“My mother is hidden inside a tree trunk.”
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses
The surrealist universe is unabashedly sexed and eagerly embraces nature’s infinitely mutable manifestations. Who knows, Max Ernst asks, if we are not preparing ourselves to escape the principle of identity. Which calls to mind Marcel Duchamp in glorious drag as Rose Sélavy (Eros is life!) and Claude Cahun’s many selves: Medusa, angel, garçon, Pierrot, Hindu deity, conjoined twins. It is not unlikely that Max Ernst considered cross-dressing a form of collage as much as an upending of “normative” (a word that has less meaning by the instant) identity. D. Scott Miller, author of the Afro-Surrealist Manifesto, writes: The Afro-Surrealist life is fluid, filled with aliases and census-defying classifications. Afro-Surrealists are ambiguous. “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” Controversy! And: Hybridization (is) a form of disobedience.
In the words of Gaston Bachelard: Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate. And to be fully alive—that is to say galvanized by Eros and its boundless incarnations—is to dwell within the living heart of surrealism, that place of arousing, ambiguous, and above all marvelous encounters. This fervent receptiveness characterizes the human child whose embodied recollections of having been, not long before, nearly indistinguishable from a larval lizard, assures direct access to the wonders of the phenomenal world, its mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms which are, as is the child, in constant mutation. In sympathy with all this, she recognizes and intuits her place within the vast, unwieldy network of terrestrial forms and, further, enters the world with residual genes that spontaneously offer variant readings of what it means to be human. A stunning albumen print from 1956 acquaints us with Maphoon, a Burmese maiden who might well have inspired that great dreamer of surreality, Nick Cave, whose Maphoonish tribes of dancers dressed in sound suits, surging unannounced on city sidewalks, precipitate a spontaneous mutation of our expectations of urbanity (and what is surrealism if it is not a spontaneous mutation?).
Everything from galaxies to slime mold is a shapeshifter, and the imagination’s irrepressible artifacts reflect this intimate and innately subversive reality. The mind, too, is restless. And here one must specify terrestrial mind. Examples abound from chameleons to the most astonishing: Octopus vulgaris, who in the blink of an eye can vanish from sight as she imitates exactly in color and texture absolutely everything around her. Her cousin Thaumoctopus mimicus impersonates other species—everything from snakes to fish.
2. The Loplop
“They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself.”
From the age of five, a succession of acute sympathies quickened Max Ernst, beginning with a vision generated by a piece of wood painted to look like mahogany, in which he saw, among other wonders, the great head of a bird with thick black hair. This optical provocateur was none other than the loplop, who resurged ten years later when Max awakened to the news that during the night his beloved pink cockatoo had died and been replaced by a baby sister. Tormented by this cruel and incomprehensible sortilege, Max later reconfigured his own beginnings:
(1891) The 2nd of April at 9:45 AM Max Ernst had his first contact with the sensible world, when he came out of the egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest and which had brooded for seven years.When in 1925 he discovered frottage and its hallucinating succession of contradictory images superimposed, he was hatched anew: Blind swimmer, I have made myself see. Two years later he decided to erect a monument to the birds—a monument that had in fact been evolving for some time.
Things would accelerate dramatically when Ernst engaged the Hundred Headed Woman and was visited nearly every day by the superior of the birds, my private phantom attached to my person, who went on to haunt every aspect of my work. (For a glimpse of that haunting: loplop presents loplop [collage, 1932], Les oiseaux ne peuvent disparaître [freize for Paul Éluard’s home, 1923], L’origine de la pendule [frottage, 1925], and Dark Gods [painting, 1957].)
Turn by turn, hierophant, totem, fetish, primal clock, enigma, surgical tool, lover, spook, père de famille, the loplop is always exemplary of surprise, subversion, and Eros rising.
3. Prime Objects
“It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw them.”
The panel of false mahogany that manifested the loplop was the first in a series of Prime (Ernst) or Magical (Breton) objects that years later would include a Haida spoon whose totemic and hybrid forms easily sympathized with Ernst’s decalcomanies—the resinous surfaces of the paintings and the spoon emanating warmth and light. It is well known that such prime objects, which had an immeasurable impact on the surrealists from the start, owed their sudden presence in the museums of Europe to unfathomable crimes. And yet these objects—such as the African collections Picasso, transported and transfixed, saw at the Trocadero in 1907—are of such potency that even in exile, robbed of specific cultural significance, they retain the capacity to evoke astonishment and admiration, overcoming boundaries and sparking exhausted expectations.
Standing among us incognito, their power—sacred, prophetic, magical, poetic—is still palpable. Surrealism is a permanent readiness for the marvelous (Césaire). The great native arts that have sustained their muscle across time (that Haida spoon belongs to a tradition many thousands of years old) currently manifest in uniquely powerful ways: a horned Nandipha Mntambo embodying a black Europa (my fascination is with the in-between spaces), Brendan Fernandes parading masked deer decoys that show how we keep the fake idea of the primitive alive.
In this confluence of fake primitive and metamorphosis, let us take a moment to recall Ota Benga, the Mbuti pygmy youth who, having survived Leopold’s psychotic predation of the Congo, was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Bronx Zoo, and, as ambulant exotica, in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History. Thus was Ota Benga perceived, exhausted, consumed. And talking about consumption, Wangechi Mutu reminds us, is also talking about a state of mind.
4. Wangechi Mutu / Lizard Love
“They were larvae, but larva means disguise and also phantom.”
In Wangechi Mutu’s animation, The End of Eating Everything (2013), annihilation and appetite are embodied by a prodigious chimera: Medusa, ogress, belly-planet erupting in a bioluminous rash as the last flock of birds is snapped up and swallowed. Says Mutu: It is about an amazing moment in time we are living.
Mutu’s oeuvre includes video, performance, collage, painting, drawing, sculpture, and multimedia installations—all vehicles for a type of surgery. Her work, surrealist in impulse and manifestation, is a way of destroying a set of hierarchies I don’t believe in. Collage—often monumental—is Mutu’s exemplary arena for revitalizing savaged forms and offering a fearless looking into the wounding of a world. Her vehicle is the female body—fetishized, mythologized, tigered, pimped, broken—yet always resurging to claim a self and a destiny. The resolution she proposes is to bring the scattered pieces into One Big Body. The body she imagines incorporates the human, the beast, fungus (that inveterate shapeshifter) the stuff of stars, bionics, and motorcycle parts. In other words, we will survive but we will not be the same. Idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame (Suzanne Césaire).
The Ark Collection (installation, 2006) features a black room containing four glass display cases. In each, eight postcard-sized collages—optical jazz riffs, lyrical and scorching—recall the ethno-erotic postcards so prized in the nineteenth century. As do Max Ernst’s Visible Poems, Mutu’s Ark precipitates the viewer into a shimmering dreamscape, a cinematic unspooling of unconscious fetishized desire. The result is a kaleidoscopic pornography as beautiful and terrible as the licentious encounter of a schizophrenic medical encyclopedia, a botanical harem, and delicatessen meats from a parallel universe, sliced and packaged for sale. Here sexual, cultural, and phantasmal identity are taken to market, taken to bed, taken to the Star Chamber, taken to the gallows. And yet this Ark, hot enough to shatter glass, is vivifying.
If you make something, you actually bring it to life (Mutu).
Her bold, archival peepshow is, after all, terrestrial. It is ours. She has identified, and unmasked, the source of our losses.
If Mutu queers the body in unprecedented ways, she also queers the spaces in which the work is shown—extending our encounter with an infinity of sympathies and antipathies that characterize our living world. Within her vastly imagined and poetic installation Fantastic Journey (2008/2013) is Fantastic Playtime, a deluge of objects, suspended from the ceiling, that are not unlike the black plastic and twine soccer balls made by children in Nairobi. Enchanting and irresistible, they call out to be touched, evoking gargantuan seed pods, burnt fruit, volcanic bombs and meteors. (It is interesting to note in passing that when Ota Benga was detained in the Museum of Natural History, he slept on the floor beside the great Annighito meteor—which he called the god of play.)
Just beyond, hanging from the trunk of a sorcerous tree, we reach one of Mutu’s most iconic pieces, Lizard Love (mixed media, 2006). Here a savaged human, glowing with bioluminescence, is held in an indominable embrace by her lizard lover, lizard twin, lizard self. As she is seized in a cruel kiss, her arm, severed at the very instant of our gaze, detonates in pink smoke and a bloody rain. And we are transfixed by a glimpse of a twin planet that in a delirium of absolute presence (Breton) turns beneath Earth’s shadow. Looking closer, we see that this savaged body is also an Earth, a garden, a vessel harboring the future. In Wangechi Mutu’s exorbitant realm, surreal in essence (Breton), the marvelous, indomitable, dervishes at the heart of everything.
My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.