Surrealism as a Form of Installation and Installation as a Form of Surrealism

Some kind of floating form remains, despite the concept of ‘surrealism’ having become something decidedly historical. This ‘form’ is not the the assembly of visual typologies of what we might term historical surrealism (clocks, eyes, breasts, feathers) that were fetishes in the first place, and which are fetishised in accounts of surrealism now. The form that remains is something more like the highly specific, if oddly conceived, placement of various different things in relation to each other. It is a little like the composition of a sentence out of words. Each word is a thing (typographically, linguistically, semiotically, verbally, culturally), but is absolutely dependant on its sentence-neighbours to participate in a collective act of meaning. The sentence, regarded for a moment as a thing of its own, is the container for the words, but is a container whose size, shape, meaning and ambit is entirely dependant on its constituent parts. This is, quite evidently, one of the ways in which ‘writing installs’, and an example of ‘writing installation’.1’Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other’ writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. The work installed in a space physically touches its other (walls, floor, ceiling), but more importantly, it rubs against the space’s context, its story. Meaning is thus generated in the touch between work and space.

But it also speaks of something inherent in installation itself as a curatorial and artistic discipline. The sentence proposes a space for the words to happen in, but the sentence is shaped and formed by the words. Curating, or writing, installation means placing work in place for it to function rather than simply siting it there. This may all sound perfectly obvious, either needlessly or happily so.

But the unconscious mind wanders..

to the appearance of being-objects… or object-beings2As Bruce Altshuler’s record translates the term, from the papers of the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. Which is it? Being-objects are perhaps mainly stationary, object-beings are perhaps mainly alive. Or perhaps both, or neither.

… or objects being3Being themselves, for once. Non-specific objects? No, that came later. Objects being themselves together, that is the image I’m looking for.

… and beings object4What do they object to?

… his twine5His twine, the twine that wrapped the First Papers of Surrealism the year after the Exposition Internationale.

… his twin6Whose twin?

History leaves us with records of surrealist activity, and with its participants playing roles in each others’ verifiable biographies. This is a matter of record. It also leaves us with the everyday notion of the ‘surreal’, which can mean anything from oddness to uncanniness to unexpectedness. Somewhere between the two is the really meaningful (or rather, useful) part of the equation: the installation of the workings of an odd form of logic. A conceptualism that allows for poetry… the mind wanders again.

And if things were otherwise, of what might the mind not be capable?7This is what Bréton thought, anyway, placed in the Surrealist Manifesto. It’s a good question.

Max Ernst was drafted into the German army during the first world war, and was famously very traumatised by the experience. He was also, happily, allowed to spend some of his wartime service drawing maps.

André wanders around the city, following Nadja, for 10 days. Slightly more than a week, and not a week of goodness.

Une Semaine de Bonté; elements and examples. Kerry Andrews’ untitled 1988 exhibition at Unit 7 Gallery consisted of a large central structure, which took the form of a house-like structure made of wood painted in gun-metal grey.8At least, as its curators recall. The documentary photographs of the installation are monochrome, so it is difficult to verify other than by a probable, relative grey tone. Beneath this was a floor, or rather double floor,9A notional sea and seabed, it is tempting to interject after the fact. of a green carpet sitting upon a layer of shredded paper. The carpet was partly covered by a white fabric layer, leaving the visible green in the shape of a shadow that the house-construction might hypothetically cast.10The Swedish artist Karl Larsson (born 1977) showed another kind of shadow-carpet in his 2013 exhibition Cut up, written over and eventually recovered. It was one carpet, but in a physical sort of trompe l’oeil represented two carpets. It gave the illusion of a small, doormat sized carpet placed half on and half off a larger carpet, but was all one integral carpet-construction. The work was called Ostomachion Carpet (Stage For Poetical Assumption) after the Archimedean puzzle. This is a tangrammatic game where 14 pieces, all cut from a square, can form a variety of shapes. The name literally means ‘bone game’, but by a kind of dystmesis we can find the word ‘stomach’ within it. An army marches on their stomach. The shredded paper was, it is certain, printed matter. There were also two pillars, rather like very tall plinths, on which were placed plaster models of houses, painted gold. The pillars were white except for their backs, which were also painted gold. The backs of the pillars could barely be seen, as they were very close to the windows of the space (which were covered by the same translucent white fabric as most of the green carpet). This meant that the pillars’ gold sides had the primary function of radiating gold light from their occluded face. On the morning of the exhibition’s opening a final element was added – a flotilla of paper boats that sailed out from beneath the central house-structure, along the green shadow-carpet. The paper boats were all made from pages of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, his 1934 ‘picture-novel’ comprised of collaged images drawn from multiple, often 19th century, sources. Une Semaine de Bonté is made up of 182 images. It is hard to count from the documentation photographs of the exhibition how many boats there were, as the flotilla points towards a horizon, and some are in the distance.11Reading David Price’s description of a long forgotten work induces a palpable sense of duration. I recall every aspect of its making, especially the folding of the boats from Ernst’s book. In An Introduction to Metaphysics Henri Bergson describes duration as ‘the continuous life of a memory which prolongs the past into the present, the present either containing within it in a distinct form the ceaselessly growing image of the past, or, more profoundly, showing by its continual change of quality the heavier and still heavier load we drag behind us as we grow older. Without this survival of the past into the present there would be no duration, but only instantaneity.’

It would seem reductive to try to decode all this, even if it were possible. It would seem doubly reductive to try to suggest a symbolism in the arrangement of things (house, boat, paper, plaster, paint, light, carpet) when no code is presented beyond the organization of the artist. The assembly (and the memory of the installation) is what remains of all this, even if the number of boats cannot quite be counted. But all this secondary information is lost in importance, happily sunk in the float in form.