In 1924 Andre Breton, the "father" of Surrealism, defined the new movement as something "[d]ictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason [and] exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern."
For the Surrealists, truth was not the thing that was in front of us but was hidden and buried from view. It was masked by culture itself. Influenced by Freud's theories, the Surrealists saw reality as something that manifested itself in the unconscious mind. The real world could be seen in dreams, slips in speech, or moments of reverie.
But how could a person represent this other version of reality with techniques that had been corrupted by a myopic approach? The answer came from writing techniques that attempted to bypass the conscious world through the use of automatism and something called the "exquisite corpse."
A variation and updated version of the latter is the focus of a current exhibition at MCC's Mercer Gallery.
Once upon a time, there existed a game without a board and without a screen, an old parlor game called Consequences. To play, each person had to think of a word to answer a series of questions. Each person would write down their word, then fold the paper over and hand it to the next person who in turn would write their word and so on. In the end a narrative was unveiled. (Often this would include some kissing.)
The Surrealists used this format to subvert logic. They expanded the process to incorporate anything that popped into one's head while still using a predetermined sentence structure. Rumor has it that the first sentence to be thus produced by a group of Surrealists was, "The exquisite corpse drinks the new wine."
What awaits us on the Mercer Gallery walls is the latest manifestation of this technique --- in drawings.
As per the stated "rules" of production, both of the Surrealists and of the Mercer exhibition, it takes three to make a group to make a drawing. One draws the "head" and then folds the paper to conceal the drawing, the second draws the midsection, and the last draws the lower extremities. In the end, we have a fantastic image that is the serendipitous result of the collaboration and one that is only limited by the imagination of the individuals involved.
Of course, the work on view is not done by the Surrealists but instead began as a mail art exhibition. No one is or was turned away. Hundreds of works fill a grid-like presentation. Depictions of human, animal, cybernetic hybrids abound. These pictures of participation are an incredible convergence of "corpses" that often amuse and at times stretch the imagination.
Often the imagination is limited to the confines of the assignment --- a Surrealist and therefore fantastic image. If there is something to criticize in this exhibit it is the lack of some kind of banality. We never in the end see that human or animal form constructed, even serendipitously, as a natural or everyday form. But what we get to see is work on all sorts of technical levels: a democratic vision.
In a nod to the Surrealists' desire to tap into a personal and collective unconscious, the Mercer Gallery has produced both art and a game at the same time. Now that's a schizophrenic moment that Breton would be proud of.
You should go if you want to see the collective unconscious at work.
Mail Art Exhibition: Exquisite Corpse through December 23 | Mercer Gallery, MonroeCommunity College, 1000 East Henrietta Road | Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 292-2021, www.monroecc.edu/go/mercer