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Book Review: Surrealism at Play

Susan Laxton, Surrealism at Play (Maryland: Duke University Press, 2019)

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Surrealism’s position in the world of the historic avant-garde continues to provide rich and fruitful discourse. Susan Laxton’s Surrealism At Play is a study of the surrealist movement that puts Walter Benjamin’s notion of Spielraum, ‘free-play’, at the forefront of its aesthetic theory. This prioritisation of the philosophical significance of play offers new insight into some of the movement’s most widely-explored and sometimes tense affiliations; for example, surrealism’s intersections with such concepts as communism, psychoanalysis and historical consideration.  

Laxton acknowledges the Dadaist origins of surrealism. Beginning with an exploration of the playful chaos of Dada, she examines the relationship between Spielraum, chance and coincidence, concepts that later become central to Surrealism. In order to investigate the way that coincidence manifests aesthetically, Claxton examines Man Ray’s Rayographs; a Dadaist photogramic practice that places a collection of objects on photographic paper and exposes it to light, resulting in a collage-like image of the often abstract shadows the chosen objects cast. This reflects the Dadaist ambition to marry the objective aesthetic quality of photography with the more abstruse character of the avant-garde through the expansive contingency of the coincidence. Laxton describes Rayographs as ‘ludic readymades’, joyously void of purpose or utility: ‘deeply unproductive’ and ‘meaningless’ (p. 66). Within this style of play, there is a resistance to productivity in a functionalist society. 

Expanding the theoretic approach of the Rayographs, Laxton turns to Breton’s photographic tastes as expressed in La Révolution Surréaliste. She describes this period of transition from Dada to surrealism as the ‘époque floue’ (blurred era) between depictions of play and chance. Laxton highlights the tension between the artistic assimilation of play and coincidence, and simultaneously the psychoanalytic position of chance as ineffectual in understanding human, behaviour, that what may appear accidental or purposeless is in fact only ever the unconscious manifest. Analysing Breton’s publication of Eùgene Atget’s photographic study of deserted Parisian streets and crowded shop windows, Laxton identifies early examples of the surrealist fascination with object collection. She posits that this eclectic arrangement of objects as diametrically opposed to notions of practicality and utility, existing within the surrealist room-for-play, theorised by Benjamin. 

It is appropriate that the focus of this first half of Surrealism At Play should be on the Dadaist Rayographs and surrealist photography, as practices of this kind require a significant level of interaction with the world of the artist. The Rayographs, Atgets and the surrealist object-collection share a required engagement of the artist with the objective world; contact with and movement within the immediate space. In contrast to more traditional forms of spatial or plastic arts, Laxton’s examples contain a primacy of activity. In the more conventional creation of a painting, drawing or piece of literature, interaction with the world takes place in the more subjective and internal realm of experience and the material engagement of the artist does not necessarily extend beyond the medium of the artwork itself. In contrast, Laxton emphasises the discursive and public nature of the Dada rayographs and surrealist photography. Thus Laxton presents a fitting introduction to the notion of play in surrealism, providing a compelling reading of surrealism as first and foremost an activity, with an emphasis on interaction and collectivity. It is in this way that Laxton immediately and effectively renders surrealism and play as natural allies. 

The second half of Surrealism at Play shifts to more private examples of the artistic surrealist ludic. Turning our attention to more illustrious surrealist activities such as automatism and the exquisite corpse, Laxton continues to expose the collaborative and playful nature of surrealism, even within the more intrinsically isolated and individual artistic practices. Automatism, most often referring to a literary method, requires the artist to perform an undiscerning outpour of creativity: it is language at play. This stream of consciousness encourages a disassociation of the artistic product from structures and order of the artists’ conscious thought, thus liberating language from the totalitarianism of dictionary-assigned definition. This expansion of meaning and rejection of established aesthetic and linguistic tropes is significant because it displays a purposelessness and lack of artistic intent.  It could be easily argued that art, even in its pursuit of purposelessness, finds itself generating productive meaning. Laxton combats this contradiction by acknowledging that the Freudian concept of automatism is not theorised as a potential exclusive to the artist, but a possibility latent within all people. Laxton provides a two-fold denial of productivity: it rejects the work as communicative or intentionally curated, allowing for it to exist, untethered in the world of play. 

Perhaps the strongest example of play in surrealist art is the exquisite corpse: the surrealist drawing game that most play as children where a sheet of paper is folded into sections, each to be drawn on by a separate person who has no knowledge of the context in which their contribution fits. Laxton provides many rousing examples of the surrealist images that arose from this collaborative activity. She references Benjamin’s suggestion of the ‘amnesia’ of games, where ‘play had no memory’, that, in a game, the beginning of a new round has no concept of the preceding world outside of it (p. 167). This is indicative of the complex relationship that surrealism and the avant-garde has with its own cultural past, often attempting to dissociate itself from historical context. 

These select moments of Laxton’s book reveal what Surrealism At Play most significantly and successfully emphasises: surrealism as social and political activity. Expanding upon studies that focus on the aesthetic outcome of surrealism, Laxton positions play at the centre of the surrealist project offers a fresh perspective on how and why the movement has become recognised as a resistance to a predominantly functionalist society, dominated by the priority of capitalist productivity. Laxton’s concept of surrealist play serves to accentuate and oppose the industrial occupation of modernity, providing fresh insight into the complex practice of the continental surrealists.

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