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

Edifice and Artifice – Urban Planning and Verisimilitude

Art can provide a compelling antidote to all the moral, philosophical, economic, scientific, religious and political hyperbole that bombards and confronts us every day. By referencing the technical processes of artistic practice, the study of art history and the language of critical art theory, we can learn to interpret and navigate these conflicting forces, and even challenge them. In our increasing over-reliance on all things digital, we need an artistic sensibility to help us re-connect with tangible reality. There are also some suggestions that enlightened companies have started hiring art graduates to bring an alternative perspective to their organizations – to tap into hitherto under-utilised skills and to employ this external expertise for internal problem solving, decision-making and strategic analysis.

Two recent cultural experiences have provided me an opportunity to reflect on how more than ever we need art to help make sense of the world, especially when interpreting data and making strategic planning decisions based on informed assumptions, market research and business analysis – because the standardized digital representation of everything means we often fail to venture beyond the surface of things.

The first event was a screening of “Urbanized”, an intriguing documentary by Gary Hustwit, showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The film is the final part of Hustwit’s design trilogy (following “Helvetica” and “Objectified”) and looks at several examples of good (and bad) urban planning around the world.  It provides cause for both optimism and pessimism on the future of the city – but it is mostly a positive survey.

One critical section of the documentary is an exploration of Brasilia, a flawed example of a “planned” city, with marvellous civic edifices and expansive freeways – except that for the people who live there, especially poorer and car-less citizens, it just doesn’t work as a built environment where they are supposed to live, work and play. Scratch beneath the surface, and we see a dysfunctional city. The moral of this particular story is that planners need to engage with the community, and work from the perspective of the end user, not simply from a visionary blueprint. Meanwhile, Stuttgart provides a salutary lesson in how poor public communication around policy, decision-making and execution can lead to a government being voted out of office, yet the majority of voters remain in favour of the politicians’ original planning decision.

There are so many things to like about this simple but effective film: the absence of a voice-over, allowing the stories to largely speak for themselves (within the usual confines of editorial decisions); the choice selection of urban locations and planning case studies; a range of informed and mostly objective participants and commentators; plus simple cinematography and a great soundtrack. Now I want my own city to adopt the public bus system from Bogota and the bike lanes from Copenhagen (and maybe the High-Line Park from New York).

The second cultural event comprised two solo (but related) exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring the photography of Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall respectively. Both artists produce large scale works, both employ sculptured components (light boxes used as fames, images printed on Perspex to imply depth) and both of them use constructed or staged settings to create their images.

Thomas Demand’s work looks deceptively simple and straightforward – mostly large still-life pictures of urban, industrial and technology-based interiors. However, if we dig below the surface verisimilitude, we can see that the images are really photographs of models made from paper and cardboard – sculptures that meticulously and painstakingly recreate these scenes rather like stage-sets, which simultaneously seem totally familiar yet frankly disturbing. This latter response can be explained by the absence of people and an eerie lack of any human presence in the images, plus the knowledge that all this visual data is merely a form of hyper-reality; but at the same time it is actually false, or at best an impression or recreated memory.

In comparison to his counterpart, Jeff Wall’s photography has the appearance of being more naturalistic (especially as most of Wall’s images feature people in everyday settings), even though in some cases it is just as surreal and hyper-real. The latter is achieved by the use of scale and backlighting, while the former is implied by the contradiction and juxtaposition between subject (content), and setting (context). This body of work also incorporates more narrative elements, and manages to make external references to literature, film and art history.

Both artists are quietly academic in their practice, and to some viewers this might present a barrier to understanding if they are not familiar with the accompanying art theory or critical analysis. But this need not be an obstacle to our engagement with the work, allowing us to appreciate it for what it is, and to reach our personal interpretations and conclusions.

Art enables us to relate individual stories and collective experiences, and recognizes that there are many truths, not just a single truth. Without art, we would lose a vital tool to interpret and narrate much of the world around us that cannot be explained by other media. And in the digital age of “virtual” and “hyper” realities, increasingly art is the only tangible means we have to give context and substance to our imagination without it being compressed and dis-intermediated by reductionist and homogenised technologies.

Finally, art in the 21st century is probably the only continuous link we have to our past – because as language and technology have evolved over time, art remains a constant aesthetic touchstone.