Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Auch das ist nur eine Wolke

Art often looks organic. The analogies between the weavings of the human unconscious and natural forms have often been noticed and is indeed a longstanding theme among others in surrealist art.

For some, this analogy is a funny coincidence, for some it has deep spiritual connotations proving the human potential to tap into the springwell of the ways of nature, and for some it is an interesting field of investigating universal characteristics of morphogenesis. These can be approached by way of psychoanalytic/structuralist/phenomenological studies, or through basics of biochemistry and other chemistry, neurology, embryology and biological evolution; similar senses of architecture, analogy, cladistics, fractals, chaos, cybernetics etc apply both ways.

But we must consider also the differences, among forms of the unconscious, between those which really are mental images and those which are the chance products of gestural automatism, and among the forms of nature, between those which are products of genetically or structurally controlled growth and movement and those which are the chance products of large-scale or extremely complex processes. They may all be similar but the processes are quite different. In a sense everything is chance and even the most perverse planning struggles vainly to produce something substantially dissimilar.

For surrealism, this is indeed an older topic than surrealism itself. Take alchemy, which indeed established the concept of "art" as something involving the entirety of knowledge and the transformation of man and nature rather than a sphere integrated into the mainstream of social structure, be it majoritary or minoritary, central or detached, immediately utilistic or ideological-aesthetical. In alchemy, the ways of nature are to be intimately studied, imitated and also challenged or broken, in order to make nature reveal its secrets and for oneself, or rather the processes one is instigating, to become part of its fundamental workings. Presurrealist and late alchemist August Strindberg, in his text about automatism (which he himself practiced in painting and music rather than in the writing he became more famous for), advocated: "Imitate nature, sure, but imitate in the first place nature's way of creating!" At the same time, Strindberg's (and mine!) idol in evolutionary biology, Ernst Haeckel, a specialist in jumping to conclusions and defending controversial positions, who was working hard with replacing idealist superstitions everywhere, took this struggle - among elsewhere - to the point of publishing albums with beautiful shells, medusas, microorganisms etc, in order to prove how superior nature was, as art, to art!

However, even though the animals, plants, stones, landscapes and weathers are indeed often extremely beautiful and rich in connotations, ambiances and associations, and of course enjoyable in the same way art is (and certainly to a far greater degree than the majority of art!), this does not actually make it art or make it suitable to actually replace art, except in very particular senses or circumstances. Art is indeed still fundamentally about human experiments with the whole of the sensory field, with the whole of experience and knowledge, and thus primarily about changing man and investigating the conditions of changing reality. Natural objects are possibly not about that, and that is one of the many fascinating things about them, which indeed makes them useful for those very purposes too.

All the while, some of our output looks like unintentional creations of nature to the point of confusion (and are proud of it). The other facet of the same analogy is that certain natural objects and certain views of landscapes etc will seem obviously to coincide with a particular kind of poetic sensibility which we, for relative lack of imagination, may associate with a particular artists', group's or method's work. Though a creator in surrealism is just the tool of poetry, of a particular aspect of poetry, sometimes cultivated-incubated through long hard work and sometimes immediately accessible by chance, experiment or whim. That mediumistic experience is at the core of the surrealist experience. Seemingly it is not identical with, but has a close relation to, the experience of discovering the poetry in the natural objects, same - as poetry is in an important sense one and indivisible - and quite different in another sense. The categories of artifacts and natural objects will not confusionally merge, but the objects will meet and start playing with each other and with us on the arena of poetic experience, where their origins, and the often so ridiculous questions of the purpose or intentions behind them, will not be their most relevant determinations.

I am not talking here about natural sciences, even though a scientific or parascientific exotism and fetishism as well as a scientificoid methodology are often present in the way surrealists deal with the natural world, but only of the direct relation to the natural objects, the everyday-curious-amateur-enthusiast-naturalist approach which is the poet's. I have been talking elsewhere about surrealist zoology. Someone else will have to speak about surrealist botany and surrealist mineralogy. Surrealist landscape appreciation enters into the works with psychogeography and with this recent enigmatic concept of exteriority. Another popular habit among surrealists is metereology. Poets, dreamers, idlers, utopists and vagrants everywhere look to the sky, of course including the surrealists. Some organise in the "Cloud appreciation society". Not too long ago (2006), the organiser of that society, Gavin Preton-Pinney, published a popular introduction to the subject, "The cloudspotter's guide". It is indeed a rich book, presenting all the major types of clouds and their various conditions, and presenting a wealth of anecdotes and small explanations; physics, art and history of science, sundogs and Carmen Miranda sprites, the history of military research in weather manipulation, the story of the magnificent "Morning glory" cloud in Australia, the story of lieutenant William Rankin who spent 40 minutes riding up and down the winds inside a raging cumulonimbus on his parachute... Indeed, the book has a tiresome populistic rhetoric and keeps making elaborate excuses before every single time it introduces a scientific explanation, but the things it has to say are still so fascinating, and as far as I can judge solid, so all that whining can be excused, even by someone like me who really hates it, and I suppose for many others it will present less of a problem. In fact, there is much of the complex morphology, the morphogenic processes, and perhaps even the ontology itself of clouds, that seems to adress the very basic notions of surrealist conceptualisation of nature. For those purposes, it would indeed seem that further reading is required, but Preton-Prinney's book serves as a fine introduction to the field.

Clouds themselves are indeed a topic dear to surrealism from before surrealism. First of all we have of course Hamlet's often cited dialogue with Polonius, in which the changing shapes of cumulus clouds as projecting screens for images of the human imagination present the first clear illustration of the paranoic-critical method. And then in the immediate forerunning of surrealism, continuing into the middle of it, we have Arp's fantasies of the machinery of "die Wolkenpumpe", the cloud pump, and its products. Then in the middle of surrealist imagery and thinking, Magritte stands out as an enthusiastic cloud invoker, but there are also significant clouds in early Tanguy, in Dalí, we have Paalen's umbrella, Noguchi's sofa, the mists of Toyen and others, Bachelardian speculation, and so on. And many of us have already noticed with Dalí how clouds are among the elements of non-conventionally-realistic figuration in painting from earlier centuries, soft forms, to the point of incarnating phantoms and concrete irrationality. But nevertheless I put even more hope to the usage of clouds in speculations of the origin and development of forms making sense, the perverse science of what Haeckel called "Generelle Morphologie".


1 comment:

ikbastard said...

Imagine skygazing introduced into the curriculum of any and every school of economics. A couple of hours every other day, watching the ever-shifting shapes of clouds, a mute overcast cover or the vastness of the mind-boggling blue might do interesting things to minds otherwise crammed with concepts of a short-sighted ideology.