suddenly have placed within his reach.”
“Rimbaud’s sibylline pronouncement: “I say that one must be a seer, one must make oneself a seer”. As you know, this was Rimbaud’s only means of reaching the unknown.”

“Surrealism can flatter itself today that it has discovered and rendered practicable many other ways leading to the unknown.”
Breton list examples of methods used to reach the “unknown” within surrealist practice:
“The abandonment to verbal or graphic impulses”
“the resort to paranoiac-critical activity”
“simulation of mental diseases (acute mania, general paralysis, dementia praecox), which Paul Eluard and I practised in The Immaculate Conception (1930), undertaking to prove that the normal man can have access to the provisorily condemned places of the human mind”
“the manufacture of objects functioning symbolically”
“the analysis of the interpenetration of the states of sleep and waking, tending to make them depend entirely on one another and even condition one another in certain affective states, which I undertook in The Communicating Vessels”

“the automatism from which we started and to which we have unfailingly returned does in fact constitute the crossroads where these various paths meet.”

“bring about the state where the distinction between the subjective and the objective loses its necessity and its value”

“Surrealism, starting fifteen years ago with a discovery that seemed only to involve poetic language, has spread like wildfire, on pursuing its course, not only in art but in life. It has provoked new states of consciousness and overthrown the walls beyond which it was immemorially supposed to be impossible to see; it has—as is being more and more generally recognized—modified the sensibility, and taken a decisive step towards the unification of the personality, which it found threatened by an ever more profound dissociation.”
I think this last sentence is a reference to the Marxist concept of alienation (inspired by Hegel’s concept of work as expression human creativity). Alienation is the idea than human beings are estranged from their true selves because Capitalism expropriates the fruit of their labor which, under Hegel’s concept, is the expression of man’s unique ability to create from scratch (as opposed to animals). Human beings are estranged from themselves because the act of working ceases to be a mean to express one’s inner self within the material world.

André Breton, Manifeste du Surréalisme (1924)

« Je crois à la résolution future de ces deux états, en apparence si contradictoires, que sont le rêve et la réalité, en une sorte de réalité absolue, de surréalité, si l’on peut ainsi dire. » p24
“I believe in the future transmutation of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, of surreality, so to speak.”

« Ce qu’il y a d’admirable dans le fantastique, c’est qu’il n’y a plus de fantastique: il n’y a plus que le réel. » p25
“What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer a fantastic; there is only the real.”

« Le merveilleux n’est pas le même à toutes les époques; il participe obscurément d’une sorte de révélation générale dont le détail seul nous parvient: ce sont les ruines romantiques, le mannequin moderne ou tout autre symbole propre à remuer la sensibilité humaine durant un temps. Dans ces cadres qui nous font sourire, pourtant se peint toujours l’irrémédiable inquiétude humaine. » p26
Pierre Reverdy p31:

« L’image est une création pure de l’esprit. Elle ne peut naître d’une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux réalités plus ou moins éloignées. Plus les rapports des deux réalités rapprochées seront lointains et justes, plus l’image sera forte – plus elle aura de puissance émotive et de réalité poétique… » p31
« La valeur de l’image depend de la beauté de l’étincelle obtenue; elle est, par conséquent, fonction de la différence de potentiel entre les deux conducteurs. » p49

« SURREALISME, n.m. Automatisme psychique pur, par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.”
“ Le surréalisme repose sur la croyance à la réalité supérieure de certaines formes d’associations négligées jusqu’à lui, à la toute-puissance du rêve, au jeu désintéressé de la pensée. Il tend à ruiner définitivement tous les autres mécanismes psychiques et à se substituer à eux dans la résolution des principaux problèmes de la vie.” p37

Description of the surrealist artist as a psychic or a radio receptor p39:
“nous qui ne nous sommes livrés à aucun travail de filtration, qui nous sommes faits dans nos oeuvres les sourds réceptacles de tant d’échos, les modestes appareils enregistreurs qui ne s’hypnotisent pas sur le dessin qu’ils tracent, nous servons peut être encore une plus noble cause. Ainsi rendons-nous avec probité le « talent » qu’on nous prête. […] Nous n’avons pas de talent. »
« We, on the contrary, who have not given ourselves to processes of filtering, who through the medium of our work have been content to be the silent receptacles of so many echoes, modest registering machines that are not hypnotized by the pattern that they trace, we are perhaps serving a yet much nobler cause. So we honestly give back the talent lent to us. […] We have no talent…”

Breton, Surrealism and Painting – Le Surréalisme et la Peinture (1928)

“L’oeil existe à l’état sauvage” p11
“The eye exists in a savage state.”
By this, Breton means that sight is the one sense that perceives signals in the most intuitive way, without the need to be “trained” whether by education, taste etc… Therefore the Surrealists will favour visual arts, contrary to the Symbolists who considered that every artwork should aim to become music.

“L’oeuvre plastique, pour répondre à la nécessité de révision absolue des valeurs réelles sur laquelle aujourd’hui tous les esprits s’accordent, se référera donc à un modèle purement intérieur.” p15
“douer l’esprit humain de ce qui lui faisait tellement défaut: je veux dire d’un véritable isolant grâce auquel cet esprit, se trouvant idéalement abstrait de tout,commence à s’éprendre de sa vie propre où l’atteint et le désirable ne s’excluent plus et prétend dès lors soumettre à une censure permanente, de l’espèce la plus rigoureuse, ce qui jusque-là le contraignait; si, depuis eux, la notion du permis et du défendu a pris cette consistance élastique que nous lui connaissons.” p15

“Il faut avoir pris conscience à un si haut degré de trahison des choses sensibles pour oser rompre en visière avec elles, à plus forte raison avec ce que leur aspect coutumier nous propose de facile” p16

“Tout ce que j’aime, tout ce que je pense et ressens, m’incline à une philosophie particulière de l’immanence d’après laquelle la surréalité serait contenue dans la réalité même, et ne lui serait ni supérieure, ni extérieure. Et réciproquement, car le contenant serait aussi le contenu. Il s’agirait presque d’un vase communicant entre le contenant et le contenu. C’est dire si je repousse de toutes mes forces les tentatives qui, dans l’ordre de la peinture comme l’écriture, pourraient avoir étroitement pour conséquence de soustraire la pensée de la vie, aussi bien que de placer la vie sous l’égide de la pensée.” p69
“All that I love, all that I think and feel inclines me towards a particular philosophy of immanence according to which surreality will reside in reality itself and will be neither superior nor exterior to it. And conversely, because the container shall be also the contained. One might almost say that it will be a communicating vessel placed between the container and the contained. That is to say, I resist with all my strength temptations which, in painting and literature, might have the immediate tendency to withdraw thought from life as well as place life under the aegis of thought.”
This metaphor of the container and the contained will be developed in 1932 in “Communicating Vessels” (“Les vases communicants”)

André Breton, Second Manifeste du Surréalisme (1930)

« Tout porte à croire qu’il existe un certain point de l’esprit d’où la vie et la mort, le réel et l’imaginaire, le passé et le futur, le communicable et l’incommunicable, le haut et la bas cessent d’être perçus contradictoirement. Or c’est en vain qu’on chercherait à l’activité surréaliste un autre mobile que l’espoir de détermination de ce point. […] En ce lieu mental d’où l’on ne peut plus entreprendre que pour soi même une périlleuse mais, pensons-nous, une suprême reconnaissance. » p73
« Everything leads to the belief that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not perceived as contradictions. It would be vain to attribute to surrealism any other motive than the hope of determining this point. It is clear, moreover, that it would be absurd to ascribe to surrealism either a purely destructive or a purely constructive character—the point at issue being precisely this: that construction and destruction can no longer be brandished against each other. […] On this mental plane from which one may for oneself alone embark on the perilous, but, we think, supreme reconnaissance»

« arracher la pensée à un sevrage toujours plus dur, la remettre sur la voie de la compréhension totale, la rendre à sa pureté originelle. » p73
«  uprooting thought from an increasingly cruel serfdom, of bringing it back to the path of total comprehension, of restoring to its original purity »

« L’idée de surréalisme tend simplement à la récupération totale de notre force psychique par un moyen qui n’est autre que la descente vertigineuse en nous, l’illumination systématique des lieux cachés et l’obscurcissement progressif des autres lieux, la promenade perpétuelle en pleine zone interdite. » p86

« la pénétrabilité de la vie subjective par la vie « substantielle » » p88

« Intellectuellement la vraie beauté se distingue mal, a priori, de la beauté du diable. » p95

André Breton, Les Vases Communicants (1932)

« Le monde du rêve et le monde réel ne font qu’un, autrement dit que le second ne fait, pour se constituer, que puiser dans le « torrent du donné » – qu’à tenter de faire apercevoir sur quelles différences de relief et d’intensité repose la distinction qui peut être faite entre les opérations véritables et les opérations illusoires qui s’inscrivent respectivement dans l’un et dans l’autre, de cette distinction très précise dépendant, de toute évidence, l’équilibre mental. » p68
« La vie humaine, conçue hors de ses limites strictes que sont la naissance et la mort, n’est à la vie réelle que ce que le rêve d’une nuit est au jour qui vient d’être vécu. » p136

André Breton, Genèse et perspective artistiques du surréalisme (1941)

Quoting Balzac « Chef d’œuvre inconnu »
« La mission de l’art n’est pas de copier la nature, mais de l’exprimer. » p75

« Au bout de ce chemin semé d’embuches réelles ou non il y a la traversée du miroir par Alice » p76
Alice through the looking glass is used as a metaphor for Art that ceases to copy reality, and rather chooses to express it.

« L’automatisme, hérité des médiums » p94

« Une œuvre ne peut être tenue pour surréaliste qu’autant que l’artiste s’est efforcé d’atteindre le champ psychophysique total (dont le champ de conscience n’est qu’une faible partie). Freud a montré qu’à cette profondeur « abyssale » règnent l’absence de contradiction, la mobilité des investissements émotifs dus au refoulement, l’intemporalité et le remplacement de la réalité extérieure par la réalité psychique, soumise au seul principe du plaisir. L’automatisme conduit à cette région en ligne droite. » p97

André Breton, Du Surréalisme en ses œuvres vives (1953)

« la Gnose, en tant que connaissance de la Réalité suprasensible, « invisiblement visible dans un éternel mystère » p173

Surrealism, Photography, Cinema

Posted in Art History/Theory, Artists that inspire me, Cinema, Photography, Reading notes, Surrealism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2010 by melaniemenardarts

Notes from “Explosante fixe”, Exhibition Catalogue at Centre Pompidou

Some notes are in French, I do not fully translate everything, only the most important bits. I’ll translate later what will actually be used in the essay.

André Breton, L’entrée des mediums (1922)
Definition of Surrealism
“un certain automatisme psychique qui correspond assez bien à l’état de rêve, état qu’il est aujourd’hui fort difficile de délimiter.”

Breton “hasard objectif”

George Bataille “L’informe” “Bassesse”-> chûte

Salvador Dali
“Photographie, pure création de l’esprit” (1927)
in Dawn Ades, “Salvador Dali”, Thames and Hudson 1982
“Ils trouvent vulgaire et normal tout ce qu’ils ont l’habitude de voir tous les jours, si merveilleux et miraculeux que ce soit”

Dali, “Film Art, Fil Antiartistico”, Gazeta Literacia (1927), in Dawn Ades
“Le monde du cinema et de la peinture sont très différents: les possibilités de la photographie et du cinéma résident precisement dans cet imaginaire illimité qui nait des choses elles-mêmes. Un morceau de sucre sur l’écran peut devenir plus grand que la perspective infinie d’édifices gigantesques.”

Dali, “Psychologie non euclidienne d’une photographie”, Minotaure 7.
“La donnée photographique est toujours et essentiellement le plus sûr moyen d’expression poétique et le procédé le plus agile pour saisir les plus délicates osmoses qui existent entre la réalité et la surréalité. Le simple fait de la transposition photographique implique une invention totale: la capture d’une réalité secrète.”

Salvador Dali – Realité Secrète
The image reflects reality but forces people to see the world without prejudice/preconception. Therefore the representation of the world presented by the image (i.e. By Art) is truer than the world directly gazed at.
-> the reflection of the world in the mirror (=Art) is truer than the direct image.
-> Alice Through the looking glass

Benjamin Péret, Minotaure 12-13
“Ruine des ruines”

Dawn ades, “La photographie et le texte surréaliste” in Explosante fixe
“ces visions litteraires ou photographiques de produits de la civilisation engloutis par une nature triomphante et vorace traduisent symboliquement l’opposition des surréalistes à leur propre culture. Et celà, chose curieuse, se situe dans le prolongement du culte romantique de la nature, propre à l’esthétique de la fin du 18ème siècle, qui prend le parti de l’état sauvage contre la domestiqué, et celui de la nature contre la civilisation.”

Notes from La subversion des images: Surréalisme, Photographie, Film, Exhibition Catalogue at Centre Pompidou

I saw this show in December 2009.

Les images du dehors, Michel Poivert

“definition de la photographie comme empreinte”
“une odieuse laideur dont le pouvoir de fascination révèle la jouissance inavouable que procure le mauvais gout” George Bataille

Un photogramme, à l’instar d’une photographie documentaire, exemplifie une relation interiorisée au monde

Le fantastique moderne, Quentin Bajac

techniques d’enregistrement indicielles

Louis Aragon
“ne conçoit pas de merveilleux en dehors du réel”
“un fantastique, un merveilleux moderne autrement riche et divers”
“La réalité est l’absence apparente de contradiction. Le merveilleux, c’est la contradiction qui apparait dans le réel. Le fantastique, l’au delà, le rêve, la survie, le paradis, l’enfer, la poésie, autant de mots pour signifier le concret” La révolution surréaliste 3
“sentiment du merveilleux quotidien”

About Eugène Atget, self taught photographer of Paris whom the Surrealist admired:
Waldemar George: « un quart de siècle avant Aragon, il a écrit Le Paysan de Paris en sondant, en dépouillant de sa gangue et en mettant à nu cet immanent mystère qui a pour nom: banalité. »
Albert Valentin: « tout à l’air de se passer au delà, dans la marge, dans le filigrane, dans l’esprit »
« une même poésie spectrale et populaire de la ville. Eloignés des utopies modernistes urbaines contemporaines, ils prennent leur source dans un Paris où seuls les lieux banals et surannés peuvent faire surgir un merveilleux moderne. »
« une nouvelle mythologie moderne urbaine dont les clichés d’Atget, dans leur brutalité primitive, fourniraient une des clefs d’accès. »
« autant de contenus manifestes, d’apparences trompeuses qu’il convient de déchiffrer »
« mettre au jour un contenu latent, souvent chargé de mystère et de percer littéralement l’ombre, lieu de tous les fantasmes »

Below some pictures by Atget:

Atget - Hell Mouth

Atget - librairie

atget - vitrine

atget - mannequins

atget - stairs

atget - appartment

atget - cabaret

atget - foggy street

atget - stairs

atget - cabaret

Dali, « Le témoignage photographique »
« la nature intrinsèquement fantastique du médium photographique »

Pierre Mac Orlan, « Masquer sur mesure », 1928
« révélateur d’une puissance merceilleuse »

About the photographs illustrating André Breton’s Nadja:
« hallucinations simples »

André Breton about night in « Les vases Communicants »:
« la grande nuit qui sait ne faire qu’un de l’ordure et la merveille »
This may refer to Brassai’s photographs of Paris by night.

Below some photographs by Brassaï:

brassai - foggy paris

brassai - gutter

brassai - house

brassai - foggy

brassai - broken windows

brassai - marechal ney

Random quotations:

Henri Cartier Bresson p152:
« laisser l’objectif photographique fouiller dans les gravats de l’inconscient et du hasard »

Dali, « Mes toiles au salon d’automne », 1927 p219
voir le monde « d’une manière spirituelle, dans sa plus grande réalité objective »

Schaulust = pulsion scopique p220

André Breton, « Le Surréalisme et la peinture » p274
« L’oeil existe à l’état sauvage » = the eye exists in a savage state (he means that people see things instinctively, the sense of sight does not need to be educated, tamed.)

about strange perspectives in Dora Maar’s collages p275:
« les décors sont sombres et composés de perspectives dépravées: une fenêtre disparaît derrière une colonne pour ne jamais reparaître; un couloir penche vers la gauche jusqu’à se tordre; une voûte s’avère à la fois concave et convexe selon le point de vue qu’on adopte. Ainsi les personnages chimériques ont-ils l’air d’errer dans des espaces qui, par leur contiguïté et leur hétérogénéité, ne peuvent qu’être mentaux. »

Warped spaces in Dora Maar collages:

dora maar

dora maar

dora maar

dora maar

Original Surrealist published material, reprinted

Louis Aragon, « Du décor », 1918, p417
« Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore »

Robert Desnos, « Puissance des fantômes », 1928, p418: a poetic ode to cinema and the power of imagination
« Nés pour nous, par la grâce de la lumière et du celluloïd, des fantômes autoritaires s’assoient à notre côté, dans la nuit des salles de cinéma »
« le cinéma ne saurait être que le domaine du fantastique. En vain le réalisme croit-il régner sur les films ».
« Le merveilleux se manifeste où il veut et, quand il veut, il paraît au cinéma à l’insu peut être de ceux qui l’introduisent. »

« Heureux l’homme soumis à ses fantômes. Certes, il connaîtra des nuits désertes, d’inexplicables nostalgies, des mélancolies infinies, le désir sans raison, le spleen, l’implacable spleen. Mais il remettra la terre à sa place parmi les astres et l’homme parmi les créatures. Jamais l’or ne le détournera de son chemin. Jamais un boulet d’esclave n’entravera sa marche. Mieux, tout ce qu’il désirera, il l’obtiendra par la magie même de son imagination et les visites mystérieuses charmeront sa solitude. Libre, il agira librement en toute chose et sorti du dédale terrible de ses rêves, est-il quelque chose sur terre qui pourrait l’épouvanter? […] Initié au fantastique par la seule puissance de la surprise, son esprit connaîtra bientôt la sérénité, née du conflit de son orgueil et de son inquiétude. »

I translate this particular bit because it is very poetic and I like it:
« Fortunate is the man who submits to his ghosts. Sure, he will be prey to deserted nights, unexplainable nostalgies, infinite melancholies, mindless desire and spleen, the merciless spleen. But he will put the Earth back in its place among the stars, and man among the creatures. Never will gold sway him from his path. Never will he be hindered by a slave’s ball and chain. Better, all that he may desire, he will get it by the mere magic of his imagination, and mysterious visits will charm his solitude. Free, he will act freely in all things and, out of the terrible labyrinth of his dreams, is there anything on Earth that could terrify him? […] Initiated into the Fantastic by the mere power of surprise, his mind will soon know serenity, born out of the conflict of his pride and anxiety. »

Note: « ghost » = « fantôme » in French = « fantasma » in Italian (learnt from watching too many Dario Argento subtitled movies 🙂 and also spanish
« Fantasme » in French = « a fantasy » in English
« Fortunate is the man who submits to his ghosts. » I’m wondering whether there is some kind of pun here about fantôme (ghost) -> fantasma → fantasme → « Fortunate is the man who submits to his fantasies. » May be worth looking into the latin root of « fantasme » and « fantôme »

Antonin Artaud, « Sorcellerie et cinéma », 1927, p419
« cette espèce de griserie physique que communique directement au cerveau la rotation des images »
« cette sorte de puissance virtuelle des images va chercher dans le fond de l’esprit des possibilités à ce jour inutilisées.  Le cinéma est essentiellement révélateur de toute une vie occulte avec laquelle il nous met directement en relation. Mais cette vie occulte, il faut savoir la deviner. »
« le cinéma […] dégage un peu de cette atmosphère de transe éminement favorable à certaines révélations. »
« un certain domaine profond tend à affleurer à la surface »

« Le cinéma me semble surtout fait pour exprimer les choses de la pensée, l’intérieur de la conscience, et pas tellement par le jeu des images que par quelque chose de plus impondérable qui nous les restitue avec leur nature directe, sans interpositions, sans representations. Le cinéma arrive à un tournant de la pensée humaine, à ce moment précis où le langage usé perd son pouvoir de symbole, où l’esprit est las du jeu des representations. La pensée claire ne nous suffit pas. Elle situe un monde usé jusqu’à l’écoeurement. Ce qui est clair est ce qui est immédiatement accessible, mais l’immédiatement accessible est ce qui sert d’écorce à la vie. Cette vie trop connue et qui a perdu tous ses symboles, on commence à s’apercevoir qu’elle n’est pas toute la vie. »

I translate this bit because it is crucial:
« To me, cinema seems to be made to express thoughts, the inside of the consciousness, and not so much through the play of images than through something more fleeting that communicates them to us with their direct nature, without interpositions, without representations. Cinema was discovered at a turning point of human thought, at this very moment when overused language has lost all of its symbolic power, when the mind is weary of the game of representations. Clear thought is not enough. It paints a word overused to nausea. What is clear is what is immediately accessible, but what is immediately accessible is nothing but the mere surface of life. This life that we know too well, that has lost all its symbols, we start to realise that it is not the whole of life. »

Benjamin Fondane « Du muet au parlant: grandeur et décadence du cinéma » 1930
« un nouveau moyen d’expression qui non seulement remplacerait la parole mais la mettrait en échec, soulignerait son creux; exiger d’autre part du spectateur une sorte de collaboration, ce minimum de sommeil, d’engourdissement nécessaire, pour que fût balayé le décor du signe et que prît forme à sa place le réel du rêve.
Que le spectateur perdit pied, c’est tout ce que le cinéma voulait. »

Albert Valentin « Eugène Atget, 1856-1927 » 1928
« tout a l’air de se passer au-delà »
« Le reste est au-delà, vous dis-je, dans la marge, dans le filigrane, dans l’esprit, à la portée du moins perspicace ».

Brassaï « Images latentes » 1932
juste cette expression « images latentes »

Dali « le témoignage photographique » 1929
« essentiellement le véhicule le plus sûr de la poésie »
« percevoir les plus délicates osmoses qui s’établissent entre la réalité et la surréalité »
« l’enregistrement d’une réalité inédite »

Raoul Ubac « L’envers de la face » 1942
« Une image, et surtout une image photographique, ne donne du réel qu’un instant de son apparence. Derrière cette mince pellicule qui moule un aspect des choses, à l’intérieur de cette image il en existe à l’état latent une autre, ou plusieurs autres superposées dans le temps et que des opérations le plus souvent dues au hasard décèlent brusquement. »

Jean Goudal « Surréalisme et cinéma » 1925
« Au cinéma comme dans le rêve, le fait règne en maître absolu. L’abstraction perd ses droits. Aucune explication ne vient légitimer les gestes des héros. Les actes succèdent aux actes, portent en eux mêmes leur justification. Et ils se succèdent avec une telle rapidité que nous avons à peine le temps d’évoquer le commentaire logique qui pourrait les expliquer, ou tout au moins les relier. »
« hallucination consciente »
« cette fusion du rêve et de l’état conscient »
« ces images mouvantes nous hallucinent, mais en nous laissant une conscience confuse de notre personnalité et en nous permettant d’évoquer, si c’est nécessaire, les disponibilités de notre mémoire. »
« Dans le langage, la donnée première est toujours la trame logique. L’image naît à propos de cette trame et s’y ajoute pour l’orner, pour l’éclairer. Au cinéma, la donnée première est l’image, qui, à l’occasion, et point nécessairement, entraîne à sa suite des lambeaux rationnels. »

Project Proposal draft 1

Posted in Project Proposal, Surrealism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2009 by melaniemenardarts

I am writing the first draft of the project proposal for tomorrow’s chat and will update the “latest draft” page, as well as in this post so a record of successive drafts is kept.

Two interesting research discoveries (need more research in books, as little about it online):

– the surrealist concept of “Métaphysique des lieux” (Metaphysics of places). Apparently originating from Louis Aragon’s novel “Le Paysan de Paris” (The Paris Peasant). It is the reinterpretation of space using imagination. From various critics, the novel highlights the Surrealists’ ambivalence towards the city, an attitude that distinguish them from other modernist movements such as Futurism or Constructivism who worshipped everything modern (cities and technology). It seems there are more complex things to be dug up than the “love for Paris” one usually reads about in introductions to Surrealism. It is definitely a concept I need to research as it relates to my interest in exploring backward and rural places. I only have second hand comments about the book, so cannot write much about it yet. “Paris Peasant” seems to be the key text about ambivalence towards cities, and possibly some bits from Breton’s “Nadja” in a lesser measure.

– In 1930, André Breton and Paul Eluard wrote a collaborative poem “L’immaculée Conception” (Immaculate Conception). They had studied various psychiatric textbooks and real writings from mentally ill people, and attempted to put themselves in a state of “simulated madness” before using automatic writing to produce texts similar to the ones written by real patients. They wrote a couple of texts simulating various mental conditions. The goal of the experiment was to prove the line was very thin between the “normal” and “insane” mind, and the possibility of madness was present in any mind. I feel this experiment relates to my two installation ideas: the “autistic box” simulating the experience of a self-sufficient inner world, and the installation simulating the feeling of being lost in order to create disquiet in the viewer.


I was not yet able to write a proper proposal. I need to read more things in order to have a clearer idea. What I’ve done is reread everything I’ve written in this blog (and on random notes), isolate what I think are the most importance concepts, and sort them in order to fill the different sections of the project proposal. I did not try to write an organised text at this point. I was not able to find anything for paralell theory, and did not write anything for methodology. I think I am not sure what should be in methodology: it seemed like a mix of “generative theory” and outcome to me.

Working title

Outer space/inner worlds : borders, invasions, warfare tactics.

Aims (1 or 2) + objectives (6)

Research the way our subconscious reinvents reality and our surroundings. the various dynamics between the outer world and the individual’s inner worlds.
– the subjective perception of things around us. using photography and video, media ironically considered documentary and objective
– the surrealists said cinema was like dream made physical. explore the possibilities of video to make dreams/inner worlds (mine or from imagined characters) “real” and share them with others. Especially immersive video installations can create more “real” feelings than just video on a screen. explore than as way to engage in a deeper level of communication with the audience.
– how private space is a physical projection of the occupier’s inner world (both liberating and oppressing projections)
– the house and more generally private space and its importance for the intellectual freedom of individuals
– as a consequence, tactics of controlling individuals’minds by manipulating the private space available to them. madness/sanity border questioned from an “external” viewpoint: i.e. undesirable but “sane” people locked up to get rid of them (political illness)
– coping tactics developed by individuals in response to that. madness/sanity border question from a more internal viewpoint: i.e. alienation slowly becoming madness, where exactly is the border ? “mental escape” (fugues) to avoid unpleasant things.



Above all Surrealism and its aim to reconcile the accepted reality with the individual’s imagination, in order to reach a superior reality, encompassing more levels of perception
especially: dreamscape paintings, wandering and metaphysics of space, simulation of madness.
19th century visionaries such as Blake
Dada and its critic of the absurdity of modern life
German expressionist cinema, and its interest in madness
“Antipsychiatry” philosophers
Urban exploration and psychogeography within situationnism and beyond
Cinema exploring consciousness (Lynch, Bergman, Polanski etc …)


Contemporary art aiming to reclaim public space, it is usually performance art. For example: it is forbidden to take photographs in malls, and some outdoor city centre streets are sold for private use because they mostly contain shops. Simon Pulter’s projections on the Houses of Parliaments and the white cube gallery.
Modern psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair.
David Lynch

Critical theory

The surrealist concern of Art not being made exclusively for the cultural elite to discuss it between themselves, but open to everyone. This has nothing to do with paternalist attitude of making “simple” art (such as social realism) , but making Art that is open to be enjoyed on different levels. The key to that is that Art refers to “Life” (Ado Kyrou against the “Auteur” cinema) not just previously made art, so that a person without cultural reference can enjoy the piece relating to their life experience. Obviously, because previously made art is a very important part of an artist’s own life, the piece will be influenced by various art references. This is OK as long as it is just an innocent reflection of the artist’s love for previous art, not a way of “testing” the cultural knowledge of the audience.

The same way, politics are part of life, so most artworks will have some political connotations to them. If the artist is concerned with a political issue, they will naturally express it in their Art. But a piece should not be made solely to advertise a political idea. Art is not propaganda or advertising. Art should engage the audience into thinking for themselves, not tell them what to think.

Parallel theory
Maybe contemporary, much more moderate versions of antipsychiatry sush as the people who criticise the hegemony of cognitive behavioural therapy in contemporary mental health systems ?

Generative Theory

-unstaged compositions
-used of pictures seen in dreams/visions without attempting to find out what they “mean” and without modifying them artificially in order to make them fit a “model”.


collect photographs and footage from derelict places, and more generally strange places (Freud’s the uncanny)
1) for some pieces, these collected images (after processing and editing) are the artwork in itself
2) for other pieces, they cause an idea association in me and I need to create “artificial images” (from scratch) to make a physical representation, and edit them in
3) for other pieces I have an inner vision (i.e. dream) and I’m aiming to make it real. so I either go out and find real things that fit it, ot if they don’t exist, I create images from scratch
maybe it is 1) the outside invading the inside 3) the inside invading the outside 2) the time/place where they clash, where the border is. I’m not sure about this yet


Immersive video installations.

Work plan


How to pitch my project ? – Space and consciousness – the unpremeditated – Surrealim is dead anyway

Posted in Artists that inspire me, Methodology, Project Proposal with tags , , , , , , , on September 27, 2009 by melaniemenardarts

This post won’t be a well thought-out well organised dissertation on some subject but rather a list of issues/uncertainties I have about how to pitch my research project according to the structure given to us last week. In particular, how to phrase the research question and how to pitch it within the contextual categories: history, contemporary, critical theory, parallel theory, projective or generative theory.

The main problem I have is I know what types of artwork I want to make but am unsure about how to pitch it within a coherent research project. It’s like there are a couple of different threads I want to explore, and they are all somehow related to the big soup of things I may call “interests, obsessions and inspiration” which share lots of similar themes but I’m not fully sure how I may knot these threads into a bullet-proof research question.

Bluntly, this is how I came up with my initial research proposal: I have been doing the ghost houses for 3 years because I like exploring them, I find them fascinating. I had been doing (and went on doing) other things I personally found equally interesting before doing the ghost houses (photographs of woods where light was very fairy tale-like, random wood sculptures, dream paintings, found objects assemblage) but those were constantly rejected from exhibitions. Then out of nowhere, the ghost houses started being accepted to about a third of the exhibitions I offered them to, with on top of that quite a few of “sincere” (i.e. personalised rejection letter with comments, not standard letter) sorry-we-think-they’re-great-but-don’t-quite-fit-the-subject refusals. To me it was an amazing success rate. It seemed when I started the ghost houses, I had unknowingly started making fashionable artworks !!! Indeed, when you look in AN, there are quite a lot of events going on about space, urban, the built environment and such. These is obviously a fashion going on about that. I was completely unaware of it when I started the ghost houses, I did them because I found them fascinating. But, hey, I’m not suicidal either, if one of the things I do is fashionable by sheer luck, it has to be in my research project !

So exploring derelict places became part of the research project. It could not, however, be the complete research project for several reasons:
1) I don’t live near the ghost houses and can only explore them in summer (derelict places in England are heavily guarded old public institutions that require a lot of jackass skills to get in). Even if I lived near them, I’m not sure I would like to spend all my week ends in places where there might me asbestos, pigeon droppings and such. A couple of times per year wearing a good dust mask won’t kill me, but I would not like to spend my life in there.
2) You cannot predict the productivity of a ghost house. It may be locked up, wrecked, empty, too dark or without anything interesting in it. It is not only in the Art world that space/the built environment has become fashionable over the last 2 years, urban exploration as a hobby has become hype, with dedicated websites flourishing. Some urban explorers seek fame and glory from it, advertising their explorations with exact location name as trophies. The consequence being that the place owner just has to google the name of their property to learn about the unwanted visitor, and heavily lock up the place, making it inaccessible to others (I have even been wondering whether this consequence was not intentional. After all, the rarer the trophy, the more valuable). The best places I had planned to visit this summer were heavily locked up after some high visibility reports were put online about them … Thankfully, this type of behaviour is not too common and most urban explorers are relatively discreet and helpfully share tips about access to places. While I’m at it, I just would like to state than the urban exploration moto is “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”, so it is a peaceful, non destructive activity.
3) I might get bored of the ghost houses, in which case I’ll stop, however fashionable they might be.

So the research project had to have other things in it. I had been making paintings of dreams, and love cinema exploring consciousness, so the obvious was to make videos inspired by dreams and inner worlds.

Then came the issue of how to knot those 2 apparently unrelated threads. This is the main issue I am researching in books at the moment. Instinctively, I know space and consciousness are related, but I do not have a couple of smart quotations to prove it (tough luck). Why do I know it instinctively ? One of my favourite paintings is Birthday by Dorothea Tanning. The corridor seems to go on indefinitely, there is a mirror on the left but the real space does not seem any more real than the reflection. It seems this beautiful strange house is not the outer world but the (infinite) inner world of the artist.

Dorothea Tanning - Birthday

I’ve always seen my house as a shelter: I can make it look the way I like (since a teenager, I have skimmed bric a brac shops and garage sales, lovingly doing up old fashioned objects in the colors and patterns I like), and in it I can do whatever (harmless thing) I like without the fear of being marked as odd. To me a house is a private place where people are free to be themselves away from the judgemental looks of others. See also Virginia Woolf’s essay “A room of one’s own”: people need a private space to be able to think independently. When I am invited in other people’s houses, I look at the colours they chose, the objects they like and I feel I know the host more intimately thanks to those. I see their house as the closest approximation to a physical projection of somebody’s inner world. Many Raw artists actually takes this statement literally, and turn their whole house into a huge artwork, creating their own self contained universe with a unique mythology.

A recurrent theme in films and books set in the former Soviet Union (Dr Zhivago, The Master and Margarita) are the dreadful communal housing, and the nosiness, gossips, mutual spying that came with them. What was probably started as an emergency war-time measure to give decent housing to everyone was soon turned into a control instrument to make people conform by encouraging neighbours to spy on and denounce each other. The recurrence of the theme shows how traumatising it must have been for people to be suddenly deprived of their private space like this. One of the selling point of Capitalism was that, within Capitalism, contrary to the Eastern Bloc, people were granted the right to individuality and privacy. Yet, today, many young adults with decent, steady jobs cannot afford a private space and are forced to live with perfect strangers met through the small ads well into their late 30s. Flatshare are contemporary Communal housing. It is not greed but flatshare-phobia that made me take a boring but reasonably lucrative engineer job in the first place. Open space offices are another contemporary example of the use of space as an instrument of mind control. In contemporary UK, people do not talk of “houses” anymore but of “property”. What used to be an intimate space where people were free to be themselves is now a commodity passed from hand to hand every 3 years in order to reap the profit from speculation on it.

In many movies, madness manifests itself as a distortion of space and time. In David Lynch’s films, there a recurring image of a corridor with drapes whenever a character goes insane, looses grip on reality or feels a menace. In many of his films, the inside architecture of the houses where the character live do not make sense (at least not within Euclidian geometry …): the inside seems far too big compared to the outside, there seem to be doors and corridors leading from everywhere to everywhere, characters walk around the house and they seem to go through the whole of it as though the house was built as an endless circle. In many interviews, Lynch confesses an obsession with houses: he sees them as self contained worlds were dreadful things happen, unknowingly of the outside world. So his vision of houses is tainted with menace and claustrophobia. Strange architecture is also present in German expressionist movies. In Last Year in Marienbad, the characters seem trapped in the immense hotel, going round in endless spatio-temporal circles, unable to leave the space until their mind makes sense of what is happening. In Polanski’s Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve, alone with her hallucinations, traps herself in her flat, a refuge turned menacing prison. Generally, in movies, people often drive themselves mad in close spaces (Kubrick’s Shining). In popular culture, the haunted houses and poltergeist phenomenon suggest a strong link between people’s minds and the places they used to inhabit.

So a house, a shelter, place and freedom and projection of one’s inner world may very quickly turns into a prison, a projection of one’s anxieties and obsessions. Where/when is the turning point or the trigger, or are both aspects constantly present ? Are they the same thing ? This question is definitely one of my obsessions.

Yet, I don’t think I want to call my research project “space and consciousness” or something like that, because this is not all I see in the ghost houses. Another important aspect of them is the unpremeditated compositions and putting my own meaning on something that already exists by itself. I feel it is an important part of my art process as I was already exploring something similar when I made the random wood sculpture. So I don’t want to leave this aspect out of the research project.

When I said “madness manifests itself as a distortion of space and time”, there is also the time factor that I could not explore in photography and paintings, but that I will use in moving image.

So in the end, the only common thing I could find in my obsessions and interests is subjectivity. The subjectivity of one individual’s vision. The problem is, this does not make a research question ! So I decided that the best solution was to call the project Digital Surrealism, since the surrealists were themselves interested in many of the things I am want to explore (dreams, consciousness, randomness). That will do the trick, I thought happily …

But then I’m reading “Surrealism and Cinema” by Michael Richardson, where he says that David Lynch’s work has nothing to do with Surrealism because Lynch has no desire to change the world, and his interviews show he has a bad understanding of what Surrealism was. Indeed Lynch is no revolutionary (though I have no clue what his political leanings are, and I don’t care). The interviews in question, I don’t remember them if I read them so I cannot comment on the level of expertise in Lynch’s understanding of Surrealism within Art History until I read them again. However, my humble opinion is that, even if David Lynch was a trotskyist and held a Phd in Art History about Surrealism, he could not be a Surrealist anyway because Surrealism as an Art movement died in the 60s at latest. In passing, Richardson does not comment about Lynch’s use of images he does not know the meaning of (the blue box in Mulholland Drive) and his use of altered states of consciousness (namely transcendental meditation) in order to find ideas for artworks without being censored by his “Conscious”: he dismisses Lynch as a neo/post-surrealist purely on the ground of intent, ignoring method or process.

Anyway, even when Surrealism was alive, there was no clear definition of who was or was not a Surrealist. Breton and the hardcore wrote theoretical texts about the principles of Surrealism. Some of these texts are better forgotten for Surrealism’s sake, especially homophobic rants and ludicrous dogma about women’s say in the practical organisation of sexual intercourse. But many artists gravitated around Surrealism without being formally part of the movement, which did not prevent them from being invited to take part in surrealist exhibitions. They were attracted mostly by its aura of freedom. This included many women artists without formal training, who were not bothered by Breton’s outdated views on female sexuality, or simply granted them the amount of attention they deserved … Some of these artists did not want to join to preserve their independence, because the authoritarian personality of Breton annoyed them (Leonor Fini), or simply because they could not be bothered (especially Belgian painters who were away from Paris). Later on, Breton became more dogmatic and starting “excluding” lots of artists for all kinds of dubious reasons. This did not prevent those excluded dissidents from going on making their work, with or without Breton’s approval.

Even if the theoretical writings about Surrealism were completely free of rubbish, no contemporary artists could be expected to follow them literally nowadays. They were written in the 20s and 30s and the social conditions in which the artwork are produced have drastically changed.

All this to say that what at first seemed a convenient title now seems like a needlessly dangerous magnet for criticism by hair splitters who think they have the authority to decide who is or is not influenced by Surrealism in 2009. There was a hint in the chat that in the “contemporary context” part of our project proposal, we could give names of current academic research. So this seems to imply that the way we pitch our research proposal could influence academic opportunities we have at the end of the MA. With that in view, it seems suicidal to choose a title that is like a criticism magnet, however convenient it might have sounded at first.

So it’s now 00.01, I have written 2352 words and I still don’t know how to call my research project …