Monday, 24 April 2017
Let’s play a new game.
I tire of endings.
Every Surrealist today has, at some point or other, complained at the historical falsifications and traducements of our opponents and art historians. More particularly, it is a commonplace to mock their random selection of a date for the death of the movement: the Second World War, the death of Breton, invent your own, it’s a lucky dip completely unconnected with the ongoing activity and existence of Surrealists and Surrealism.
But it’s not interesting.
So let’s play a new game.
Let’s pick beginnings.
Like any vibrant movement, Surrealism has had its ebbs and flows. It hasn’t had a straightforwardly ascendant trajectory (that’d be liberal nonsense) because it needs fighting for and championing. As a result, at certain points, there have been vital lurches forward, vital steps taken that have shaped our subsequent fortunes. Go on, pick one! Pick several! The founding of the Chicago Group, the 1976 World Exhibition, the establishment of the Stockholm Group … Of course there have been many illusory moments that led to nothing, but there have also been real developments that have given a spur to our renewed vitality.
In Britain, where Surrealism’s been marginalised and overlooked at best, the sometimes contradictory character of such events has been pronounced: some events have been spectacular in the minds of their organisers but had no lasting effect whatever, while the lingering effect of others has been underestimated by even sympathetic commentators. The hilariously bathetic conclusion to Michel Remy’s purported chronology of British Surrealism – ‘Failure to restructure activities’ – may reflect his sketchy coverage of the recent period, but it is unjust to its subject (the Melmoth Group) and also in its failure to acknowledge the later establishment of the longest-running Surrealist group in Britain (Leeds).
So let me tip my hat to one hugely important contradictory event that opened 50 years ago today, the Enchanted Domain exhibition, the Exeter Festival of Surrealism (24 April-20 May 1967). Dismissed at the time by the Paris Group as a ‘nostalgic reunion’, it was nonetheless a key moment in identifying and organising Surrealism in Britain. It brought together work by international big names and various figures associated with the movement in Britain.
Its organisation was an indication of how such events are situated historically. Conroy Maddox, perhaps the single most important individual catalyst of post-war British Surrealism, organised the show in collaboration with bookseller John Lyle. Maddox, already established as an important figure in his own right, worked closely with ELT Mesens to ensure the loan of works from the latter’s collection. Another contributor of historical pieces who also helped organise the event was the veteran French Surrealist Jacques Brunius, who had worked with Buñuel and Dalí on L’Age d’Or and participated in British activity since the war.
Indeed, if you wanted to be playing endings, there’s your chance. On the morning of the show’s opening Maddox received a ’phone call from a hotel manager informing him that Brunius had died of a heart attack overnight. (Mesens said to Brunius’s girlfriend ‘Did you go through his pockets? You can’t trust hotels’, before turning to Maddox, Lyle and Roland Penrose to ask ‘What shall we do with dear Jacques? Shall we incinerate him?’)
|Look round trees with Brunius (from To The Rescue)|
Mortality and accusations of nostalgia notwithstanding, however, the event kickstarted interest in Britain. Within 18 months there was another show, in Durham, while Lyle and Maddox began producing the magazine Transforma(c)tion, bringing together the likes of Tony Earnshaw (later a big influence on the nascent Leeds Group), Patrick Hughes, Ian Breakwell and others. Maddox himself, always vigorous, began collaborating anew with younger figures like John Welson, John Digby, and with several of the emergent attempts at groups. Exeter 1967 is where to look for the start of recent Surrealist activity in Britain.
It hasn’t been smooth progress, but anyone who wants a beginning to result automatically in an unbroken and unbreakable upward ascent is looking for a religion, not a practice. Exeter was a large rock thrown into a muddy pool. It is worth remembering today because so many got their trousers splashed by it.
So let’s play a new game, again and always.
Let’s play beginnings.
Again and always.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
New port to new port
A train skulks up the water’s edge
Creeping through gardens
Crouched low against the fences
Stealing knickers as it goes
Utterly bastard groovy, indeed.
My mysteron-marked hands
Maybe it’s my age
Moulded in the chicken-headed rock
With the pawprints of large beasts
Repointed with place-names
And fingerprint whorls of red dust
Leaves purple and white thumb smudges
Across the corners of the marshlands
Where a crocodile-back finger swims
Anhingas ready to strike
And the spine cracks into fissures
Traced in river charts of the narrows
Guides for the intrepid and the blind
Through these impassable gulleys
My journey to the west took me left
Until the land ran out
Across country from the mudflats
Wondering where the rock caves are
It was a shoe
And a man with a bandsaw
While all movement stopped
At news of an unexploded badger
On the tracks ahead
Burnt white goods have fallen down cuttings
Casting off their masks of caramelised faces of pain
Into a grey city carved from green rocks
Where the hairy-faced piss against granite boundary stones
My passage grave oesophagus
Trumpets from the slate beds
As you rise from the ground
With a light on your head
Heat strengthened laminated inside
A fractured map in the bowl of a skull
Take the weight of your shoulders
Crackling in the burning black synapses
A spectrograph flickers Raudive voices from the damp
Snow mist over the great laid slabs
A milk scar echogram of Greek song
Smears our eyes to the passing blur
Three screaming long-eared bats
Squat like sheep at the foot of a streetlamp
Two voices separate into plainsong
Where runs and roads and rivers bark
One unheard accent points a map
Finger to finger
Into the gulf
Without a roof