Monday, 18 January 2010

Attitude to surrealism

Many of my carvings on the surface appear to fall quite squarely into the category of Surrealist. From my perspective this is partially true, and partially not.

I very definitely like a lot of surrealist art, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti particularly. There is also some surrealist art I dislike; completely automatic poetry I gave up on very quickly, and some surrealist painting and sculpture I find formulaic and dull (this includes most of the modern pastiches of surrealism visible in hotel lobbies everywhere; as this could happen to any art movement once it has ceased to be new and dangerous I don’t hold this against surrealism itself).

Deciding whether I like surrealist art, and whether my own art looks surrealist, misses out the central aspect of surrealism which is an approach rather than a set of characteristics. This is an approach which, from my understanding of it, I may not use nearly as much as might appear, and which I suspect may be somewhat divorced from what attracts me to the surrealist work I do like.

At this point trying to describe what I think surrealism actually is can be put off no longer.

A problem with having an opinion on what defines surrealism is that the movement’s founder, Andre Breton, appears to have been rather fussy as to who was allowed to self define as belonging to his movement. When I started reading the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, I assumed that the people he was ejecting from his circle with impressive vitriol had committed some major political sin or personal betrayal. As it turned out, their crime had been to experiment with approaches that were not entirely surrealism as Breton defined it. From his perspective, one could only be entirely and exclusively surrealist or not at all. Treating this as silly, I view surrealism, on the basis of the much more interesting first manifesto, and the works of the other surrealists (whether they were in favour with Breton at that particular moment or not), as follows.

Surrealism is an approach to art that puts at the centre the images, impressions, half formed thoughts and urges that pass through the mind when the subconscious is exerting a strong influence. This can be through the use of automatic methods – writing or drawing with the minimum of conscious control (carving like this is a bit of a problem, although not impossible as I will describe shortly), by producing more traditionally planned works designed to represent subconscious experiences, by producing works which are ambiguous, but stimulate subconscious interpretations whether the recipient wants them or not, or any other method where the subconscious experience of either the artist or the recipient is treated as central.
All three of the methods specified above I have at some point used, or attempted to use. The second and third methods I am quite confident work in the way they claim to, and I fully intend to continue using them. The first method I have some issues with. A lot of neuroscience has happened since the 1920s, and whilst the surrealists where generally anti-mysticism and identified with Marxism, reading them now there is an element of romanticism to their picture of the subconscious which feels uncomfortable (I am fairly ignorant of neuroscience beyond a random collection of lectures by a linguist several years ago, so I make no claim of definitely refuting any specific statements made by surrealists). My other issue is the idea that the produce of automatic methods is qualitatively different from straightforward inspiration. For the use of automatic methods to be worth while there doesn’t need to be, anything which makes inspiration flow easily is good. My problem is that when I use them, by making large decisions about a carving very quickly, even if the hacking away itself is a very long and consciously controlled process, I have the feeling that this is somehow better that trying to make a slower, more considered decision. This, to me, sounds like mysticism and I don’t like it.

My other reason for not wanting to consider my work entirely surrealist is a positive sense in which I use various other methods that just happen to produce things that look surreal. One of these methods is simply going for technical challenges of a certain type, which tends to result in spindly, strange, overly delicate structures reminiscent of Yves Tanguy paintings. Going for technical challenges like this I would like to claim is not entirely a question of showing. It is partially, but there is also an aspect of the excitement involved in working in with something that might break at any moment, the excess of effort involved, and the emotional investment that produces. Whether this is in any way communicated in the finished product I can’t say.

Another non-surrealist technique I use is a general interest in structures themselves. This relates to the technical challenges mentioned above, and also to my own variant on the third surrealist technique I mentioned, described here, but it also serves a more straightforward desire to pay tribute to physical processes in thier own right.

I still prefer surrealism to conceptualism.


Brandon said...

Have you considered carpentry performance art?

Michael Leal said...

I suppose you could have three people; one with a collection of peices of wood, one with a power drill and one with a box of screws and a screwdriver, and they produce an abstract construction with Eric Satie playing in the background.