How to Unthink
“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 geist.com.