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Exhibition Resource Room



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Exhibition plan – first floor

Exhibition tours Fri 3, 17 and 31 July at 12 noon Fri 14 and 28 August at 12 noon A 45 minute tour of Surrealism and Contemporary Art. Places are limited so please sign up on arrival. Tour included in admission price.

Introduction Beneath the surfaces of the family home and the bustling streets of the city lie repressed histories, unspoken secrets and half-remembered dreams. The Surrealists sought to unearth these hidden narratives that reside in our everyday spaces and express them in art and literature. Unpicking some of the connections between Surrealist ideas of the past and the ways in which they are made use of more recently, Subversive Spaces focuses on contemporary artists who show how the forces of the psyche are played out in the changing spaces we live in. From the founding of Surrealism in 1924, by the poet AndrĂŠ Breton, the movement set itself the task of translating the workings of the unconscious mind into visual and verbal form. The long shadow cast by the First World War had resulted in a call for a total revision of beliefs and ideals. As part of this moral and political revolution the Surrealists used their explorations of the unconscious through dreams, trance and automatic processes of writing and drawing, to subvert familiar experience and question all traditional values.

The exhibition examines the legacy of the Surrealist project in two distinct spaces. Psychic Interiors uses themes of psychic disturbance – anxiety and hysteria – to explore the spaces of the home. Wandering the City follows the Surrealists’ preoccupation with walking around the streets as a means to discover hidden social spaces as well as unconscious fears and desires. It is in these spaces, both private and public, that the ghosts of Surrealism are to be found, stalking both our homes and our streets.

WANDERING THE CITY Ground floor staircase wall Gordon Matta-Clark 1943 – 1978 Conical Intersect, 1974 16mm film transferred to DVD 17 minutes 52 seconds The Surrealists were fascinated by the disappearance, in the 1930s, of nineteenth-century structures such as the shopping arcades, along with the fantasies that accompany them. According to the writer Walter Benjamin, the Surrealists made us ‘recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.’ At this single moment of realisation, the past and the future collide. This interest in the city’s shifting environment would be taken up by American artist Gordon Matta-Clark on his visit to Paris in the late 1970s. Like his father, the Surrealist painter Matta, Gordon Matta-Clark had studied architecture. In Conical Intersect Matta-Clark made an incision across two adjacent 17th century buildings scheduled for destruction, creating a conical hole through

the walls and floors of both buildings. Through this newly created void in the buildings, Matta-Clark revealed another historical transformation of the Paris landscape: the raising of the old marketplace (Les Halles), and the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou. Les Halles had been a favourite haunt of the Situationists, and many saw in its destruction the city’s repression of working class spaces under the guise of beautification.

WANDERING THE CITY First floor Exhibition entrance Rainer Ganahl B. 1961 Bicycling Broadway I Video 59 minutes 53 seconds Bicycling Broadway II, 2006 Video 32 minutes 47 seconds Getting lost in the city is one way of giving up control; driving a bicycle against the traffic and without holding the handlebars is a riskier alternative. In his novel, André Breton recalls how, one night, Nadja tried to cover his eyes while he was driving a car, while pressing her foot on the accelerator pedal. He saw this as yet another instance of her ‘principle of total subversion.’ Ganahl’s dizzying film vividly demonstrates how the intoxicating freedom of subversion always teeters on the verge of danger.

Room 1 Asco (left to right: Patssi Valdez, Gronk, William Herrón, Harry Gamboa Jr.) Asshole Mural, 1977 Modern digital reprint The Chicano (Mexican-American) artist group Asco are documented here posing, in glamorous attire, around a sewage pipe in their hometown of Los Angeles. Moving from the Surrealists’ Parisian streets and squares to Los Angeles freeways and scruffy hillsides, Asco challenge the accepted notion of the Surrealist figure as a white, male, middle-class urban wanderer. Walking as a performance opens up an arena of play in the construction of space and the self. The term ‘mural’ in the title of this work is used to parody another stereotype, by referring to discussions, taking place at the time, about the forms that Chicano art should take. Walking and taking photographs (and later filming) seemed to have become equivalent ways of engaging with the city and interrogating the very nature of reality and mediation.

WANDERING THE CITY In-between spaces On the first (and last) of the ‘Dada Visits and Excursions’ that took place in Paris in 1921, a group of artists and poets set off on a rainy day to visit the overgrown yard of a small church in the centre of the capital. The Surrealists were drawn to such semi-abandoned places, like the ‘Zone’ or precarious settlements on the edges of Paris, where they enjoyed trips to the flea-market. Whether long abandoned or about to be destroyed in the case of the ‘Zone’, these indeterminate, transitory spaces are the negative counterpart of the bustling ever-expanding city. They are often used as playgrounds by children, and by teenagers who just want to hang out. The melancholy spaces of the council estate where George Shaw grew up in Coventry resonate with the Bolton playgrounds photographed in the 1930s by Humphrey Spender. In their in-between status as passages or urban voids, these spaces are filled with lost hopes and infinite possibilities.

Room 2 Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Rafael Ortega) B. 1959 Railings, 2004 Video 6 minutes 21 seconds Though it was developed without reference to Surrealism, Francis Alÿs’s central use of walking in his practice strongly resonates with the Surrealists’ love of wandering through the streets of Paris. Like the Surrealists, Alÿs has embraced strolling aimlessly as a means of wasting time, of refusing to be productive: as he explains, walking is ‘a kind of resistance’ to the ‘speed culture of our time.’ According to Alÿs, it is an experience in which you can simultaneously become acutely aware of the reality surrounding you, and yet ‘be totally lost in your thought process.’ For André Breton, this state of consciousness exists ‘at the limits between waking life and dream life,’ and walking without a goal can reveal ‘troubling fantasies.’ The playful and hypnotic rhythm of Alÿs’s Railings conjures this in-between state of daydreaming, while perceptively registering the railings’ historical function as means to control and distance passers-by.

WANDERING THE CITY room 3 In-between spaces continued... Humphrey Spender was one of the photographers associated with Mass Observation, a group, formed in 1937, which included writers, painters and an anthropologist who aimed to study everyday life in Britain. Their proclaimed desire to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ was inflected by an interest in Surrealism. Earlier in the century, Eugène Atget had photographed the ‘Zone’ extensively, focusing, in particular, on the chiffonniers (rag-pickers) who sifted through the capital’s garbage to salvage and re-sell used cloth and spare parts.

stories Cities are filled with the murmur of voices ceaselessly whispering stories and secrets. Every square is haunted by ghosts, every building conjures memories, and at every corner, your life can change forever. For the Surrealists, wandering the city was a means of letting themselves be surprised by chance encounters and intriguing coincidences, and discovering their own fears and desires. JacquesHenri Boiffard’s dead-pan, black and white illustrations for André

Breton’s novel Nadja suggest that the most banal location can become the setting for the unexpected, while Brassaï’s atmospheric photographs reveal a mysterious, and eerily unfamiliar, Paris by night. The innovative conjunction of text and photograph in Breton’s Nadja has since been widely used by visual artists. Ralph Rumney’s 1958 ‘study’ of his meanderings through Venice takes on the form of a pseudo-objective reportage, while Sophie Calle’s account of her experience of following a man around the same city some twenty years later reads like a personal diary, illustrated with her own photographs. In all these publications, the ambiguous relation between the photographic documentation of existing places and the authors’ personal fictions reflects the way our experience of the city always occurs on the levels of reality and fantasy.

WANDERING THE CITY Room 4 TRACES As we each move around the city, our criss-crossing, zigzagging footsteps scribble a teeming mass of changing, interlacing, meandering lines. These invisible twists, turns and knots have been made visible by wandering artists as they have developed simple devices to capture these ephemeral traces, turning themselves into seismographs of the city’s vibrating pulse. Just as the Surrealists sought to produce ‘automatic’ texts by writing out their most spontaneous, jumbled chains of thoughts without editing them, William Anastasi lets the uneven vibrations of the New York subway dictate the patterns of his Subway Drawings, Katie Holten’s crochet wall patterns map the durations of her journeys, and Rosemarie Castoro traces an unsteady line on a Manhattan street by attaching a can of dripping white paint to her bicycle.

RUINS Gordon Matta-Clark 1943 – 1978 Sous-sols de Paris [Paris Undergrounds], 1977 16mm film transferred to DVD 25 minutes Going in search of ‘the forgotten spaces left buried under the city either as a historical reserve or as surviving reminders of lost projects and fantasies’ Gordon Matta-Clark takes a walk through the underground spaces of Paris – whether sewers, church crypts, wine cellars, or catacombs. The soundtrack is not always clearly audible, but it appears to mix silence and sounds with music and interviews that Matta-Clark conducted with French specialists of the history and legends of the city. An archaeologist talks about the difficulties of excavating the ‘heart’ of the ancient city, while a historian speaks of the buried underground quarries which caused blocks of houses to suddenly collapse in the eighteenth-century, and Parisians to fear that ‘the whole capital was built on a Gruyère cheese.’ Other interviewees narrate stories and legends, from Saint Denis walking along the Roman road with his decapitated head under his arm, to the myth of ‘The Mute Man from the Quarries,’ whose appearance signalled

WANDERING THE CITY the imminent death of a close relative, or the Phantom of the Opéra Garnier, under which lies not a river but a large vat of water. Matta-Clark records a wine-tasting lesson, but juxtaposes the sound-track with another segment of his film showing buried bones in the catacombs.

corridor leading to room 5 Eugène Atget’s desire to record every site in Paris was at least partly driven by his awareness of the constant transformation of the city, most dramatically embodied in the destruction of buildings and neighbourhoods.

room 5 PERFORMANCES Calin Dan B. 1955 Sample City, 2003 Video, 11 minutes 45 seconds Calin Dan’s protagonist, wandering in and out of Bucharest with a door on his back occupies the same theatrical arena as the Chicano (Mexican-American) group Asco posing around a sewage pipe. Both reframe the ordinary act of walking as a performance in order to disrupt the fabric of everyday life. Dan’s wandering figure evokes the simpleton of traditional folk tales as he traverses the various neighbourhoods and districts of a rapidly-changing, globalised city.

Exhibition continues... Please exit via door in Room 4

Psychic Interiors room 6 THIS IS NOT A HOME Writing in the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1933, the former Dadaist, Tristan Tzara, foresaw the advent of a type of architecture opposed to the rational architectural principles of Le Corbusier, which would replicate our experience of the womb. Frederick Kiesler, an architect and designer associated with Surrealism, pursued this vision of a dwelling in his Endless House (1950 – 1959) project. Though it occupied Kiesler over a lengthy period, the Endless House was never built, but exists only as drawings, sketches and models. Tacita Dean’s Bubble House Location Photograph shows the shell of a deserted house built on the island of Cayman Brac in the Caribbean, whose flying saucer shape echoes Kiesler’s Endless House. Built by a Frenchman who, according to local folklore, embezzled money from the U.S. Government and now resides in prison, the ruined house provokes reflection on the failure of a utopian architectural vision.

Yves Tanguy is a master of spatial ambiguity and ‘dépaysement’ [disorientation]. Echelles [Ladders] is typical of his strange aquatic landscapes populated with indefinable conglomerations of objects. Images of watery submersion frequently crop up in Surrealist writing, most famously in Louis Aragon’s ‘Paris Peasant’ (1926) where the author, in a state of inebriation, peers into a shop front window display bathed in a greenish light and imagines that it is underwater. The foreground shapes in some of Tanguy’s paintings might be read as the furniture or occupants of a submerged room without walls.

Psychic Interiors room 7 VOYAGE AROUND A BEDROOM The bourgeois home has been perceived as a constricting straightjacket provoking feelings of feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia. Female Surrealists, such as Claude Cahun and Dorothea Tanning, often sought to represent experience through self-portraiture in spaces, which often enclose the depicted figure physically as well as psychologically. The familiar literary character of the ‘madwoman’ in the attic, suggests the importance of the relationship between confinement in a physical, often hidden, space and internal psychic disturbance. Potential routes of psychological escape can be found in the recourse to alternative states of mind: the freedom offered by Cahun’s childishness or Lucy Gunning’s video showing a dancer’s exploration of a room, while Francesca Woodman almost disappears as she merges her body with the very fabric of the room.

room 8 UN-HOMELY Die Familie Schneider [The Schneider Family] was a project undertaken by Gregor Schneider at Whitechapel in East London in 2004. Two adjacent terrace houses at 14 and 16 Walden Street were taken over by the artist. Everything was arranged so that the two houses were exact replicas of each other down to the last detail. Models posing as ‘the Schneider family’ were encountered in separate rooms of the house. Doubling or replication of spaces is a potent source of the uncanny (unheimlich or ‘unhomely’), a term that has been used to describe the feeling of discomfort caused by the discovery of something unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar. Mona Hatoum similarly contradicts a cosy image of domesticity. She discloses a potential for cruelty and violence, or even torture, lurking within the homely. As the daughter of Palestinian parents, exiled by the Middle Eastern conflict, Mona Hatoum is denied that comforting relation to a place of origin implied by the term homeland. In these works domestic objects have been customised to become potential instruments of torture.

Psychic Interiors MAKING A SCENE The Surrealists believed in a total revision of bourgeois values and sought to disrupt the moral, political and sexual frameworks of their day. Both the Surrealists and contemporary artists have attempted to subvert the safe and cosy domestic interior through the introduction of menacing furniture which seems to come alive. Antecedents for the Surrealist idea of animate furniture can be found in the flowing, naturalistic designs of Art Nouveau, which Salvador Dalí described as a materialisation of unconscious desire. Giorgio de Chirico’s assemblage figures combining tailor’s dummies and geometrical set squares were another source of inspiration. Contemporary installation art shares with Surrealism a theatrical conception of the artwork as a staging of unconscious fantasies.

room 9 Markus Schinwald B. 1973 1st Part Conditional, 2004 Video Viennese artist Marcus Schinwald has described this work as ‘a film about the translation of a psychological contortion into a physical convulsion’. It seems to allude, in the form of a theatrical re-enactment, to fin-de-siècle Vienna, scene of the birth of psychoanalysis. The pensive bearded man may be interpreted as Freud, whilst the acrobatic feats of the actress are suggestive of a hysterical attack.

Psychic Interiors room 10 FAMILY SECRETS The Surrealists took a stance against the traditional patriarchal family, most notably in their support of Violette Nozières, a young woman who was accused of murdering her stepfather after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse. The group compiled an anthology of writings, drawings and photography in her name which denounced the hated trilogy of church, state and family. This critique of the family can also be read into Hans Bellmer’s photographs of his dolls, which imply rape and child abuse. Bellmer saw his work as a weapon against his father and the fascist politics his father espoused, though some commentators suspect the artist of complicity with the violence that he represents. A number of contemporary women artists have undertaken their own critique of patriarchal society by hinting at dark secrets hidden behind a façade of normality. Louise Bourgeois’ essay ‘Child Abuse’ (1982) points to the feminist discussion of the frequency of abuse within the family, an issue that is complicated by Freud’s claim that stories of childhood seduction that emerged in analysis were fantasies rather than historical truth. Other works by female artists which often refer to childhood stories and nursery rhymes present

ambiguous scenarios, which seem to endorse Freud’s theories of precocious childhood sexuality. The staircase is a consistent prop in many of these works. Freud stated that mounting (or descending) stairs in dreams almost always stands as a representation of the sexual act. Staircases, which crop up regularly in Surrealist imagery, lead from the parts of a house that are on public show to the more private recesses of bedroom or basement.

CABINET OF HYSTERIA Since the early 1990s, there has been a wave of interest amongst contemporary artists in hysteria, an illness known as ‘the female malady’ that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. The Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, run by the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, was the centre for the hysteria craze in that period. Although the symptoms of hysteria were varied (they included blindness, selective anaesthesia, inability to speak, trance states, swooning and physical contortions), Charcot and his colleagues sought to record and codify the illness. The doctors believed they had identified a consistent pattern of attack, which they recorded in drawings and photographs, and sought to verify this through public demonstrations of hysterical patients.

Psychic Interiors Hysteria, which had been seen as a reaction to women’s stifling confinement in the Victorian era, has been reclaimed by recent studies as a form of bodily resistance by those who have no way of making their voices heard. The current resurgence of hysteria’s fortunes was anticipated in important respects by the Surrealists. At a time when the importance and prestige of hysteria had greatly declined in medical circles, the Surrealists boldly proclaimed it ‘the greatest poetic discovery of the nineteenth century.’ The key surrealist concept of ‘convulsive beauty’ was inspired by the arched-back posture of the hysteric in the throes of an attack. As forms of expression, hysteria, poetry and the dream are linked in that they articulate a dialectic of desire and repression that lies at the heart of Surrealism. Surrealism has been deservedly criticised for glorifying hysteria while ignoring the suffering of those afflicted with it. Nevertheless, there is an affinity and an ongoing artistic dialogue with Surrealism in the treatment of these issues by contemporary artists.

room 11 Douglas Gordon B. 1966 Hysterical, 1995 3 minutes, Video The source for this video is a medical film made by a doctor in Turin, Italy, in 1908. The woman, whose face is masked to conceal her identity, is suffering a hysterical attack. Like the Surrealists, Douglas Gordon is interested in the way that the psychological condition of hysteria was manifested through the physical expression of the body.

Psychic Interiors room 12 SLEEPWALKERS Writing in the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton regretted that ‘the dream finds itself reduced to a mere parenthesis, as is the night.’ Sleepwalking appealed to the Surrealists because it vividly illustrates the inter-penetration of dreams and waking life, and the subject held an appeal for the Surrealists. Sleepwalking is the subject of numerous Surrealist works, such as George Platt Lynes’s photocollage. Additionally, its presence may be suspected in other works where it is not explicitly signposted. The naked, zombie-like women who populate Paul Delvaux’s canvases seem like aimless sleepwalkers – who typically have their eyes open but fixed, and seem to be acting out a dream. Sleepwalkers often trespass over the demarcations of interior and exterior spaces, a confusion suggested by the transparent walls in Delvaux’s Street of the Trams.

Marie-Ange Guilleminot B. 1960 Nuit Blanche [White or Sleepless Night], 1995 Video Le Manteau de Lumière [The Coat of Light] Coat, handbag When French artist Marie-Ange Guilleminot decided to wander the streets of Bilbao at night because she was suffering from insomnia, she gave new meaning to the word sleepwalking. Walking, for her, became a substitute for sleep, further blurring the line between wandering and dreaming first explored by the Surrealists. The white, light-reflective coat that Guilleminot designed for herself simultaneously highlights her vulnerability as a ghostly figure haunting empty streets and appears to act as a protective armour against the threatening darkness. Occasionally, she carried a light nylon bag, made out of tights and filled with yellow fluorescent pigment, leaving behind her a thin trail of light - a shimmering record of her fleeting apparition.

WANDERING THE CITY Glazed walk-way

Alex Villar B. 1961 Temporary Occupations, 2001 Video 6 minutes 26 seconds

events Lecture: Surrealist Architecture Thurs 16 July, 1pm Is there such a thing as Surreal Architecture? If so, what is it – and where can you find it in Britain? 20th century expert and broadcaster Julian Holder explores this fertile and fascinating subject in entertaining detail. Tickets £13, concs £11, includes gallery admission. Members £5.

Lecture: Directing Dreams Sat 29 August, 1pm Artist Luke Jerram and sleep psychologist Dr. Chris Alford discuss the ideas and research behind Dream Director and its attempts to influence participants’ dreams. Tickets £13, concs £11, includes gallery admission. Members £5.

events Dream Director Sleepovers Sat 29 and Sun 30 August, 8pm – 9am This is a unique opportunity for you to spend the night at Compton Verney whilst letting artist Luke Jerram direct your dreams. Spend the night in a sleep pod, where you wear an eye mask that detects your eye movements whilst you sleep. The pod will respond and play ambient sounds designed to trigger and influence dreams. The experiment ends over breakfast, where you get to write a dream diary about your experience. OVER 18s ONLY. Tickets £25, including refreshments and breakfast. Find out more at

A Watershed tour funded by Arts Council England. The Dream Director was developed as part of the Clark Bursary – 6th UK Digital Art Award. This event is co-presented in association with Fierce.

For a fuller discussion of the ideas and works in the exhibition, please see the exhibition catalogue in the shop.

Subversive Spaces: Surrealism and Contemporary Art 112pp, fully illustrated ÂŁ14.95. Available from the Compton Verney shop or buy online at

credits Subversive Spaces is the result of a collaboration between the AHRC Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies and The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester. It has been curated by Anna Dezeuze, David Lomas and organised by Samantha Lackey, Mary Griffiths and David Morris. This exhibition/loan has been made possible with the assistance of the Government Indemnity Scheme which is provided by DCMS and administered by MLA.

Exhibition Venues The Whitworth Art Gallery Manchester 7 February – 4 May 2009

Compton Verney Warwickshire 13 June – 6 September 2009

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts University of East Anglia, Norwich 29 September – 13 December 2009

©The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester

Compton Verney Warwickshire CV35 9HZ T. 01926 645 500 Registered charity no. 1032478

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Surrealism and Contemporary Art: Subversive Spaces  

Gallery guide for Compton Verney's latest exhibition Surrealism and Contemporary Art: Subversive Spaces from 13 June - 6 September 2009. Fi...

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