Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reflections: Man Ray

This week’s ending with a big day for my silent-movie-fan-self. I’ll be attending the only screening of ‘Films by Man Ray,’ a retrospective of the surrealist photographer’s forays into silent film. I’ve seen Man Ray’s artwork (some during my recent trip to Chicago), but always still photos. Now, here’s my chance to see his films. If you’re in Toronto, check it out here.

I expect these movies to be ‘weird,’ in the generic sense of the term (if the term ‘weird’ can be generic). The photographer’s still work is provocative and occasionally puzzling, and can be a mix of media and messages. You look at it, and then you narrow your eyes and pull your head back toward your shoulders to take it in; then you lean forward for a closer look and breathe on it. That’s how I assess his stuff, anyway. And mostly, I still don’t get it.

Maybe you take from it what you put in? Surrealist art succeeds in part because it puts you off-kilter while witnessing it—removed from normalcy and its assumptions, you can only orient yourself by what you remember. Which, in a surrealist environment, must boil down to what you already believe.

Surrealists, Wikipedia reminds me, employ ‘the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur.’ Presented with a mixture (or succession) of logically unrelated images or objects, I suppose you can rely only on your thought processes to find a theme and thus, navigate.

In the face of the Weird, we fall into sharp relief—we define ourselves in terms of what we have believed and what we’re prepared to believe, going forward. This does appear to be part of what the Surrealists had in mind, as per André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto:

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Mind you, no matter how intentionally surreal a film made in the 1920s might have been, it was, in one respect, status quo. That is, it was silent, like every other film of the time. For us, the children of the sound era, these films are even farther removed, and require even more of ourselves to decipher.

When I head to this show on Friday, I’ll be considering the films not only as surrealist works themselves, but as art made more dissonant by the technology used to create them. For as long as sound films outnumber silents, no silent film will allow you to forget its age. And if that makes me conscious of being alive today, as opposed to just being alive at all, then these films will have caused me to contemplate my own place (or maybe time) in the universe. Can’t wait.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
Marcel Duchamp, 1912

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