Art and Oceans: Critical Reflections on the Impact of the Surrealist Imagination

8 December 2021, 5:00:00 am

Convert to local time with www.timeanddate.com

Session Convenors

Professor Ann Elias, University of Sydney
Dr Victoria Carruthers, Australian Catholic University

Session Moderators

Professor Ann Elias, University of Sydney
Dr Victoria Carruthers, Australian Catholic University

Session Speakers

Dr Jaime Tsai, National Art School
Dr Victoria Carruthers, Australian Catholic University
Professor Ann Elias, University of Sydney

The ocean has long been a source of inspiration for artists and poets, including as a metaphor for journeying into the unknown. Represented as sublime, chaotic, mysterious or filled with magical creatures, the surrealists drew on this rich tradition. Attracted to its rich Freudian associations and enthralled with the idea of the ocean as a symbol of transformative potential, the surrealists claimed the ocean as a supreme space in which radical opposites could coexist. Recently, an appreciation of surrealism’s political opposition to a blind faith in the idea of progress has attracted attention from scholars wishing to reconsider the problematic relationship between discourses around technology, colonisation and the crisis in ecology. Added to this are the ways in which surrealist imaginings might be used to subvert familiar associations between the sea and the unconscious, thus providing avenues for exploring new watery materialities. This session will explore the impact of the surrealist imagination in both modern and contemporary art. The ocean is offered up as a catalyst for thinking about the politics of transformation and new ways to reconsider the complex interconnections between culture, history, nature and aesthetics.

PAPER #1
Wet Dreams: Mikala Dwyer’s liquid surrealism

PRESENTER
Dr Jaime Tsai, National Art School

The Australian artist Mikala Dwyer has described her work variously as ‘osmotic’, ‘leaky’, ‘fluid’, and ‘porridge-y’. While this may come as no surprise to those acquainted with her 1990s Grunge era work, which, in Australia, was understood as part of the phenomenon of abject art, I am interested in tracing the impact of an expressly surrealist wetness across her oeuvre. I will argue that the surrealists understood wetness as aesthetically evocative (as in oceans, storm clouds, and formless matter), and metaphorically transformative. In his first manifesto, André Breton described himself in liquid terms, ‘Am I not the soluble fish, I was born under the sign of Pisces, and man is soluble in his thought!’ Wetness, for the surrealists, expressed a metaphysics of connection, capable of dissolving rational edifices and fixed systems of thought, and creating a slippage between incongruities. Dwyer’s installations exploit materials evocative of wetness, such as translucent fabric, reflective plastic, and nail polish. These materials are frequently suspended in space, suggestive of submarine or ethereal landscapes that invite the spectator to enter and imaginatively engage with. Through a close analysis of Dwyer’s liquid installations, I will argue that this surrealist metaphysics of connection is both continued and expanded.

PAPER #2
‘Threatening us with distant biologies’: Rethinking the morphologies of Yves Tanguy

PRESENTERS
Dr Victoria Carruthers, Australian Catholic University

Yves Tanguy’s paintings have frequently been read in terms of marine imagery, often with reference to the artist’s life in the merchant navy and his origins in the sea-faring region of Brittany. While Tanguy’s early paintings have evoked associations between the submarine and the unconscious, later works have prompted resemblances with the rocky Breton coastline and the ancient standing stones of the region. This merging of the submarine, the unconscious, and the mineral realm have been understood in terms of an archetypal surrealist inner landscape. We propose an alternative interpretation, drawing attention to the strong sense of organicism and anteriority in Tanguy’s paintings. By seeing them as more akin to Bergsonian notions of an organic, evolutionary memory, we wish to explore Tanguy’s morphologies as reflective of a primordial concrescence of matter and consciousness, as manifestations of deep time. Counter to André Breton’s perception of Tanguy’s works as purely inner worlds, we will read them as closer to Roger Caillois’ view of his paintings as ‘threatening us with distant biologies’. We will thus argue that Tanguy’s works are expressive of a vital materialism, a visceral rather than psychological morphology, a perpetual presence of submerged matter undergoing process and proliferation.

PAPER #3
The Hidden Visible: The Underwater of Sydney Harbour

PRESENTER
Professor Ann Elias, University of Sydney

In the fluid underwater oceanic realm, surrealists found an evocative metaphor for the unconscious, free association, and dreams. The undersea was also perceived as a fearful and unknowable domain. This paper investigates surrealist oceans by relocating Australian visual culture in the underwater of Sydney Harbour. It addresses the creation of a cultural imaginary of the under-harbour, and an aesthetics of fear, by analysing early 20th century images that represent sinking, drowning, descending, and submerging. Why look at Sydney Harbour from the perspective of the underwater? To estrange our thinking from the familiar, to relocate history and aesthetics in the subaquatic, to recognise that the underwater of oceans is not only a space of nature but has always been a cultural space penetrated by technologies, industries, and imaginations, and to acknowledge the First Peoples of Australia who called the harbour Guru, or “deep water” (Quinnell, Troy, Poll). Addressing the themes of submarine environments, aesthetics, postcolonial geographies, and human relations with non-human entities, this paper asks whether visualisations of the harbour’s material and metaphorical depths serves to defamiliarise iconic Sydney Harbour by provoking an uncanny sense of alienation in the most familiar of settings.

Asterix.png

Biographies

Professor Ann Elias, University of Sydney

Ann Elias is a professor of art and visual culture at Sydney University. Research interests include camouflage, cultural histories of flowers, and ocean histories including media representations of coral reefs (Coral Empire, Duke, 2019). Current research investigates the significance of the underwater of Sydney Harbour to art and visual culture.


Dr Victoria Carruthers, Australian Catholic University 

Victoria Carruthers is senior lecturer in modern and contemporary art history at Australian Catholic University, Sydney. Her research interests are broad and include feminist art and art practice; the legacies of surrealism; and studies in new materialist thinking. She published the first critical monograph on American modernist Dorothea Tanning, Transformations, in 2020.


Dr Jaime Tsai, National Art School

Dr Jaime Tsai is a Sydney-based art historian, curator and lecturer in the Art History and Theory department of the National Art School. Tsai specialises in surrealist strategies in contemporary Australian art. Her publications include the forthcoming “Pixel Pirates: theft as strategy in the art of Joan Ross and Soda_Jerk” in Dada Data: Contemporary art practice in the era of post-truth politics (Bloomsbury, 2021) and “Equivocal Taxonomies: Fiona Hall and the Logic of Display” in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art (2016). Her exhibition CAUGHT STEALING (2019, NAS Gallery) explored Surrealist-inspired theft as a strategy in contemporary Australian art.