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Surrealism: a new tactic for ecological liberation?

Writing by Alyssa Mawussi, artwork by Berenika Murray.




Over winter break I was distracted from work and found myself looking outside my window to see snowflakes slowly falling, catching light from the afternoon sun. It seemed as though a toddler high up in the sky was tossing pudgy handfuls of glitter down to earth. Naturally, I stood outside and ringed my neck back to peer up at the sky. As the snow tickled my cheek, I had what I cannot pretend was a particularly profound thought: 


“How wonderful it is to belong to the earth”. 


The scene felt like a dreamscape, a surrealist vision, a magnificent yearning for a fuller connection to a healthy planet. I’d like to think that most surrealist artists felt this way, a pull towards connectivity and a distressing urge to capture the relationship they had with the world around them. The movement, born in the late 1910s and early 1920s, was a desire for psychic liberation and the expression of our creative unconscious in ways that challenged restrictive societal limitations. It was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories which encouraged surrealists to seek out more disruptive practices that blurred the boundaries between the self and the outside world. Like in psychoanalysis, “the ego is no longer distinct from the object… the self and the world… [are] fused in an inseparable total complex.” 


It was an ambitious way to go about creating art, and intrinsically examined surrealism’s radical potential for political action. 


Our relationship with the earth is skewed, imperfect and most of all alienated. It hinges on dichotomous oppositions, between human and animal, nature versus culture, and us against them. Our perceptions have created the illusory myth of the autonomous human in direct opposition to the earth- an acquiescent backdrop to which we owe very little. And so, perhaps we must align ourselves with a new reality in which our ideas of interconnectivity and suffering are radically challenged. Surrealist visuality can be used to expand the frameworks of understanding we’ve constructed. It advocates for a blurring of boundaries; liberating the ecological sphere from its standardized constraints. 


One of my favourite paintings, Frida Kahlo’s Roots (1943), depicts her lying on cracked soil in an orange gown as vines extend between her body and the ground. Kahlo’s image highlights the maternal relationship between the self and the earth, the promised reciprocity and ensured return at the time of our death. Artist Ana Mendieta speaks similarly of her work:


Through my earth/body sculpture I become one with the earth… I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.


Kahlo’s Roots and Mendieta’s Siluetas (1973) are biomorphic, depicting the gradual fading of boundaries between the self and the earth to which we are bound. Silueta’s haunting imagery evokes leaves blowing in the wind, foam gathering on the shore or light reflecting off the water’s surface. Like Kahlo, Mendieta explores the “eternal cycle of life- birth and growth, decay and death, and regeneration.” Like Kahlo, her work reminds us of our potential for renewal and the entanglement which grounds us within our environment. 


With this in mind, I think we need to be wary of blindly appropriating surrealism as a vessel for theorizing. Val Plumwood offers an enlightened discussion of deep ecology and its tendency to over-determine the interconnectedness and sameness between the self and nature. In continuing to treat nature as a dimension of the self we lose the ability to provide “a dynamic or interactive account, which requires diversified elements.” Perhaps then, we are continuing to enforce the very dualism we aim to overcome. 


I believe there's the potential for both ideas to exist in tandem. A way to recenter our connectedness while avoiding turning the other (that being nature) into an “instrument of self-determination.” We can still assume ontological differences without using this as an excuse to pillage and hurt the earth to which we remain inextricably bound. As Plumwood reminds us, recognizing the continuity between ourselves and the natural world while also asserting a distinctness can continue to combat the nature/culture dualism. The environment does not exist for us to further self-determine, or act as a mechanism for our egoism and self-interest. Rather it is a dynamic system of interconnectivity which can give, but in turn also demands care and reciprocity. We must tread lightly when reflecting on our relational self-hood, and we must continue to consider how our frameworks may still harbour destructive potential. 


For this reason, I don’t entirely renounce the surrealist project. In its own right, I believe it can counter our culture’s overemphasized positivism and rationality. In the same way, Kahlo and Mendieta attempted to make sense of their times- we must capitulate to our current reality too. But we do not have to abandon the power of our imagination and collective will. We are capable of imagining a healthier planet and political reality that is currently imperceptible. The time to grapple with feelings of shame and anxiety about the climate crisis is now. It requires an acknowledgement of our current reality and a re-imagining of our potential for renewal and care. A freedom in which our bodies are vessels for transformation rather than harm. What I hope is that our unconscious experiences, those that are embodied and felt, may hold greater weight in our emancipation than any so-called rational approach.


References:

  1. Ades, Dawn, and Whitney Chadwick. Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation. MIT Press (MA), 1998.

  2. Ades and Chadwick, Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation.

  3. Ades and Chadwick, Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation.

  4. Plumwood, Val. “Deep Ecology and the Denial of Difference.” In Routledge eBooks, 175–99, 2002. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203006757-13.

  5. Plumwood, “Deep Ecology and the Denial of Difference.”


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