How to Un­think

Geist - - Features - Jill Boettger

“White is not a colour,” my daugh­ter whis­pers. “It’s what’s there when colour isn’t.” Sylvie is three years old, and we’ve just walked into The Colour of My Dreams: The Sur­re­al­ist Rev­o­lu­tion in Art at the Van­cou­ver Art Gallery. De­spite the ex­hibit’s name, the room we’ve en­tered is al­most en­tirely white and we stand look­ing at a black ink draw­ing: a large tan­gle of thin, curl­ing lines. The word Au­toma­tism is printed on the wall be­side the draw­ing, and a small card fas­tened be­neath it ex­plains that we’re look­ing at an im­age of the mind drawn au­to­mat­i­cally. “Sur­re­al­ists be­lieved it was a higher form of be­hav­iour,” it reads, “a phys­i­cal act with no con­scious con­trol.”

Ben, my one-year-old son, looks at the im­age from his stroller and rhyth­mi­cally taps my shin with his small

boot, deep in the plea­sure of suck­ing his thumb. If only I could be so an­i­mal, so sen­sory, I might rec­og­nize what I’m see­ing. The ink mark­ings re­veal the sub­con­scious im­pulse of the mark maker, but I per­ceive them with my con­scious mind, try to make sense of some­thing that tran­scends sense it­self. It is a highly awk­ward ef­fort and I feel in­ept, stand­ing there on the thresh­old of con­scious­ness in a room both quiet and crowded with equally stu­dious adults. Then Sylvie tugs my arm. “I need to pee!” she says.

We find a bath­room, tucked be­hind a large pro­jec­tion screen sus­pended from the ceil­ing. A black and white sur­re­al­ist film is show­ing on the screen and loud, up­beat mu­sic plays. A se­ries of im­ages ap­pears: flow­ers, fin­ger­nails, swimming fish, ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes, danc­ing legs and painted eyes. Sylvie stops and watches the film, and then she be­gins to dance. Her arms move in a wave, she bends her knees and wig­gles her hips and her curly hair is wav­ing along with her.

In the ad­ja­cent room a col­lec­tion of col­lab­o­ra­tive work is dis­played. Les Corpses Exquis, it’s called—the name of a game sev­eral artists played to­gether. In the game, one per­son adds to an art ob­ject that is cre­ated by an­other artist but largely hid­den from view. There is a draw­ing of a leg joined to a tap joined to a baby joined to a map. An­other is sim­ply a se­quence of lines, re­sem­bling veins, drawn by many hands. With her dance, it’s as though Sylvie is join­ing the game, adding to the col­lec­tion of noises and ges­tures in the film. Her danc­ing am­pli­fies the move­ment and the mu­sic, and brings some­thing made ninety years ago into the room and into the present mo­ment com­pletely. When she fin­ishes, she lifts the cor­ner of the screen, mak­ing the pro­jected im­ages sway, am­pli­fy­ing the dis­or­der. The adults watch­ing the film frown. “We aren’t al­lowed to touch it,” I say, won­der­ing how the artists them­selves might have re­sponded.

Sur­re­al­ist artists re­jected ra­tio­nal thought as a su­pe­rior form of know­ing and set out to tran­scribe the mind freely, to write and draw and paint dreams, to show the un­con­scious. It sounds like a re­turn to the pre-ra­tio­nal ex­pe­ri­ences of the very young. Last night Sylvie awoke and sat up in bed, sweaty and scream­ing. Her eyes were open but she looked right through me, as though she oc­cu­pied an­other di­men­sion en­tirely. I called across the rift: “Sylvie, it’s not real,” I said. “You’re all right.” But she couldn’t hear me. She thrashed in the bed while I sat help­lessly be­side her, stroking her arm. Af­ter a few min­utes she shud­dered, lay back down, closed her eyes and re­laxed. In the morn­ing she was

cheer­ful and un­harmed. When she sat up in bed a halo of curls sprung from her head like stray thoughts care­lessly re­leased. She looked at me and asked, “Mommy, are my kneecaps go­ing to fall off? Are my shoul­ders go­ing to come apart?” “No,” I said, smooth­ing her chaotic curls as she climbed into my lap.

As we move through the rest of the ex­hibit, I at­tempt to con­tain the kids’ de­sire to touch ev­ery­thing: Sal­vador Dali’s Lob­ster Tele­phone and Joseph Cor­nell’s shadow boxes, which the artist de­scribed as “a clear­ing house for dreams and vi­sions. It is child­hood re­gained.” Cor­nell’s favourite au­di­ence was chil­dren. He felt they best un­der­stood his work, yet dis­played in a gallery, it is as if quar­an­tined. On our way to the exit Sylvie makes a bee­line for a large, brightly coloured paint­ing of free-float­ing arms and legs in a desert land­scape. She points to the paint­ing and yells, “Look! Those arms and legs are cut off that body. That’s funny!”

Of his se­ries of paint­ings en­ti­tled The Hu­man Con­di­tion, René Magritte wrote, “This is how we see the world, we see it out­side our­selves and yet the only rep­re­sen­ta­tion we have of it is in­side us.” In Sylvie’s dreams, her body fell apart. It’s not real, I said. But now we’ve found a paint­ing of dis­placed hu­man limbs and she is over­joyed.

In a few months she will wake from an­other fit­ful sleep and say, “I dreamed there were no fin­ger­nails on my fin­gers. It was a dis­as­ter to me. Tonight I’m go­ing to dream that I have brown straight hair and brown eyes and I’m grown up and I’ll go swimming in the ocean.” Some­thing will shift. She’ll wish her dream life could abide the rea­son of her wak­ing life. The sur­re­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion in art in­spired a re­turn to the un­know­ing of child­hood. And yet, as they grow, chil­dren try to make sense of the world around them. They want to know.

When I walk into an art gallery I ex­pe­ri­ence the same awe and un­ease I feel when I walk into a church. The gallery feels like a place of rev­er­ence, wor­ship and so­bri­ety. But un­like the church, art gal­leries aren’t par­tic­i­pa­tory—some­thing tran­scen­dent has al­ready hap­pened, and we en­ter as spec­ta­tors, af­ter the fact. Some­times the ob­jects we ob­serve move us. Some­times their strange­ness makes us ques­tion our own as­sump­tions. And some­times they seem noth­ing more than the pos­tur­ing of some­one search­ing for mean­ing, ask­ing our pa­tience.

In­side the Wal­ter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Cen­tre, my kids and I watch In­no­va­tion Port­hole, a two-minute film that plays in a con­tin­u­ous loop as part of an ex­hibit ti­tled Things You Can’t Un­think. We watch a woman sit­ting on an of­fice chair, hold­ing a power drill fas­tened with a hole saw. “What is that thing?” Ben asks. “I have no idea,” Sylvie says. They are six and eight: young enough to suc­cumb to de­light, but old enough to rea­son. We watch the woman in the film drill into a cu­bi­cle di­vider, cre­at­ing a hole large enough to reach her hand through and ex­tract a cheese Dan­ish from the other side. “She’s gonna get saw­dust in it! She’s gonna eat saw­dust!” Ben says, laugh­ing. “Ben, stop, we have to be se­ri­ous,” Sylvie says.

I open the book­let in my hand to “Some Thoughts on Un­think­ing,” an in­tro­duc­tion by the cu­ra­tor. “The very na­ture of un­think­ing is to stop a thought in its tracks—to put some­thing out of mind . . . to con­sider an ob­ject anew,” I read. “A thing you can’t un­think . . . is a whole­sale re-or­ga­ni­za­tion of our pre-ex­ist­ing knowl­edge.”

Now the woman in the film drills a hole in the back of a black hel­met. She puts the hel­met on, pulls her pony­tail through the new hole and rides the wheeled of­fice chair down a ply­wood ramp. “I think it’s weird,” Ben says. “Why is she us­ing a chair and not a bike?” “Be­cause she’s be­ing silly,” Sylvie says. “The first time we watched it, it didn’t make sense. But the eighth time I un­der­stood why she spun around the py­lons. It’s like how dreams can change. One thing be­comes an­other thing.”

The kids break through the pre­tense that we’re there as wit­nesses only, and re­lieve me of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ex­hibit en­tirely in my head. Their wor­ship is rau­cous and in­quis­i­tive, im­me­di­ate, im­pa­tient and com­plete. Be­ing in the world in their com­pany gives me ac­cess to some­thing be­yond my­self—a tran­scen­dence both re­li­gion and art of­fer.

Af­ter watch­ing In­no­va­tion Port­hole for the twelfth time, Ben gets up from the gallery floor, stretches and runs into the next room. “No run­ning in the gallery,” I call. He stops and looks at me, dis­mayed. “I thought this was a place of silli­ness!” he says. In this room a 16' x 20' grid of mir­rored tiles is fas­tened to the floor. In the cen­tre of the grid there is a sculpted papier-mâché semi-sphere wrapped in gold spray­painted alu­minum foil. Rows and rows of light bulbs are fas­tened to the sphere and il­lu­mi­nated. What is this? “The sun!” Ben ex­claims. Brass or­na­ments, glass domes and criss-crossed arch­ways made of wire or plas­ter are also in­stalled through­out the grid. In the cen­tre of each there is a small semi-sphere, of a dif­fer­ent size, colour and ma­te­rial than the oth­ers. Sylvie says, “They look like plan­ets or cages. Be­cause there’s a mir­ror on the ground, they look whole.”

I look at the in­stal­la­tion for what feels like a long time. Sylvie’s right: the re­flec­tion of the halved ob­jects— some crafted, some found, some re­pur­posed—cre­ates the ap­pear­ance of whole bod­ies sus­pended in space, sur­round­ing the sun. And yet, I know that the whole­ness is an il­lu­sion. Ben takes my hand, and to­gether we ob­serve the small cos­mos. “This would be a great place to pray to the Gods,” he says.

Jill Boettger writes sto­ries and po­ems in Cal­gary, where she lives with her fam­ily. She teaches writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at Mount Royal Univer­sity. Read more of her work at

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