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‘Now, Voyager: The Convulsive Crossings of La Sirena Surrealist Group’

‘The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted, / Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find’ (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass).

From the very beginning, surrealism has always sought to ‘reinvent the world’, enshrined in André Breton’s famous dictum: ‘“Transform the world”, Marx said; “change life”, Rimbaud said. These two watchwords are one for us’” (1990a, p.241). As Breton et al. take up elsewhere, what is central to each is the dialectical notion of acknowledging and seeking to reconcile the ‘old antinomies’ (1990a, p.123) that represent the interaction and interpenetration of the interior and exterior realities/worlds. This movement between interior and exterior worlds, brilliantly documented in Breton’s notion of the ‘communicating vessels’ (1990b) is a form of travel. Indeed, the surrealist adventure is a tale of voyaging, of exploration and discovery.

Joseph Cornell, Convulsive Voyager

There are many surrealists that we could discuss to illustrate the notion of the ‘lone’ or ‘solo’ voyage’. There are many others who also travel alone, having little or no affiliation with a surrealist group and whose activities are strictly solitary. None are more interesting than Joseph Cornell. 

It must be noted that Cornell was at pains to deny that he was a surrealist, despite surrealism’s obvious influence on his work and his friendships and exchanges with several notable surrealists, including Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller et al., and his inclusion in various surrealist group exhibitions, reviews and journals. There are also those within the surrealist movement, as well as some academics, who would take issue with Cornell being considered a surrealist, particularly because of his adherence to Christian science, which is clearly at odds with the tenets of surrealism. However, his work and methods do betray significant surrealist traits (which Cornell acknowledged). For example, the manner in which Cornell, like an inspired hunter/explorer, tracked down the various objects and experiences that found their way into his artworks has much in common with the surrealist objet trouvé and objective chance. Moreover, Cornell’s work and methods provide a useful embarkation point when seeking to navigate potential points of intersection, between solo voyagers, such as Cornell, and the collective voyagers, such as all those involved in group activity, who view the surrealist adventure as a collective adventure.

Cornell never ventured outside of America, spending most of his life in and around his native New York, yet he was fascinated by the idea of travel and exploration, particularly European culture of the nineteenth century. It is tempting to portray Cornell’s ‘travels’ or ‘explorations’ as those of the immobile ‘armchair voyager’, ‘dream voyager’ or ‘enchanted wanderer’, who, like Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours (1992), embarked on interior journeys of the imaginary, inspired by the prodigious archive of books, articles, prints, objects and other ephemera that he collected and surrounded himself with. However, he was also very much the flâneur of Baudelaire and the surrealists, making actual journeys, exploring the thrift stores, flea markets and antique shops of quotidian reality, in search of stimulation, experiences and materials, later to be transformed into artworks. 

We would argue, then, that the concept of voyaging is associated with both external (physical) and internal (imaginary) journeys, moving between conscious and unconscious states and differing degrees of mobility/immobility. These pairings – as well as others – are indicative of and crucial for an understanding of Cornell and his practice: challenging, crossing and remapping the borders and boundaries of place, time, identity and artistic classification. 

Indeed, we would contend that these constant exchanges, and overlappings create a convulsive charge akin to Breton’s (1987, p.10) notion of ‘fixed-explosive’ (one of the three aspects of convulsive beauty), leading to disorientation (dépaysement). This charge has the ability to provoke a reaction in the spectator – moving between passivity, activity and transformation, interpenetrating interior and exterior reality, thereby creating a further convulsive voyage – between the work and the audience. There is not the space here to draw out all the possibilities of how we can view Cornell and his relationship with voyaging. 

Therefore, we shall only mention a few examples that have a particular resonance for us, in which Cornell conceptualises the voyager trope as a cipher for his own troubled/troubling of gender identity, explored as a form of navigation or voyage.

A number of Cornell’s portraits utilise the voyager trope, conflating voyager, ship and (androgynous) gender identity: the photograph of Cornell by Lee Miller (1943-44), which shows a profile image of Cornell next to a model schooner with a streamer attached to the mast, giving the appearance of a woman’s long hair; another collage, entitled ‘Now, Voyager’ (1966), features an androgynous child riding on a merry-go-round horse, but the voyage of the title is directed at an imagined (future) voyage; and in the ‘Untitled (Ship with Nude)’ (1965), a nude woman’s body forms the prow of the ship, her lower body concealed by a celestial chart. There are many portraits of Hollywood stars that feature gender shifting, for example, the image of Hedy Lamarr, which Cornell superimposes over a young Renaissance boy for the collage that accompanies the ‘Enchanted wanderer’ article in Charles Ford’s View (1992), or the box portrait of Greta Garbo, with a photograph of her face superimposed over a male torso, entitled ‘The Crystal Mask’ (1939-40). Even Breton comes in for similar treatment when Cornell feminises Man Ray’s photograph of Breton, adorning it with outrageous female curls. Perhaps the most complex portraits are those of the famous and not-so-famous young women who Cornell knew personally, such as Linda Hadley, Susan Sontag, Yayoi Kusama and Joyce Hunter, who often received the portraits he made as gifts. The meanings of these are often private and elusive – deliberately so, masking the true nature of Cornell’s intentions and desires, due to his fear of revealing too much about himself.

Ultimately, the portraits reveal Cornell’s complex relationship with the subjects in these works. What is unclear is whether these androgynous figures are evidence of his (sexual) desire for them or a desire to be/identify with them (in terms of a fluid gender identity) or, indeed both. In this sense, the status of such works is ambiguous, shifting and shuttling between portrait and self-portrait. His desire for them is often offset by his desire to be aligned with them, as his double and mask, and as both other and self – or more accurately, the other in the self, which shatters the notion of a unique, individual identity in favour of conflicting, multiple shifting identities.

A Boatload of Madmen and Madwomen 

Perhaps Cornell’s voyaging can be likened to Claude Cahun’s compelling image: ‘To only voyage at the prow of myself’ (2002, p.183). In this sense, ‘the voyage out’ might be seen as a return to the voyage within, exploring the limits of the self eternally, convulsively? Alternatively, we might view the ‘solo’ voyage as a journey of self-discovery, or an escape from one reality into another (imagined) reality or a conflagration of the two, or the creation of new identities/realities?

In the case of collective voyaging, we would suggest that individual identity is more fluid, merging, at times, with the identities of the other group members. Mattias Forshage speaks of ‘an over-individual sensibility’ (2019, p.218), to describe what happens when groups take part in collective activities. The individual contributions to group projects, such as games, collective poems etc, become difficult to ascertain as they are created in such a trans-personal way that each contribution is influenced by that of the rest of the group. Patrick Lepetit’s use of the term ‘egregore’ (2014, p.4) is instructive in this regard. He introduces this occult notion in relation to the idea of surrealism as a ‘discreet if not secret society’ and quotes various sources to explain this fascinating idea. For example, one of these – Pierre Mabille, remarks that ‘I call the human group that is endowed with a personality that is different from that of the individuals who form it an egregore (a word formerly used by hermeticists)’ (2014, p.4). Lepetit includes a neat summary of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s account of Breton’s thoughts on the egregore, defining it as ‘the collective psychic being that permits each active participant to surpass his own subjectivity by intensifying it to the maximum possible extent, in order to attain a radical state of intersubjectivity’ (2014, p.5)

We would argue that Breton’s reading of the egregore is very close to our own sense of collective identity and is emblematised in the figure of La Sirena and recorded in our manifesto

‘Difference and Otherness are celebrated and the figure of the siren, like other monstrous hybrid identities that we are drawn to, underscores our belief in the notion that identity is not fixed but fluid, multiple, contested, shifting, in a state of eternal becoming: convulsive’ (Campbell et al., 2021). 

Interestingly, Elza Adamowicz suggests that the transition from ‘monster’ to ‘surrealist monster’ is dependent on what she refers to as ‘participation with the radically other’ (1990, p.299). According to Adamowicz, ‘the monster is an articulation of the figure of identity comprising the self and the other, the other as the other in the self […] identity stems not from a sense of unity of the self, but from participation with the radically other’ (1990, p.299). 

From the very beginning of the group’s inception, we have championed intersubjectivity and collectivity. For example, all of us contributed to the manifesto, sharing our individual manifesto with each other, and then choosing the parts of the other group members’ manifesto that we believed should feature in the final manifesto. We discussed the parts that we had each chosen, combined these into a draft and following further discussion, we produced the final document. It is quite remarkable how seamless the finished manifesto is, which reflects what we said earlier about the egregore, particularly Breton’s comments about surpassing one’s own individual subjectivity and intensifying this to such a degree that we attain ‘a radical state of intersubjectivity’ (Lepetit, 2014, p.5). In fact, we would also suggest that all of our projects have followed a similar route. For example, the La Sirena talisman was created through The Collective Collage/Assemblage Game. This followed a group discussion on the figure of La Sirena and hybrid creatures/identities. Each member was emailed an image and responded to it analogically, creating their own response – which was then sent to the next player – as in a chain or a voyage of transformation. Once we had all contributed our siren, we discussed our findings, then merged these together to form the La Sirena talisman, the solo voyage becoming a collective voyage/collective expression of the whole group. 

The two films we all contributed to – La Femme (Re)trouvée and La Femme Automatique (King, 2021) – also embody many of the ideas we have already discussed – particularly through the collective poems we created – which serve as the films’ voice-overs, and the collages we each produced, were combined to form montage sequences in both films. We have constantly reflected on the films, offering thoughts and ideas in group meetings and through ongoing discussions via email. We have been particularly interested in how both the female protagonists in the films attempt to negotiate and break free from patriarchal domination. What has been especially fascinating is the ways in which we have each intersubjectively connected with the protagonists and their plight in the diegetic world of the films and how this has unified the group further through discussion of the very real barriers and prejudice affecting the female members of the group in quotidian reality.

As discussed earlier, the project Where Do the Sirens Meet? similarly, involves us negotiating collectively with our research on sirens and hybrid creatures. We were interested in exploring the places that the sirens travel to and how we as a group intersubjectively travel through the sirens we create but also through each other’s. The collective poem is probably the most concentrated expression of this collective voice that voyages between the self and other via the totemic sirens we inhabit and who inhabit us. 

Egregore (closely linked with intersubjectivity and collectivity), transformation, convulsive identity and becoming are all linked to the notion of travel (voyaging, exploration, and discovery). In each case the figure of the crossing carries with it a sense of transgressing (imaginary) frontiers, borders and boundaries that imply fixity, the familiar and the known – in favour of exchange, intersection, crossroads, dialogue and fluidity.

Indeed, it is our belief that the figure of the collective voyage, like the notion of the ‘pointe supreme’ (Breton, 1990a, p.123) – underpinned, as it is, by the dialectic – must be an ongoing process of discovery and continual transformation (becoming), that can never be resolved or fully known: ‘Existence is elsewhere’ (Breton, 1990a, p.47).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_3047.jpg
‘Bermuda Time Slip Liner’ (Collage, Daina Kopp)

References

Adamowicz, E. (1990) ‘Monsters in Surrealism: Hunting the Human-Headed Bombyx’, in Collier, P. and Davies, J. (eds.) Modernism and the European Unconscious. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 283-303.

Breton, A. (1987) Mad Love. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Breton, A. (1990a) Manifestoes of Surrealism. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Breton, A. (1990b) Communicating Vessels. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Cahun, C. (2002) ‘Aveux non avenus’, in Leperlier, F (ed.) Claude Cahun: Écrits. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, pp. 163-438.

Campbell, D., Greenslade, D., King, T., Kopp, D. and Thomas, D. (2021) ‘La Sirena Surrealist Group Manifesto Statement’, lasirenasurrealistgroup.wordpress.com, 18 April. Available at: https://lasirenasurrealistgroup.wordpress.com/about/ (Accessed: 27 June 2021).

Ford, C. (ed.) (1992) View: Parade of the Avant-Garde – 1940-1947. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Forshage, M. (2019) ‘The Group’, in Richardson, M, Ades, D. Fijalkowski, K, Harris, S and Sebbag, G (eds.) The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism: Movements. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, pp. 216-218.

Huysmans, J.-K. (1992) A Rebours. Paris: Sedes. 

King, T. (2021) La Femme (Re)trouvée. (Accessed 28 June 2021). https://youtu.be/Rx4G_wszBS8

King, T. (2021) La Femme Automatique. (Accessed 7 September 2021). https://youtu.be/l4Jh6z_nsJE

Lepetit, P. (2014) The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies. New York: Inner Traditions.

Whitman, W. (1900) Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay.

2 replies on “‘Now, Voyager: The Convulsive Crossings of La Sirena Surrealist Group’”

Underpinned – of course – by the dialectic, of contradiction, of opposites, of identity but, I think, these timely and important reflections from Darren most of all serve to remind us of the importance of the notion of totality.

Liked by 2 people

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