During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
Even by the standards of David Lynch the Surrealist sit-com (with Noir accents) Rabbits from 2002 is startlingly bizarre. First released as a digital web series of 8 short episodes with a total run-time of 50 mins and later edited and re-released as a DVD of 42 mins, Rabbits features Scott Coffrey, Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts as Jack, Jane and Suzie, a family of humanoid rabbits who reside in a nameless city deluged with constant rain and who live with a fearful mystery.
The setting is a dismal living room which we will never leave. Suzie is ironing a piece of clothing which she will constantly iron throughout the movie, apart from the times when she leaves to summon (or exorcise) a demonic presence that appears in the wall and talks in a harsh and unintelligible language. Jane wears a dress and sits on the couch. Jack wears a suit and is the only one to regular leave the apartment. Whenever a character enters the apartment canned applause bursts out. Another alienating device is the use of a laugh track at random and often wildly inappropriate moments. The dialogue is oblique, to say the least. Clipped phrases, both banal and portentous, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or Alain Resnais’s art house classic Last Year In Marienbad, are followed by long pauses then a non sequitur, which gives the impression that if it was ordered just so everything would fall into place. All three characters have a solo piece where they recite abstract poetry that has tantalising references to dogs and dark smiling teeth.
Rabbits is short movie where nothing happens yet is redolent with atmosphere, helped by a dank soundtrack by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. Oppressive, shot with a dark humour, sometimes boring but always terrifying, Rabbits was used in a study by University of British Columbia to induce a feeling of existential crisis in subjects.
The connection between Surrealism and magic realism, the narrative genre that first developed in Latin America in the mid twentieth century before becoming popular the world over, has always been hotly disputed. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of the giants of magic realism, viewed Surrealism with a great measure of disdain, and other Latin American were suspicious of the European Surrealists exoticising tendencies. However one of the first magic realist novels, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World), was written by Alejo Carpentierwho was actively involved in the Surrealist Movement in the 1920’s. Mexico was to prove fertile soil for several leading emigre Surrealists, notably Wolfgang Paalen, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varos. The strongest link however was undoubtedly the other great Argentine writer of the Latin American Boom, Julio Cortazar.
Cortazarwrote a spirited defence of Surrealism in 1949, refuting the constant claims that Surrealism was dead, insisting that on the contrary that it was ‘Un cadaver viviente’ (a living corpse). His 1966 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) is a landmark in Post-Modernism in its hyper-textuality (take a look at the table of instructions to see all the possible ways to read the novel), which clearly references Andre Breton’s Nadja and the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. Later in the sixties Cortazar would produce two outstanding collage books with almost infinite permutations. The greatest writer of the 21st Century, Roberto Bolano, acknowledged his debt to Cortazar, and indeed to the underground Surrealist current that he kept alive, in his writings and interviews.
Besides such Surrealist experimentation, Cortazar is one of the undoubted masters of the fantastic short story. Below is Axolotl, a Kafkaesque story of a man’s obsession with the Axolotl, the Mexican salamander, who with their Aztec faces, devour with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold.
Included as a bonus is The Veils song Axolotl. Not sure if they are familiar with the story, but it was featured on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return recently and that is enough objective chance for me.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a slow wintertime. I was heading down tbe boulevard Port-Royal, then I took Saint-Marcel and L’Hôpital and saw green among all that grey and remembered the lions. I was friend of the lions and panthers, but had never gone into the dark, humid building that was the aquarium. I left my bike against tbe gratings and went to look at the tulips. The lions were sad and ugly and my panther was asleep. I decided on the aquarium, looked obliquely at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I hit it off with the axolotls. I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else.
In the library at Sainte-Geneviève, I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma. That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank. I read that specimens of them had been found in Africa capable of living on dry land during the periods of drought, and continuing their life under water when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said ) like cod-liver oil.
I didn’t care to look up any of the specialized works, but the next day I went back to the Jardin des Plantes. I began to go every morning, morning and aftemoon some days. The aquarium guard smiled perplexedly taking my ticket. I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There’s nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together. It had been enough to detain me that first morning in front of the sheet of glass where some bubbles rose through the water. The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) floor of moss and stone in the tank. There were nine specimens, and the majority pressed their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at whoever came near them. Disconcerted, almost ashamed, I felt it a lewdness to be peering at these silent and immobile figures heaped at the bottom of the tank. Mentally I isolated one, situated on the right and somewhat apart from the others, to study it better. I saw a rosy little body, translucent (I thought of those Chinese figurines of milky glass), looking like a small lizard about six inches long, ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along the back ran a transparent fin which joined with the tail, but what obsessed me was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face. Inexpressive features, with no other trait save the eyes, two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking, letting themselves be penetrated by my look, which seemed to travel past the golden level and lose itself in a diaphanous interior mystery. A very slender black halo ringed the eye and etched it onto the pink flesh, onto the rosy stone of the head, vaguely triangular, but with curved and triangular sides which gave it a total likeness to a statuette corroded by time. The mouth was masked by the triangular plane of the face, its considerable size would be guessed only in profile; in front a delicate crevice barely slit the lifeless stone. On both sides of the head where the ears should have been, there grew three tiny sprigs, red as coral, a vegetal outgrowth, the gills, I suppose. And they were the only thing quick about it; every ten or fifteen seconds the sprigs pricked up stiffly and again subsided. Once in a while a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or our head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness. The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.
It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. I knew better later; the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours. Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. In the standing tanks on either side of them, different fishes showed me the simple stupidity of their handsome eyes so similar to our own. The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing. Glueing my face to the glass (the guard would cough fussily once in a while), I tried to see better those diminutive golden points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of these rosy creatures. It was useless to tap with one finger on the glass directly in front of their faces; they never gave the least reaction. The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy.
And nevertheless they were close. I knew it before this, before being an axolotl. I learned it the day I came near them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance that is traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies. Only the little hands . . . But an eft, the common newt, has such hands also, and we are not at all alike. I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals.
It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but larva means disguise and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?
I was afraid of them. I think that had it not been for feeling the proximity of other visitors and the guard, I would not have been bold enough to remain alone with them. “You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,” the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn’t notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. At any distance from the aquarium, I had only to think of them, it was as though I were being affected from a distance. It got to the point that I was going every day, and at night I thought of them immobile in the darkness, slowly putting a hand out which immediately encountered another. Perhaps their eyes could see in the dead of night, and for them the day continued indefinitely. The eyes of axolotls have no lids.
I know now that there was nothing strange, that that had to occur. Leaning over in front of the tank each morning, the recognition was greater. They were suffering, every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls. Not possible that such a terrible expression which was attaining the overthrow of that forced blankness on their stone faces should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing. Hopelessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls. They and I knew. So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizlng him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began—I learned in the same moment —of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.
He returned many times, but he comes less often now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left briskly. It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit. Since the only thing I do is think, I could think about him a lot. It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way—ah, only in a certain way—and of keeping awake his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.
Anna Di Mezza is an Australian artist featured in my previous post Double Take. Anna graduated from Billy Blue Design School and worked as an illustrator for Disney Studios before setting out as an independent artist.
I contacted Anna who very kindly agreed to be interviewed and forwarded me a photograph of her new painting The Elevator (see above). For further information and examples of her work please visit her website Anna Di Mezza and her representatives Saatchi Art .
AS) In your Saatchi artist bio you unassumingly state that your primary subject matter is realistic portraits and the odd landscape or two. Although you paint in the photo-realistic manner, the collage like compositions and the Alice-In-Wonderland variations in size and scale completely subvert the conventions of pictorial realism. So when you say that what you paint are realistic portraits are you having some mischievous fun or are they accurate portrayals of your subjective vision? AM) When I first started with Saatchiart my paintings were more in line with conservative renderings of people and landscapes. Later on, I started to evolve as an artist and experimented with conceptual work, which was around three years ago which brings me to where I am now.
AS) How do you select the found images that you incorporate into your paintings? AM) Most of the images I work with are found on the internet. If I am lucky, an image may come by easily, otherwise I have to work hard to look and forage through hundreds of old photos until I find the right one that would work best for my objectives. I try to look for images of anonymous people going on about their daily lives. I want to celebrate their anonymity and uproot the setting for them so they are involved in some sort of narrative that is the fine line between reality and dreams.
AS) A lot of your paintings have a limited mono-chromatic palette yet others have bold, vibrant Pop Art colours. What dictates your use of colour? AM) The photos I paint from are usually in black and white so that usually dictates the reason why I go for these monochromatic colours. I like the occasional use of colour as I enjoy colour too for added visual interest. I would like to experiment a lot more with colour in the near future.
AS).You mention Magritte and De Chirico as influences. Have other surrealists influenced you, if so, who? AM) I’m not sure they would class themselves as Surrealists, but definitely the contemporary painters Paco Pomet and Gottfried Helnwein.
AS) Is the Surrealist influence upon you confined to the works of the figurative, pictorial school or does the other aspects of Surrealism, the abstract, collage and film bear upon your paintings? AM) There is a lot of collage work by contemporary artists I have seen that I admire. They mostly make their art digitally. Some examples are Eugenia Loli and Sammy Slabbinck. Their works are to what I am doing except I paint the images. I admire a lot of left of centre films that have surreal aspects to them. Films from David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in particular.
AS) In your painting closeencountersmashpotato there is a glitch smear in the bar-code design. Was this deliberate or ‘objective chance’. AM) The glitch smear was an experiment in design rather than an accident. It started out as an aesthetic more than anything else. What was interesting about it was hearing people’s interpretations of the work. As the glitches reminded some people of bar-codes, the painting would be about mass consumerism or tuning a TV to the correct channel until one comes upon a random image.
AS) Does the Surrealist theory of objective chance play a part in your paintings? AM) Yes, most of my work is about juxtaposing people with unrelated backgrounds to create an element of surprise so the theory is prevalent in that way. According to the concept of objective chance, it involved the most powerful imagery which caused the greatest surprise. In order to create marvelous images, Surrealist poets juxtaposed two terms that appeared to conflict with each other but were secretly related. The power of the resulting imagery was directly proportional to their apparent dissimilarity.
AS )Your paintings present a retro vision of the future that never came to pass. Do you experience (as I do) a nostalgia for a time before you were alive? AM) I definitely feel nostalgic for a time that precedes my life. The music, the fashion, the culture, the industrial design from the mid-century to me are the ideal aesthetic therefore I am attracted to this era and keep returning to it for inspiration
AS) David Lynch is quoted as saying that the fifties where a time of tremendous optimism and energy, yet frequently his films show the dark underbelly hidden beneath the shiny surface. What is your view on the immediate past (and its vision of the future) that is frequently displayed in your paintings? AM) What he says is true. At the same time the 50’s were a time when women’s roles were diminished and women were being expected more and more to stay home and be housewives. African-Americans in the South, meanwhile, were living under conditions of segregation. There will always be negative and dark aspects whenever human nature is involved. The space age era would have been a tremendously exciting time to live in thinking about the possibilities of how far humans could go thanks to the power of technology. It is also the idea of the unknown that fascinates me.
AS) Your paintings frequently feature inaccessible and inhospitable landscapes: mountains, Polar Regions and the Moon. Is this conscious romantic symbolism? AM) Inhospitable, yes and even claustrophobic. These people all seem to be caught in a moment in time that they cannot escape and are forever trapped in. The paintings make them appear as if they were meant to be there due to their seeming lack of concern . I am trying to tap into dreamlike states of consciousness in using these places one could not survive in.
AS) Finally what is your favourite movie? AM) There are several films that are superlative. My favourite movie growing up was The time machine (the original 60’s one). I was completely blown away by that film with its fantastic possibilities of ideas of fast forwarding time and the vision of the Eloi future. Other films I love are Antonioni’s “Blow up”, Kubrick’s “Space Oddyssey”, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Rope”, Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr”, and more recently “Under the skin” by Jonathan Glazer.
The intriguing work of Australian artist Anna Di Mezza achieves a synthesis of disparate styles and techniques that requires a double take from the viewer. Collages of found images from vintage magazines are taken out of their original context and then rendered in a meretricious photo-realist manner using a largely mono-chromatic colour palette, with, as Anna notes ‘occasional pops of colour.’
Di Mezza stages strange tableau of suspended narratives. Gigantic women recline or roam across mountain ranges; people emerge from bar-codes; sets of well coiffured ladies gather around mysterious crystals or point excitedly to a lone astronaut while on the moon. Di Mezza’s paintings suggest stories that fascinate while ultimately eluding explanation.
Di Mezza cites influences as diverse as the Surrealists, especially Magritte and De Chirico, Pop Art, filmmakers David Lynch, Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and the classic fifties TV series The Twilight Zone. While her art clearly references her influences Di Mezza skilfully creates her own unique otherworldly vision.