My Attraction to the Surrealists, 2013

“Sketchy Thoughts re My Attraction to the European Surrealists.” Unpublished first draft for Simone Leigh, to supplement her presentation at Get Ready for the Marvelous: Black Surrealism in Dakar, Fort-de-France, Havana, Johannesburg, New York City, Paris, Port-au-Prince, 1932-2013. A Performa Institute conference, New York University, Feb 8-9.

© Lorraine O’Grady, 2013

O’Grady taught a course on Futurism, Dada and Surrealism at SVA for 20 years but had not written of the movements’ effect on her work. These rough notes made for a conference presenter indicate why she loved their methodologies more than their art.

Well, I taught the European Dadas and Surrealists at SVA for several years before making my own work. I loved the artists in those groups — especially Tzara and Duchamp, Ernst and Breton. Perhaps I was looking for a deeper understanding of my experience than the rational language of Western culture could give. But later I felt those artists were after something different than other Surrealists I loved more. . . like Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet. . . like the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam. . . and like the New York filmmaker Maya Deren.

It seemed as if the Europeans missed the boat by leaving the project at “play,” albeit serious. As if they’d been content just to flip the bird at their parents, at the repressive and false rationality of the West. But if, instead of merely picturing rationality’s opposite, they had pushed on to image a truer composite of both sides, perhaps they could have created that “changed life” they yearned for. Of course this is impossible. No one’s ever done it or ever will. But failure can produce great goals.

As I look back, Maya Deren was the most important for me. Her move from Surrealist filmmaker to Vodoun initiate could not have been more perfect and inevitable… from Meshes of the Afternoon to Divine Horsemen (the book, not the film). . . I read it so many times. My own interests in Surrealism and Vodoun had totally overlapped. For me both were centrally pegged to “The Crossroad,” that topos where above and below, rational and irrational and all other opposites merge and emerge again.

The European Surrealists weren’t really there. I loved those guys (they were mostly guys), they were great fun. Still, I could see that I loved their methodologies more than their work. They rejoiced in the random and the middle finger they could use it for. But as I already lived in the random of Western culture, I hoped to bend the random to my will, make it yield a truer rationality than the one on view. I wanted to use their techniques to take me somewhere I couldn’t go on my own, to help me get something new out of something old. I wanted a new vocabulary for a new situation. (. . .)

Download full PDF