Surrealism, Manifestos and the Art of Juxtaposition

Like all good coaches and mentors, the best artists challenge our assumptions, reframe our perspective, and re-contextualise both the positive and negative, to provide a narrative structure with which to navigate the world around us. Likewise, they don’t tell us what to think, but leave us to interpret events for ourselves, having given us the benefit of an informed and critical vantage point.

Image: "Untitled" (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Image: “Untitled” (2012) by Greatest Hits, NGV, Melbourne © Greatest Hits

Over the holidays, I went to a couple of unrelated but inter-connected exhibitions that both played with our traditional perception of reality while demonstrating the importance of context in providing meaning.

The Comfort of the (Un)Familiar?

First up was Lurid Beauty: Australian Surrealism and its Echoes, at the NGV Australia. I’m a big fan of Surrealist art, having visited the landmark retrospective, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1978 (and I later made a very minor contribution to a documentary on Eileen Agar in 1989). What I particularly like about Surrealism is its use of the familiar to create alternative realities, which is both comforting and unsettling. Sadly, I know next to nothing about Australian Surrealism (and I imagine I am hardly alone, given it has only recently gained formal recognition and critical appreciation).

So I was pleasantly surprised to find early pieces by major artists such as Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, which to my mind were far more interesting than the works for which they are popularly known. When seen alongside contemporaneous exhibits by Max Dupain, Eric Thake and James Gleeson, it’s easy to see how Surrealism was a significant influence on Australian art from the 1930’s to 1950’s. And yet I don’t recall many references to the local Surrealist movement or a wide acknowledgment of its impact on 20th century Australian art. More’s the pity, when you can see how the threads of Surrealism continue to be woven into the work of contemporary artists like David Noonan, Julie Rrap, Anne Wallace and Pat Brasington.

The Long Shadow of 19th Century Gothic

Part of the problem might be the fact that later, more familiar works by Nolan, Tucker and Gleeson have become severed from the artists’ original (and modernist) Surrealist roots. Instead, as I see it, these artists (along with Boyd, Perceval, Olsen et al) have been re-cast as part of the continuing 19th century Australian Gothic sensibility (Goths being more tangible than Surrealists?). This prism prefers the literal over the metaphorical, “real” legends over allegories, and landscapes over mind scapes.

Even Inarticulate Art Speaks for Itself?

Another issue, from my perspective, is that contemporary Australian Surrealism continues to play with psychological and political issues, alongside themes of gender, sexuality and hierarchy – topics designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Whereas, in my view, too many contemporary artists are either obsessed with process over form/form over content (to the point that any potential meaning is lost); or conversely, output is everything (often reducing their work to mere illustration or decoration).

Not Made Here?

On a purely aesthetic level, and to be hyper-critical for one moment, I wonder if Australian Surrealism is overlooked because received art opinion considers it to be too derivative of its European counterpart – and therefore, it has fallen victim to cultural cringe. One possible example is Barry Humphries‘ sculpture “Siamese Shoes” (originally made in 1958, shown here in its 1968 remake). While Humphries, according to the exhibition notes, “is considered to be Australia’s first Dada artist” (only 40 years too late, some might say…), I don’t believe for a moment that he was trying merely to imitate Meret Oppenheim‘s almost identical and much earlier work, “Das Paar” (originally made in 1936, remade in 1956).  When viewed in the context of its companion pieces that also formed part of Humphries’ solo exhibitions and artistic happenings, and when one considers Australia’s cultural climate of the 1950’s, then it’s more likely that Humphries was appropriating Dadaism and Surrealism for his own purposes, specifically designed to stir up his local audience out of their suburban bourgeois complacency.

Re-directing Surrealism’s Legacy in Australia

What was especially telling about Lurid Beauty was the 15-20 minute conversation I had with one of the gallery volunteers. She was very keen to get my views on the work, and asked how I came to learn about this particular exhibition. I got the impression that attendance has not been as high as anticipated, perhaps due to a lack of publicity. Despite being on several mailing lists for Melbourne’s arts and cultural events, I had not received any promotional material about this exhibition. We also discussed whether Surrealism features in the high school art curriculum, and whether the exhibition needed to emphasise the contemporary works and themes (rather than taking a somewhat traditional or historical narrative, based on a selective bunch of male artists – the usual suspects).

Given the legacy of Surrealism on film, literature, advertising, music videos, fashion and design, I think more could have been done to make this exhibition appeal to a broader and younger audience. The works, for the most part, are vibrant (if at times challenging), and even the themes depicted in the older pieces still resonate today. (A concurrent exhibition of Les Mason‘s advertising, graphic and visual design work only emphasises the point about Surrealism’s continuing influence.)

Finally, one very welcome aspect of Lurid Beauty was the extensive collection of original publications from the NGV’s library: magazines, catalogues, journals, and of course, André Breton‘s “Surrealist Manifesto”.

In the Artists’ Own Words

Speaking of Manifesto, this is the title of Julian Rosefeldt‘s video exhibition next door at ACMI. I had the privilege of hearing the artist introduce one of the works at a special screening, in which he mentioned his fascination with art manifestos. In a rare example of an artist directly and explicitly acknowledging his sources and inspiration, Rosefeldt shared with the audience that he had even become somewhat obsessed with a particular feminist manifesto. Not only did this provide some fascinating insights on the artistic process, it demonstrated yet again that we are all products of what has gone before, and it reinforced the importance of understanding art in the context of the history, theory and criticism, when it comes to interpreting old and new art.

Using around 50 different manifestos (artistic, political, cultural, critical), Rosefeldt has created 13 short films, each representing a particular art movement. The selected texts have been juxtaposed as monologues for 13 different characters, who deliver their lines, seemingly out of context with the visual settings, but at the same time, totally integrated into coherent narrative forms.

The fact that Cate Blanchett is cast in all 13 lead roles has no doubt created additional interest among local audiences. But, not to take anything away from her performances, this should be irrelevant – the point is that Rosefeldt has taken something with very specific meaning from one context, combined it with a mix of related and unrelated elements, and created a whole set of new meanings. (If anything, seeing simultaneous versions of Blanchett performing multiple, disparate roles, screened side by side, only underlines the fact that actors are the great deceivers – which, if any, is the “real” Cate?)

The videos are looped and synchronised. At times, the monologues converge and overlap, creating three and four-part harmonies for spoken word. This further de-contextualises the source materials, while lending them further meaning, even if we can’t immediately fathom what that might be. (Personally, I think it could be a subliminal reference to the Tower of Babel, or simply a comment on the manifestos themselves – and by extension, the vacuous words of so many artists’ statements.)

Less Is More

Two other works in the exhibition, Stunned Man and The Soundmaker (both from The Trilogy of Failure), are more straightforward narratives, also featuring a single character cast in a familiar setting.

First, Stunned Man is a dual screen projection, comprising mirror images of the same apartment. Over time, elements appear to interchange between the two screens, in a process of forward/reverse destruction and re-construction. But there are enough visual clues to suggest that not all is as it seems, in this parallel universe.

Next, The Soundmaker deconstructs the work of the Foley artist, using a similar process of destruction and re-construction – but split across three screens and two scenes, the viewer could be left wondering whether the “real” action is actually the soundtrack for the Foley artist at work.

What all these works demonstrate is that sometimes less is more – a simple idea can still be executed with wit, sophistication and restraint, to lend it a level of complexity that does not over-burden the final result. It requires a deft touch. There is nothing obvious or ponderous in these films. Nothing about these highly staged videos has been left to chance – every detail has been meticulously thought through. They are perhaps all too rare examples of when formal planning, combined with creative process and technical production, can give us content that is fully formed, but still open to interpretation.

The Artistic License

In my professional work as a coach and mentor, I’m not in the habit of constructing manifestos (believe it or not, I don’t possess that level of didacticism…). But I try to challenge my clients’ assumptions, reframe their situations, and draw on analogous scenarios (not just from business, but from technology, culture, art, music, etc.) that can help re-contextualise their perspectives, especially when clients are stuck. I see a large part of my role as consultant to use the “artistic license” I have been given to investigate, interpret and identify solutions to client problems – which at times can even take the form of a type of alchemy. As one client I worked with recently commented, “the way you reframed the situation was like pure gold”.

Next week: Why The Service Sector Lacks Self-Awareness

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