Surrealism in Text and Image: A Conversation

‘No.6’, My Linear Heart Series, © Stasja Voluti 2012
camera-less hybrid work, chromogenic print

Stasja Voluti and Garry Thomas Morse discuss the influence of the Surrealism movement on their work, in her photography and in his Fall title Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus.

GTM: Stasja, one of the things that draws me to your lovely evocative images is your interest in Surrealism, and in particular your appreciation for the French poet Robert Desnos. Would you care to talk about the impact of Surrealism on your work as an artist?

SV: Thank you, Garry. Yes, my first exposure to Surrealism was through the works of Desnos, it was his novella La Liberté ou l’Amour given to me by my French language high school teacher in Holland that had a profound effect on me and I think that it laid the groundwork for my own methodology.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of your upcoming book Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus and I thought I detected a strong influence of Desnos within it. If this is correct, would you say it was a wholly conscious process, or was there something else at play as well?

‘Thread’, © Stasja Voluti 2009, analogue c-print

GTM: Well, as you no doubt know, it was Desnos’ bizarre on-the-fly recitative and related experiments in automatic writing that so astonished Andre Breton. Of course, La Liberté ou l’Amour has the kind of narrative that suggests to me a fair amount of conscious development, more perhaps than in any of Desnos’ other works.

Once upon a time, Sandra Huber, a stellar poet who researches sleep phenomena, gave me an essay by Lyn Hejinian called “Strangeness” and I feel this prophesied what was or what was to become my own approach. Hejinian talks of a dream-reportage and she refers back to William James’ forays into subconscious processes, although I am also thinking of the last novels of his brother Henry James, whose ornate obfuscations in language create an enchanting sense of bewilderment. The shorthand is that the writer attempts to report upon the dream, although the way we remember a dream is not necessarily the dream itself when it is happening. There is at the very least a margin of difference, a shade of occurrence, and when in a mood to flatter myself, I imagine this is where my writing is subsisting—let us say dipped just below a conscious surface.

I do know that more than a few readers/writers who are familiar with my writing have reported dreams about me, and by that I mean in a way that relates to my work and words. In my experience, those who appear to be most affected include insomniacs, narcoleptics, somnambulists, and more generally, people who swoon or slip easily into trances. This summer, I have already been notified of a dream about a singing competition, a dream about watching animals leaving on a train, and a dream about a garden party where a rude person was dashed with soda. Admittedly, there is an elusive nature to my pseudo-symbolic language. However, I trust that open-minded readers will allow themselves to be drawn into such strangeness, and will before long subscribe to these most delectable subconscious cues and find a modicum of value in this newfound “dream currency”.

But how about you, Stasja? Would you speak about your own process? For example, what goes into the construction/arrangement of a Surrealistic photograph, or into the creation of your most evocative images?

SV: Susan Sontag in her 1977 essay “On Photography” states that of all art forms photography is the only one that is natively surreal. When we look at a hundred year old photograph it is surreal to us because of our unfamiliarity with the subject and the more time has passed the more surreal the image becomes. A contemporary black and white photograph is simply unrealistic because of its lack of colour.

It’s perhaps not always that easy to define today what makes a photograph surrealistic as in the tradition of the original Surrealist movement or simply because of the medium itself and our use of it.

My approach with my own photography has changed significantly over the years—the major difference is that I used to take photos and now I mostly make photos. There was no conscious intent on my part, but the shift came gradually when I moved from Europe to Vancouver ten years ago, and I believe that my current images are as much a reflection of my own long standing aesthetic sensibilities as they are a response to my geographic surroundings and the more recent changes in my personal life.

‘Dark Light’, Lucid Dreaming Series, © Stasja Voluti 2010, digital c-print

When I have to describe how the images come about—and maybe that’s most relevant to what is at heart of our conversation here—is that now many of my images originate from what I call my “in between state”. I have always been a bad sleeper, I fall easily enough asleep to wake up after only maybe three or four hours, and before this shift that I speak of I used to spent the remaining hours of the night in bed agonizing over every worrisome and banal and not so banal aspect of my life, but now it’s in those few hours that I am awake but not quite, drifting in and out of “almost sleep” that I “see” and create images in my mind. Being the neo-sensualist that I am it can be influenced by anything that I was exposed to the day before, a scent, a poem, a piece of music, or a meeting. But it’s then and there that the image takes its initial form. The actual process of then creating and translating it into a still life is limited by both what is available to me in terms of objects and surroundings and the juxtaposition of my own minimal puristic approach and surrealistic aesthetics.

Obviously today, contemporary Surrealism, without the historic context and (self proclaimed) revolutionary intent of the original movement, has a different meaning. What do you think, is it merely an aesthetic choice or is it more than that?

GTM: With respect to Susan Sontag, I think that concept also does apply to language.

For example, one expression I had to explain during the copyediting stage for my book was the expression “bran new”, which I goniffed from William S. Burroughs.

Rumour has it that pieces of grain husk were used to pack fragile items so the association was with bran found on the new items. Even if this is not accurate, the association with newness still stands. However, you should try it out on people. Ten to one they will point out your mistake and vehemently defend the expression “brand new” which I understand arose from fresh items made in a kiln or forge.

All of this may be moot, but I am giving an example of how anachronisms in language or respective linguistic histories can lead to a sense of defamiliarization one might call “surreal”. In our daily usages, we are forgetful about the origins of what we are saying, that “kudos” is Homeric or that “Beware of Dog” is perhaps out of Pompeii or quite possibly an Ancient Greek epigram.

You and Susan Sontag should be pleased to know that in my book, there is a photography retrospective involving something called “daguerreosnaps.”

In answer to your question, aspects of the original Surrealist movement had to do with challenging religious and/or military authority. However, one point that connects the work of Robert Desnos with that of William S. Burroughs is an emphasis upon modes and means of advertising. Also, it was Guy Debord who thought that religious worship and devotion would be widely channelled into a slightly different “spectacle”, one associated with both commerce and celebrity.

Clearly, this is where my book begins, where such a celebrated commercial existence is entirely immersive to the point of usurping life itself. Then Surrealism today, as Kierkegaard said of philosophy, might be like looking in a window display and suddenly discovering the sign you are reading is for sale.

You made a very interesting statement, that you used to take photos and now you mostly make photos. I was suddenly reminded of Hamlet’s speech to the actors, telling them “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature” although what is shown in the play within the play is a crude distortion of the actual drama, nothing like a mirror of nature at all. It is noteworthy that Hamlet made this speech and not Shakespeare himself.

Recently, author Martine Desjardins was very astute in divining one of my own mirror images to describe my dear Minor Episodes, indicating that it “bends, twists, fractures, and deforms reality.” Also, in view of the current trending in various forms of non-fiction, I am thinking of a quote from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time in which the writer character Trapnel emphasizes the truth to be found in fiction rather than in memoir:

People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened.

Perhaps this is neither here nor there, but in this age when we are inundated with more images than ever before, would you care to speak a bit more about how you go about making photos? And why?

SV: Mirror images, yes, that’s a lovely way of describing it. Ultimately my photos are merely reflections of how I both observe and experience various aspects of the human condition, which are then translated into these little tableaux, created by me, sometimes with the use of rather naive symbols which may or may not resonate with the viewer in a way impossible for me to predict or dictate. Because in general I don’t set out with a certain idea or narrative the process is purely visceral and while it pours from dreamlike visions it evolves further while I’m working and I improvise as I go—perhaps not very different from what you describe with regard to your writing. To me, your particular use of language in your work is not unlike my taking a photo of a porcelain cup covered in strings of thread—both are anachronistic tools to convey something different yet are quite the same in how they engage reader and viewer. Any further elaboration on the actual making of the photos would perhaps take something away of the magic.

‘Untitled Infrared Still Life’, © Stasja Voluti 2011, digital c-print

My need to create—and here I may sound melodramatic—is all I have and is my main focus in life and is certainly a mode of emotional survival. Rather than ambition it is fueled by a certain need and desire to leave behind a legacy, even if it is a tiny and very modest one, because regardless of what we believe or do not believe we can never entirely be sure it is one way or another.

We are indeed inundated, not in the least through social media sites, with a massive and constant stream of mostly appropriated images, often endlessly recycled and altered in some form. Lately I have been wondering if not both image and language have become disposable commodities, or are bound to be. I came recently, in a slightly different context, upon the term “art as a social currency”. While it’s certainly not always art, imagery seems to has become just that: a currency, something that one uses to score or give a quick “Like” or two. Perhaps odd, or rather not odd at all considering my own vocation, but this realization has had a rather profoundly alienating effect on me, and has definitely caused me some consternation and has provided reason to re-consider how and where I want to share my own work, as well as how I communicate with and relate to others through social media. It certainly presents a challenge to me – I’m still processing and formulating my thoughts on it.

And speaking of alienation and displacement, whether of the individual or of a certain group—these are recurrent themes that I found and read in your work as well—in Death in Vancouver and Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus, and also in your poetry.

While I am immensely influenced by surrealists like Hans Bellmer, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Man Ray, Méret Oppenheim, Leonor Fini, Francesca Woodman, Dora Maar, and even 60s children’s book writer and photographer Dare Wright, the surrealist presence and evidence in my work is perhaps more subtle. My own connection to a piece of art, whether it’s visual, music, or literature, is always first and foremost a very emotional one. I want to feel first and then think. How do you connect to art in general, and how does this influence your own work?

GTM: I’ve been in attendance at a few writers festivals and have participated in panel discussions this year and your remarks make me smile, as the overall emphasis has been on pitches, promotion, media buzz, and more generally ways of “getting noticed.” I am certainly in no position to cast aspersions upon such concepts, although somehow these conversations have, to use your words “a profoundly alienating effect on me.” Novels, for example, have been described in terms of finding a big story or idea, perhaps guarding that idea, and then in some cases, expediently telling another person’s story for them.

On one occasion, it was necessary to quote William Carlos Williams from his long poem Paterson, although this is clearly part of a poetic credo by now:

      —Say it, no ideas but in things—
      nothing but the blank faces of the houses
      and cylindrical trees
      bent, forked by preconception and accident—
      split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
      secret—into the body of the light!

I was also calling to mind an admonition by George Bowering about abrogation of the space with language. I believe that was from the time of the Great Vancouver Spoken Word Riots. That might be a way of nudging someone to respect the surrounding space of the poem. In his first book Sticks & Stones, he has a great poem called “Wattle)”, exemplar of his house building analogy about writing poetry, although the poem is really about the construction of itself. It is not a flashy fancy poem on the hill intending to make a statement. In this instance, language is revealing something about itself and it is at least as quaint as a home of mud and wattle.

During one of these festival panel discussions, Daphne Marlatt asked me to account for a statement I had made in an interview about being “rather leery about the term narrative.” I am still at a loss to answer, but perhaps it is something about the implication of both “telling” and “knowing” in the term. This is quite different from poet Jack Spicer’s description of poetry as a way of moving the furniture of language around. I am thinking of Daphne Marlatt because her amazing books of poetry have such a correlation to her innovative novels Ana Historic and Taken.

I also like what you say about tableaux. On occasion, there are ideas that come to me, but these seldom drive a created work. They arrive, like grammar after vocabulary, after the work or works. Right now, it is apparent to me that elements of creative approach and technique have resonance in more than one of my books-to-be. I often think of Death in Vancouver as the embryonic work or “nurse log” out of which so much branches outward. Then my lifelong long poem “The Untitled” acts as a sort of scratchboard or palette for lyrical tones, although I am rather abruptly entering a minimalist phase that revivifies more decadent forms I have tried to slough, and this lifelong work traces echoes of this compositional method.

All of this to answer your question about my relation to art! I know that aspects of my writing that involve thinking are heavily influenced by thoughts about painting and musical structures. It is not that I have any great opinion to relate or truth to impart. In fact, I would feel incredibly presumptuous in such an attempt. It is more that these phrases and fragments of language begin to build into something of their own, and begin to have what Baudelaire called “correspondences.”

Now, I understand that Auguste Rodin said the following. “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop…” Stasja, I was wondering if you would offer your thoughts on this statement, also in relation to our discussion?

SV: I’ve always loved Williams’ Paterson and that particular quote presents rather perfectly the gist of our discussion, I think.

One of the stories that I have heard with regards to that particular quote of Rodin is that it possibly was his response to how other artists started to paint, draw and sculpt using photos in addition to creating from moving life animals or people only, the big change coming after Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1878 “The Horse in Motion” images (Palo Alto, California). Until then the common conviction was that while running horses briefly “flew” by splaying their four legs in the air before alighting for the next leap. Muybridge—for the time a novelty—was able to take photos in rapid succession, and thus by doing so disproved all previous beliefs, because his photos showed that a horse in motion, at the only instant in the cycle when it’s completely in the air, actually has its legs tucked together, not splayed. This shook up the artistic community and changed how many artists of the day worked as they started to work from both photographic images and life scenes. But Rodin, being Rodin perhaps, would not have it.

‘No.3’, My Linear Heart Series, © Stasja Voluti 2012, self-portrait, digital c-print

The quote since has had a life of its own, and in time has been used to underwrite different and sometimes rather contradicting views on both art in general and on photography specifically. Occasionally we rely on photography as we rely on the (non fiction) memoir, to document truths or facts, but as you paraphrased earlier, a memoir can never truly be complete and therefore is always lacking truth. Except for perhaps in forensic photography, an image is always the creative and partial truth of the photographer, and the camera, is, like the pen of the writer or the hands of the sculptor nothing more than a tool to convey that certain vision in both realist and surrealist forms.

I also believe everything is allowed to express that vision except changing or altering an existing work created by someone else. Memory and perception, dream mixed with reality have of course always been paramount in Surrealism and very much in surrealist photography. Rodin didn’t care much about photography we can deduce from his quote. But I do, and if I am to take Rodin’s words and place them in a contemporary context and respond to them, I will reiterate that all fictional works (a photograph, a sculpture, a novel, or a poem) are visions of the artist and are therefore the artist’s truthful lies.