Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Universe Is Something Like A Spider Or A Blob Of Spit

There's a lot of kerfuffle about Surrealism in the media presently ... a big show at the V&A, for example, lots of double page spreads in the 'quality' press. In the way of these things, all the cliches are rehearsed ... Dali's lobster phone, the soft watches, the usual suspects. (How quickly it was all co opted by advertising ... now you can buy a rubber Dali lobster for £3 in the V&A shop ... a tea towel featuring Man Ray's Cadeau Audace will set you back £5).
Much of what gets passed off as Surrealist could be more profitably seen as the art of the fantastic ... what attracts me is a far darker take on Surrealism, a strain typified more by Georges Bataille than Dali. Bataille (the enemy within, according to Breton), in the essays he wrote for Documents, and the photographs they accompanied mined a far more interesting area - found objects and images, chance operation, elements ripped and magnified radically out of context.


Jacques-Andre Boiffard. Untitled. 1929


For Bataille, Surrealism always contained a strong element of realism, however distorted. The ethnographic, the scientific .... how disquieting when placed in other contexts. The photographs of Boiffard, for example, investigate a materialism highly uncomfortable for Breton ... the big toes, magnified and isolated, an attack, according to Bataille, on "idealist deceptions of human activity."

Eli Lotar. Abattoir. 1929

Real life is totally Surrealistic, the photos above are examples, on one level, of hard social realism, but are, on another, shockingly, deliriously Surrealist. Lotar's photographs of the slaughterhouse are beautiful examples - linked, in Bataille's accompanying essay, to religion, to the temple. Furthermore, Bataille slyly suggests, such sites are subject to a quarantine .... but the victims of this quarantine are not the butchers or even the animals, but the people who cannot stand the sight of their own ugliness.
Lotar and Boiffard were true geniuses, true Surrealists - may there come a time when their images replace the tired lobster phone as the quintessential Surrealist icon.

23 Comments:

Blogger Tim Footman said...

Good, thinky stuff, Anthony. It's interesting how quickly things that were once shocking and dangerous become mere wallpaper.

Presume you saw the Bataille exhib at the Hayward last summer? I touched on it here.

4:44 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Yes, didn't someone once float the innoculation theory ... wherein society, "The Man",allows small doses of dangerous material through in order to render it safe?
Yes, the Bataille show ... good , that was. Funny old geezer, Georges.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Dan Barrow said...

Ho ho. I went to the Tate Modern again recently, and I realised how tame all the 'official' Surrealist stuff they had was (except for Max Ernst's paintings, which can still scare the fuck out of people.) I always preferred Artaud's brand of Surrealism, or Outsider Art - closer to the whole 'madness and murder' thing that the official Surrealists professed to love, and I s'pose Bataille fits into that. Actually, I wonder if you can get any of the 'Documents' essays in book form?

11:19 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Yes, it is well nigh impossible to co opt Artaud and his work ... too stubborn for that.
Bataille too.
Actually, I don't know if any of Bataille's Documents essays are now available in book form. There are quite a few essay collections of his about, I wonder if any contain some of those essays?

1:12 PM  
Blogger doppelganger said...

I reckon that lobster phone and the Mae West sofa and all that other clutter are the 'Never Mind The Bollocks' of the art world.... terribly significant, iconic etc but is anyone getting anything out of them anymore?
Where's the dissonant little vacuum that this stuff should open up in the rational reflective mindspace, to let all the unconscious anxieties come flooding in..?
I think the the juxtaposition of the organic and technological can be distinctly unsettling, but, like with the soupcan, it's like: 'yeah, yeah.... we know'....
Not fashionable I know, but I reckon the symbolists ploughed better dreamscapes than Dali....

10:39 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Yes, couldn't agree with you more ... definite case of over-exposure. Which also connects to your point "where's the dissonant little vacuum etc.?" (well put, too)- when something has been so ruthlessly promoted it's imposible to come to it fresh, and make connections for yourself.
The Symbolists, too right. A lot of that work is ripe for rediscovery ... more fertile than Dali, a lot of which now looks far too contrived and mechanical.

10:53 AM  
Blogger doppelganger said...

I reckon if most of the twentieth century was about artists positioning themselves against some kind of mainstream, then it's difficult when they become absorbed by the boundaries they sought to extend.
If in a post-Freudian world all art functions to promote anxiety, what happens when you just end up giving some edgy glamour to a car ad? (The end of the line on The Velvet Underground I say..... shiny, shiny.... shiny interior trim of leather, whiplash injuries thing of the past with anti-lock brakes...)
It'd be awful to be regarded with historical affection (are Gilbert & George joining looky-likey Eric 'n' Ernie in this regard.... ? ooh... cosy...)

Maybe, post-Warhol, permanence is a rather old fashioned quality in art, but I reckon Schiele will always unsettle our notions about human bodies, whereas in a world where we can grow a human ear on a mouses arse, I'm pretty cool about lobster phones....

10:27 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Absolutely .. does reality today outstrip Surrealism? The mouse/ear creature would suggest yes. In a world bristling with horror, terrorism, imminent nuclear catastrophe, the efforts of artists to suggest the dark side look pretty small beer by comparison. One time, the Velvets were the ne plus ultra of rock'n'roll ... now, as you say, used to flog overpriced tat.
Yes, some work will always remain obdurate ... Artuad, I suggested previously, remains beyond the pale ... Schiele, also, is hard to co opt ...too individual and uncomforting a vision.
Where does all this lead? Gawd knows ... I lived to see a hero of mine, William Burroughs, move from being completely unacceptable to flogging Nikes and appearing in U2 videos. Did Burroughs sell out or did he manage to subvert society on a grand scale?
It's a debate that can never be settled (he said wisely, while stroking his chin and staring off into the distance).

5:13 PM  
Blogger doppelganger said...

so ok, it's who can hold fast against hegemony?
That's operationalised as: 'could never be used in an advert'
Schiele's in the bag.
Burroughs doesn't make the cut - it'll all be as boring as 'Dharma Bums' soon..

6:28 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Personally, I think that whatever Burroughs did, he remained Burroughs ... and all the dodgy adverts and pop videos were beside the point. They used Burroughs' image, his perceived cool-factor, but could never actually use the work ... even Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, a film I like and a film-maker I admire emormously, rather skirted the issue.
I always got a big laugh from seeing Burroughs besporting himself like that ... they didn't know what a live wire they were dealing with.
The media and the world are so different from Schiele's day, that it's a totally different ball-game.

8:19 AM  
Blogger doppelganger said...

I had a tape of him reading short stories over dub beats once - a student gave it to me - wonder where that went?

11:31 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

I love all that stuff ... I know people like Dennis Cooper criticised him for all that, the adverts and the pop records, but some of it works very well. Burroughs as actor and part-time rapper ... cool!
Allen Ginsberg once said that he had heart trouble and lived in an apartment something like ten floors up without a lift , so if they offered him money to advertise The Gap or whatever he was happy to take it.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

Tim - damn, missed that Bataille show myself. Relatedly, did see the Bellmer at Whitechapel in Feb, twice; most unsettling. Agree completley that 'offical surrealism' is all Dali-weird and cooky. Very annoying. So predictable. It endsup looking like a movement in painting only.
Yes, give me Bataille, Ernst, Man Ray, Duchamp, Artaud, Ionesco, Bellmer any day.

Anthony, you make an interesting and subtle point re the co-option or otherwise of WSB. I tend to agree - whilst harbouring the reservations and inevitabilities which Dopp highlights, re hegemony. I'm supposing that your point might look to some like a bit of fannish defensiveness - making a proviso for someone you like, admire, and want to keep in the hallowed circle we all create. But I think you have hit upon the crux of the thing. These areswipes - advertisers, U", whoever - surely used WSB, as he appeared to help promote these brands. But, as you say, even Cronenberg could not square thye circle of properly inculcating WSB's themes and attitudes and still make a widely-marketable film. I applaud DW - because I think the film is agreat film nonetheless. Something are pasturised as U", meanwhile, has no chance of REALLY using WSB. What were a bunch of Christian rockers doing wanting Burroughs anyway - apart from the thinly-disguished desperate vie for depth and kudos, that is? Bono must have loved encountering the use of irony in art 30 years after the fact - being able drag in bits of this and that. We're back to Bongo bashing, I know, but what a gobshite!

8:21 PM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

typo: U" - should be U2.

8:23 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Oh, absolutely ... I can't pretend to any objectivity when it comes to Burroughs ... if anyone else had been doing little bit parts in films or making albums I would have guffawed.
It's a vexed subject, advertising ... I tend to agree with Bill Hicks, if you go into advertising, you're off the artistic roll-call for ever; but, of course, things aren't so cut-and-dried ... rich fuckers who still do commercials, though ... take 'em out and shoot 'em.

I imagine Bono/U2 wanted to use Burroughs for the same reason they're always quoting The Beatles and all that malarkey ... a desperate attempt to achieve greatness by association.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

Yes, spot-on - greatness by association, or by contagion, one might say. It's like standing next to the bully in the playground and feeling hard and protected. I had this kind of debate with a myspace friend a while ago. He doesn't have any 'famous' people on his top friends listing, by choice, politics in fact. I do - albeit only one or two. I thought he had an interesting point. I gave it some thought. Those famous friends are not 'friends', of course. But then, strictly speaking, neither are the vast majority of those non-famous friends. And that is too take too-literally the idea of 'friend' in the myspace context, I think. That's just terminology handed down to us by that host. We don't have to accept it wholesale, I would argue. So, why include, say, Nurse With Wound? Well, personally, I like his work, and I include him in my top list in order to (a) signal my admiration and (b) attract others who also like NWW. So its a hommage and a filter. I might gain by the latter, of course; just as U2 might gain by their use of WSB. Is it just that we hate those billionaire Christian rockers a priori that means everything they do looks iffy?! Similarly, is it just that we like WSB, so we make caveates and provisos for his seeming misdemeanours? If so, that's just tribal; and, if so, feels a bit naff. I'd like stronger reasons to dislike U2, personally! Anyone got any real dirt on them? I'll ring the police if it comes to it.

1:23 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

I've got loads of trivial resaons for disliking Bono ... he's a pompous blowhard with dubious taste, and a thoroughgoing hypocrite ... nothing major, but if anyone has got any real dirt I'd love to hear it. I've got a fatal liking for gossip.

Yes, I like to see people I genuinely admire on Myspace, and like to signal my appreciation of their work. It's an odd thing, really. Wonder if it will last?

6:17 PM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

Good question. Topic with me, that is - as my main myspace account has been 'phished'. That means it has been hacked, and myspace have blocked it until they investigate. I'm told, they usually just end up deleting the thing. That's heaps of work, heaps of lovely comments and messages, and 4500+ friends potentially gone. What motivates hackers is, in the strict sense, beyond me. Spent ages saving everything I can in case it gets axed! I have others, of course; and since the esoterian24skidoo page was the first one I set up, it is a bit crude and over-burdened, but it is well-established, and was getting hundreds of hits a day sometimes, plus 80 odd listens a day to the music. I was only thinking the other day, the amount of friends I have on there makes me a target! They hack in there, then use your friends list to distribute their crap. I'll just come back stronger, if myspace push the button! (He says...!)

7:37 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Jesus, we are sorry ... that's really shitty news ... what do people get out of it?
I can understand hackers who are getting financial benefits, but doing that to Myspace sites? Don't like that at all.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Geddy Lee Helium Voice. said...

Thanks, that's kind of you. Managed to sort it, just a few minutes ago, in fact. It was a bit upsetting, I have to say - all that work, that network, a pride and joy(!); funny how attached one can get.

So it's business as usual. Hooray etc.!

11:41 PM  
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