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In 1945, Andre Breton traveled to the Haitian capital of Port au Prince to deliver a lecture on “Surrealism and Haiti.” In his own words, that lecture:
… tried, both for the sake of clarity and out of deference to the underlying spirit of this history, to align Surrealism’s aims with the age-old goals of the Haitian peasantry. In conclusion, I felt driven to condemn ‘the imperialisms that the war’s end has in no way averted and the cruelly maintained game of cat and mouse between stated ideals and eternal selfishness,’ as well as to reaffirm my allegiance to the motto on the Haitian flag: ‘Union makes strength.’
A local newspaper took up the challenge of Breton’s words, riling up emotions with articles that ignited a general strike, helped spawn an insurgency that brought down a US-backed dictator, and resulted in elections. It was a historic moment that embodies the union of art’s idealism with political change. This is the spirit of Surrealism that artist Sam Durant emphasizes in his current show, Invisible Surrealists, at Paula Cooper Gallery.
While discussions of Surrealism often focus on its white male European champions, lionizing figures like Breton, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dalí, the impact of the movement was equally felt in what was then called the “Third World.” Figures like Henri Krea of Algeria, Léopold Senghor of Senegal, René Ménil of Martinique, and Jorge de Lima of Brazil, among others, were important Surrealists that were largely marginalized in art and literary histories. Even figures from minority groups in the “First World,” like African-American poet Jayne Cortez and French-Canadian artist Jean Benoît, are ignored.
Invisible Surrealists grapples with the Surrealism of the postcolonial imagination, a challenge to colonial power and its ability to control native and migrant populations through careful administration, indoctrination, surveillance, and the management of every level of civil life. If colonialism controlled the outside world, then many artists on the margins found that their only freedom was to be experienced through inner fantasy, a world freed from external misery. Figures like Martiniquais poet and politician Aimé Césaire said Surrealism helped him to free up his poetic language and understand the liberating impact of words. Cuban Surrealist painter Wilfredo Lam explained, “My painting is an act of decolonization.” The rhetoric of Surrealism was largely anti-imperialist.
In Durant’s show, this invisible history is found in his doctored images, mostly drawings of archival photographs, that swap famous Surrealist faces with overlooked practioners. His “Invisible Surrealist” (2014) riffs on the cover of La Révolution surréaliste No. 12 from 1929. At the center of the original image is René Magritte’s “Hidden Woman,” which is circled by white European male Surrealists with their eyes closed. Durant replaced the well-known patriarchs with the “Invisible Surrealists,” who have their eyes open and frame an image of Marcel Duchamp as the Biblical Adam in Man Ray “Adam and Eve” (1924). Duchamp, with his passion for sleight-of-hand conceptual frameworks, is the inspiration for this historical rejiggering, as if his mind-expanding notions of art are being pushed further.
“Invisible Surrealists,” like many of the drawings in the exhibition, is not slavishly reproduced to fool you into thinking it is a photo manipulation. The drawing is looser, often revealing a wobbliness in the faces, making us conscious that they are drawn. Some of the drawings, like “1946, Santo Domingo, La Poesia Sorprendida de André Breton” (2014), have sprays of color that appear to decay part of the images or perhaps infect them. In May 1968, French students often spray-painted Surrealist slogans on the walls of the Sorbonne, an act which was in turn commemorated by Joan Miró in a painting titled “May 1968.” Spraying evokes smells, a Surrealist passion, place making, but also revolutionary fervor; Durant consciously or not evokes all these things.
The lynchpin of the exhibition is the absurdly titled “There’s No Such Thing as a Time Line” (2014), which functions as the unofficial catalogue. The scroll is unfurled to reveal a history of political activism, colonial hubris, significant landmarks in the lives of the invisible Surrealists, and more. The portion we can see in the gallery spans from the early 20th century to 1960s, while the hidden portions push the narrative further in both directions, to the mid-19th century and the 1980s. A strong black line waves through the middle but is largely meaningless, while the underlying meaning is markedly anti-colonial. Scribbled notes augment printed paragraphs, and history is an accumulation of facts without a clear march forward.
Another type of history is told in an adjacent space with “Another Future Was Possible (Kiosk from Mai 68)” (2014), with maps of the places many of these invisible Surrealists hailed from accompanied by Surrealist manifestos and documents. The kiosk, which Durant reimagines from a real object that was used during the May 1968 Paris protests, is another type of history but one that disappears as people post and remove notices about people, events, and information in an evolving form of social collage. Here the images are fixed, but they are still more mysterious than revealing.
Many of Durant’s objects are influenced by trench art, a curious creation of conflict born during the First World War. In “An Ingression of the Superstructure Into the Base” (2014), shell casings are transformed into precious trophy-like objects on pedestals and arrangements usually associated with sculptures by early modernists. “Non-Vicious Circle” (2014) uses rough shell casings in a hybrid sculpture that is equal parts Alexander Calder mobile and oversized rural wind chime. Durant draws parallels between trauma and the modern condition. One of the drawings, “1916, Shell Shock, Psych Ward, André Breton Becomes Aware of the Unconscious” (2014), depicts André Breton’s experience at the Second Army psychiatric center at St. Dizier in 1916, where he directly experienced the results of war-inflicted trauma. The soon-to-be high priest of Surrealism was forced to see the nightmarish realities of state-sponsored war and how it mangled its victims.
The only object on display that didn’t look radically manipulated to suggest another history is “Les Armes Miraculeuses” (2014), which is made of marble, wood, eggs, and seashells. The sculpture clearly references Alberto Giacometti’s “On Ne Joue Plus (No More Play)” (1932), but even though Durant changes its color and fills its egg-shaped craters, the work wouldn’t look out of place in a traditional Surrealism show. The transformation here is more subtle. White becomes black, natural objects fill the cavities, and a wooden plinth raises the thick marble base to a table height. According to at least one psychoanalytic reading, Giacometti’s object was about finality, with grave-like forms that hint at resurrection; Durant makes them nest-like, cupping eggs and shells planted in each dimple. Giacometti’s work becomes the soil from which organic forms could hatch and grow.
Surrealism was the first truly global art movement, with acolytes on every continent who shared the belief that it tapped into something natural and still largely misunderstood. It was in the momentary glimmer of hope in the unfamiliar that a new — perhaps better — world could be born. The Haitian insurrection that Breton contributed to would have its hopes dashed a few years later when it was overthrown. The Surrealist movement’s promise of a new anti-imperial world never materialized. And yet at no time have the ambitions of Surrealism felt more relevant than today, as states and corporations enact their own neocolonial apparatuses of control, burnishing the allure of escaping into impossible dream worlds. It took me a while to realize that Invisible Surrealists is not only about the desire to be seen but also the possibility of disappearance, and oddly enough both of these things are ultimately about having control.
Sam Durant’s Invisible Surrealists continues at Paula Cooper Gallery (521 West 21 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until October 18.