‘Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille’, Hayward Gallery, London, 11 May–30 July 2006


War Machine‘Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the Vision of Georges Bataille’, Hayward Gallery, London, 11 May–30 July 2006

Undercover Surrealism is misleadingly titled. It is actually dedicated to the journal Documents, which published fifteen issues between 1929 and 1931 under the de facto editorship of Georges Bataille. For Batailleʼs friend Michel Leiris Documents was a ʻwar machine against received ideasʼ, and this hostility extended to the ʻreceivedʼ avant-garde of surrealism. Against what Bataille saw as the surrealistsʼ surreptitious and servile idealism, he used the journal to articulate his own anti-theory of base materialism: a materialism of all that was disgusting, repulsive and allergic to reason. To describe this as surrealism (ʻundercoverʼ or otherwise) seems to be stretching matters, as does the placing of Picasso, Miró and Masson in the exhibitionʼs title. There is no doubt that Batailleʼs thinking developed in close proximity to surrealism and that, post-1945, he came express more sympathy with it. However, in this journal, his aim was to pull surrealism down into the dirt.

Bataille still lacks the popularity – the ʻbrand recognitionʼ – of mainstream surrealism, and remains a minor figure. But the minor writer, lacking the means of the major discourse, takes up what they have as a weapon. In Batailleʼs case, Documents became that weapon. The journal itself involved a highly unstable combination of traditional scholars, dissident surrealists, and ethnographers. Its subtitle – ʻDoctrines (changed from issue 4 to ʻVarietyʼ), Archaeology, Fine Arts, Ethnographyʼ – indicates, and tries to bridge, the evident tensions. Batailleʼs role, unsurprisingly, was a provocative one, shifting the journal towards his own concerns – or, as some would regard them, obsessions. The journal used a practice of radical juxtaposition, between image and text, and between different texts and different images within each issue.

The intention of this exhibition is to re-create something of that experience and the questioning it provokes – particularly as articulated around the nature of resemblance. It provides a kind of simulation of Documents, realizing what existed in the pages of a magazine in the physical space of the gallery. To do so it uses what is now high modernist art, ethnographic objects, popular culture, music, cinema and photographs, as featured in the journal and arranged in terms of key ideas and strategies (such as ʻCrimeʼ, ʻSacrificeʼ, ʻCinemaʼ).

Why Bataille now? One obvious reason, identified in the catalogue, is the influence of the recent work of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois on Batailleʼs concept of lʼinforme (formless), and of the exhibition lʼInforme: Mode dʼemploi held at the Centre Pompidou in 1997. This concept, or, better, anti-concept, was developed by Bataille in Documents as part of the ʻCritical Dictionaryʼ project. In its adoption by Krauss and Bois, ʻformlessʼ operates as a means of locating Batailleʼs solvent effect on the category of form, and of opening a new understanding of contemporary artistic practices that work at its limits. Simon Baker takes up this proposal in the catalogue as the means to articulate the disruptive arrangement of objects, texts and images that make up this exhibition, which, he argues, undo resemblance.

Does the exhibition reproduce these ʻglitchesʼ (Bakerʼs word) in representation? At times yes, but more often no. So, in placing in sequence Boiffardʼs photograph of a big toe, Dalíʼs ʻFemale Bathersʼ (1928), and then an anonymous anamorphotic painting of ʻSaint Antony of Padua and the Infant Jesusʼ, we are brought up short by the ʻplayʼ of resemblances. Appropriately, considering Batailleʼs own antagonistic relationship to Catholicism, this arrangement has a blasphemous effect, although rather attenuated for a non-believer. This effect of the glitch or disruption of representation is not sustained throughout, and it is difficult to feel the force of the subversive nature of Batailleʼs vision in relation to surrealism. One reason for this is doubtless our familiarity with the kind of avant-garde ʻmovesʼ being made here. However, as Adrian Searle noted in his review in the Guardian (11 May 2006), Elie Lotarʼs photographs of the abattoir at La Villette are the exception. Of these black-and-white photographs I would single out the image of the spilled guts of an animal, which form an eerily abstract ʻsculptureʼ on the slaughterhouse floor. Another reason for the lack of affect might be a conceptual problem with the organization of the objects and images displayed. The wall text that opens the exhibition suggests that ʻDocuments placed everything on a level playing-fieldʼ. This suggests a rather conventional postmodern strategy, and risks obscuring the original intent of the journal. Batailleʼs strategy was not one of equalization; what mattered for him was the effect of shock or rupture brought about by bringing the high and low into contact. This is a delicate, even dialectical, strategy that involves retaining the categories of high and low in order to reverse and destabilize them. It also bears close comparison with what Derrida called the general strategy of deconstruction: the reversal of a hierarchical binary and its reinscription through an unstable term. For Bataille this term was ʻbase materialismʼ, which overturned idealism at the same time as refusing the supposed inertness of ʻmatterʼ. In fact Bataille saw this base or raw materialism as being in close dialogue with Freudʼs psychoanalysis, freed of its attachments to structure, order and normalization. The difficulty for this strategy, and for the exhibition, is retaining this sense of rupture and shock in relation to what seems to be a levelling of value. Perhaps the curatorial sobriety of this exhibition (under the direction of Dawn Ades, Fiona Bradley and Simon Baker) is actually closer in spirit to Batailleʼs careful, although also anguished, probing of this evasive and ambivalent ʻbase matterʼ.

The exhibitionʼs refusal to draw direct links between Bataille, Documents and contemporary art shows understandable, and admirable, reticence. This leaves the question, raised by Dawn Ades and Fiona Bradley: what is the ʻactive forceʼ of Documents? It would not be difficult to detect the influence, even the dominance, of the strategies of Documents in recent art: the artist as cultural anthropologist, the conceptual tension between text and image, the abject, the transgressive, and so on. But this dominance leads to a sense of enervation rather than force. The effect may partly be the result of the exhibition space itself, with little energy being generated by the contrast between the modernist brutalism of the South Bank and the ʻdirtyʼ modernism of Documents. Instead I would suggest that the ʻwar machineʼ of Documents finds its active force in work like that of the Manchester-based publishers Savoy. Influenced by Bataille, and defiantly at the margins of cultural production, the writers and artists of Savoy work over the effect of base materialism through their own bringing of high and low culture into a space where they clash. Much of their work is in the comic book form, which remains, especially in the UK, the ʻlow Otherʼ of cultural production.Documents operated with all the elements that were heterogeneous to accepted culture, but brought them firmly within the institution of the art journal. Similarly, practitioners like Savoy use the elements that remain heterogeneous in British culture: anti-Semitism, high modernist experimentation, fantasy literature, the occluded subversive effect of early rockʼnʼroll, and so on. In both cases an effect of anxiety is produced, which might well be the mark of an ʻactive forceʼ, through the interaction of text and image. One of the many questions raised by this exhibition is what type of ʻobjectsʼ cause this effect of anxiety? This raises the problem of what Bataille would have called the ʻuse-valueʼ of the strategies of Documents, and their repetition in this exhibition context. We should remember that for Bataille the proletariat was also constituted as base matter, appearing to the bourgeois gaze as ʻhairy sexual organsʼ. Considering the affect of anxiety that continues to surround the proletariat, especially in their ʻlumpenʼ forms, the cultural politics of Documents might still offer a site where the valence of such images and anxieties can be opened to new reversals and displacements – rather than serving the phobic discourses of cultural power.

Benjamin noys