Sublime cadavers

Feb 4, 1998 at 12:00 am

"To me, Surrealism is to disclose without trying. ... If we try to stop bad habits, perversions, amputations, falsehoods, we shall get only high pathology, the organs on an enameled dish." &emdash;William Carlos Williams

Surrealism, a primarily European artistic movement which extended to Latin America and the United States, evolved in the environment of post-World War I despair; its project was specifically outlined by André Breton (a founder and theorist &emdash; some say warrior &emdash; of the movement), whose first "Manifesto" was published in 1924. In a radio interview in 1945, he described the undertaking this way: "You know that with surrealism the accent was moved off the ego, which is always somewhat despotic, and onto the id common to all men," a statement which may bring on a smile to anyone familiar with Breton's at times despotic rule over the group.

Surrealism is perhaps best known for the masterworks of visual artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, yet a lush literary legacy survives as well (André Breton's Nadja, vast collections of poems including Breton's Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares and Aimé Césaire's The Miraculous Weapons, as well as novels like Mina Loy's Insel and Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant).

The surrealists' goal was to abolish differences between human subjects through exploring and expressing the irrational, the absurd, the maniacal. Interested in dreams, the unconscious and detached thought, they employed such tools as psychoanalysis, and game and play techniques based on English and French parlor games. These included chain games such as the Exquisite Corpse, of which Simone Callinet, Breton's first wife, wrote: "Even more reliably than with automatic writing, one was sure of jarring amalgams. Violent surprises prompted admiration, laughter, and stirred an unquenchable craving for new images."

Exquisite Corpse has two versions: literary and visual. Both involve a group of three or more participants, and the folding of pieces of paper (the figurative equivalent of a corpse or body), thereby concealing each previous player's contribution. In the literary Exquisite Corpse, each person at a table writes a word, in a specific order &emdash; for example: the first person writes an article, the second an adjective, the third a noun, the fourth a verb verb, the fifth an article ... The game gets its title from the result of the first such session: "Exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine."

More complicated rules led to sentences such as: "The flame-colored breast surpasses by one step, one finger, one mouthful, the melodious breasts." The Belgrade surrealists played a longer variant in which each player wrote a whole sentence; and the surrealist American poet Ted Joans started a literary "corpse" in 1975 (which includes panels by Allen Ginsberg, Michel Leiris, William Burroughs and Wole Soyinka) which, as of 1991, was 50 feet long.

The visual version is similar: Each player receives a sheet of paper and folds the "corpse" horizontally, or in diamond or hexagonal shapes into equal sections; each person draws, not seeing what the others draw. Again there are any number of ways to play.

Now, speaking of fascinating coincidences, two metro Detroit venues will make use of Exquisite Corpses in two quite different, unconnected, upcoming events. The first, "The Unknown Sequence &emdash; Art On Its Own &emdash; Art As A Part," is a workshop offered by the Detroit Dance Collective, in cooperation with Henry Ford Community College, which uses Exquisite Corpse as the basis of a multi-arts experience (painting, writing, modern dance) with writer Jo Powers and Detroit Dance Collective directors Barbara Selinger and Paula Kramer (Friday, February 6, 1-4 p.m., $20. Call 313-845-6314).

Then the Ann Arbor Art Center opens its "Exquisite Corpse" exhibition on Thursday, February 12 (6:30-8 p.m. at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty, A2) with an improvisation by the Detroit Dance Collective and a screening of surrealist films, including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's notorious Un Chien Andalou. The exhibition continues through March 15 at the Art Center (117 W. Liberty, A2. Call 734-994-8004, ext. 122.) and features over 80 Michigan artists who will also donate their "corpses" for a silent auction benefiting the gallery (the auction will continue throughout the duration of the exhibit). In addition, there are multiple ancillary events, including lectures and even a family workshop. A local cafe is providing kits so that customers can create their own Exquisite Corpses.

But is all this activity "beautiful"? The answer lies in a paraphrase of a famous statement by André Breton: the only beauty that surrealism generates is convulsive.

E-mail comments to [email protected]