As I continue with the final preparation for my Saints & Martyrs artwork (which I wrote about back in August), most of my thoughts have been about surrealism.
Lee Miller: Dressed is an exhibition of the surrealist photographer, model, and war correspondent’s clothes and photographs — the latter being a mix of her fine art photography and her photojournalism from the second world war — currently on at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until February 2024.
The juxtaposition of her surrealist solarised photographs with her later photographs of the German concentration camps as a war correspondent, and with the mannequins wearing her clothes is both jarring and unsettling.
I presume this disconcerting clash was very deliberate on the part of the curator(s), echoing the phrase by writer Isidore Ducasse (better known as Comte de Lautréamont), beloved by the surrealists — most notably by Man Ray, Miller’s lover in the early 1930s — as a working definition of surrealism:
Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.
But my trail of thoughts about surrealism had started a couple of days earlier when Matt Colquhoun posted Further Notes on Capitalist Surrealism on their blog, where they wrote:
We can see a similarly surrealist (albeit inverted) gesture in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism; it is the negative of a more imaginative project to come (the unfinished Acid Communism). First, it was necessary that he identify the “realism” of contemporary political reality, to sketch out the present, before advancing a more positive alternative to it — indeed, to even argue that such alternatives already exist in the first place. As Fisher wrote on the k-punk blog:Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism [that defines contemporary life and leftist thought] is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity).
This ties in with a few things I’ve been thinking over the past few years about Fisher’s work, particularly the sadly unfinished Acid Communism: (which I briefly examined from an art & culture perspective in my post Acid Communism; Acid Renaissance): if the trap of capitalist realism is that
it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism, then how do you imagine the end to capitalism and the possibility of a better future free from its chains?
As I wrote back in 2019, I suspect one of the solutions is indeed the jarring juxtaposition that throws you off balance for a second and allows something forbidden by capitalist realism to briefly be visible in the spaces between:
But it is so much easier to imagine the end of the world than an end of the eternal capitalist present we are trapped in. Even if you know the misdirections that the conjuror is using, the illusion itself is so polished and compelling. So in turn I need to trick myself in order to allow myself a glance at these potential futures out of the corner of my eye, heavily clothe them in metaphor to avoid detection, let them emerge from the spaces between seemingly dissonant parts.
I certainly don’t think of myself as a surrealist, but there are aspects of surrealism — particularly the use of visual dissonance — that I do try to introduce into my work.
When I wrote about Jez Butterworth’s TV series Britannia in 2019 I said its
Deliberately-crafted dissonance, the antithesis of muzak, makes you engage rather than consume and went on to cite some other deliberate uses of temporal dissonance in my Acid Renaissance series (so I won’t repeat myself and list them here).