Review: ‘What We Call Love-From Surrealism to Now’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

20 Dec

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by Rhea H. Boyden

As I wandered into the galleries of the Irish Museum of Modern Art that contained photographs by renowned German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans I was reminded of the several times I have seen his wonderful work at various galleries and exhibits in Berlin. I can scarcely visit any gallery or museum outside of Berlin that doesn’t have some reference to Berlin, bringing up memories of my 15 years spent in that wild city. I have now been in Dublin for 15 months and, after settling into a job, I am now, finally in the past months beginning to really discover the culture and art of Dublin.

One institution that I am in love with is The Irish Museum of Modern Art. The IMMA, as it is known, is currently holding a large scale group exhibition entitled ‘What We Call Love- from Surrealism to Now’ and I have been to the fabulous exhibit twice so far. Proposed initially by Christine Macel, head curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the exhibit is co-curated by Macel and Rachael Thomas, senior curator and head of exhibitions at the IMMA. The exhibit contains work by a host of international artists including Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn and many more.

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IMMA Brochure showing a photo of Karl, by Wolfgang Tillmans

On my second visit to this exhibit which has engrossed me the past few weeks, I bought the lovely exhibit guide and I read it from cover to cover. I have wanted to sit down and write a review but I have not been able to until now because well, where do you start which such a large and broad topic such as love? I find it very difficult to keep my feelings, emotions and anecdotes from my own love life out of my review. I have no choice but to bring my experience into it. I gain confidence in myself when I look again at Wolfgang Tillman’s wonderful and intimate photos of his subject, a man, Karl and I read in the brochure what is written about the photos: ‘One of the harbingers of a realistic approach to his subject is that the photos lack pretension or conceit, instead depicting moments of vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity’.

Vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity. I think about the weight these words hold. I felt very vulnerable as I wandered through the exhibit. I felt a whole range of emotions. My emotions as I explore the different artists’ work are most definitely intense as I relate their statements to my own love life, or current lack thereof. I am a 40 year old single and childless woman. Despite the fact that more and more people are choosing to live alone, I am someone who a certain sector of our society still eyes with a mix of sympathy and suspicion.

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‘Daphne and Apoll’-1943 by Meret Oppenheim – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

When I mentioned to a colleague last week that I was reading a lot about the exhibit and would definitely be bringing anecdotes from my love life into my review he teased me and said ‘You will have twenty blank pages then?’ I laughed. I hope he realises that I was not in the least insulted by his joke about my current lack of love life. As a writer, twenty blank pages signifies hope and possibility. It is exciting and there are many possibilities for ideas and interpretation. I am reminded of what Alicia Knock writes in the exhibit brochure about Surrealist painter Meret Oppenheim’s painting ‘Daphne and Apoll’ (1943) which is on show: ‘Meret Oppenheim’s works escape categorical definitions in favour of open-ended readings. A man, a woman, an androgynous person or the artist herself, the viewer understands that art should be endlessly admired, interpreted and desired, just like love.’ Indeed, there is so much to write about love that the twenty pages would be quickly filled. My real challenge lies in narrowing my focus and writing an essay that readers will read to the end.

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‘The Kiss’ 1931 by Pablo Picasso – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

Among the first works one sees upon entering the exhibit is a painting ‘The Kiss’ (1931) by Pablo Picasso and a sculpture ‘The Kiss’ (1923) by Constantin Brancusi. Picasso’s work of this time became filled with pathos as his own love life was an emotional shambles. His depiction of kisses appear painful and he describes love as ‘a nettle that we must mow down at every instant if we want to have a snooze in its shadow.’ I think about the concept of a painful kiss. If a kiss is not good, I will likely end a relationship pretty promptly. No pain, move on. It wasn’t love and there was no chemistry. In my experience it is only the memory of a good kiss that causes pain when you think about it over and over and how you can no longer have that desired kiss. The pain is in the loss and the projection of the sexual fantasy onto the person who bestowed the kiss initially. In his installation in the exhibit ‘Piece Mandala/End War’ (1966) American artist Paul Sharits explores the double meaning of projection. He projects a film of a couple making love onto a wall of the gallery. There are strobe lights and flickering images. High speed splicing of the images leaves an after image on your retina making it even harder to forget. Sharits shows us that film is a good medium to create infinite loops. The full comprehension of his work makes me both embarrassed and sad. The ‘infinite loops’ and the ‘projection’ are a metaphor for the psychological projection of sexual fantasy and obsession, I know only too well what it feels like to have the pleasurable memory of my last lover on infinite loops in my head. The act the lovers are carrying out in the film is also pretty much identical to the one of my own fantasy (a fantasy which is a real memory of a real event, but now rendered a fantasy nonetheless). Do I find any solace in this installation? A little, I guess. My obsession and suffering is pretty much universal. I am not alone in it. I still have very vivid and intense memories of my last lover who I still miss, there is no denying it and this exhibit is undoing any progress I have made in moving on.

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‘The Couple’ 2003 by Louise Bourgeois

Another artist whose work is featured is that of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. She has several works on show all entitled ‘The Couple’ (2003). And although I am still nursing the pain of a lost love I feel empathy for Bourgeois as it seemed she suffered a whole lot more in love. She claims to have been incapable of seducing or gaining another’s affection, which is of course, a sorry state of affairs. And yet, love and obsession play a role in her work. One piece by her that particularly struck me was an embracing couple made of fabric and stainless steel underneath a glass covering. The obvious interpretation would be the idea of a couple isolating themselves from the world and finding their love to be all-fullfilling and all-consuming. I was reminded, however, of Anais Nin’s short story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ and Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’. Plath’s bell jar is used to describe her isolation from enjoyment of life’s pleasures and a way of describing the incapacitating depression she suffered: ‘If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe or a round-the-world cruise’, writes Plath, ‘It wouldn’t have made one scrap of a difference to me, because wherever I sat, on the deck of ship, or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ I may get a little sad with the pain of loss and have a hard time letting go, but I certainly never suffer the kind of depression and despondency that Plath describes in her story and for that I am grateful.

Anais Nin, in her story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ describes how one with an opulent lifestyle and riches in a big house can be then trapped in a marriage that is a farce with no escape. A glass bell covers the whole house: ‘Every day the silence, the peace, the softness, carved with greater delicacy the glass chandeliers, the furniture, the statuettes and laces… under the giant glass bell the colours looked inaccessible….’ This one piece by Louise Bourgeois says it all to me: how love can be isolating and depresssing and how the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love.

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‘I’ll Love You Forever’ 1994 by Damien Hirst – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

‘How the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love’ is what I thought of English artist Damien Hirst’s piece for the exhibit entitled ‘I’ll Love you Forever'(1994). Hirst is one of Britain’s wealthiest and highest paid artists and ‘I’ll Love you Forever’ is a blue painted steel cage filled with medical waste containers and a gas mask. It was only the second time I went back to the museum did I notice the padlock on the cage. So, there really is no escape from this suffocating love. According to the exhibit brochure Hirst’s cage filled with explosives ‘condemns romantic passion to its inevitable implosion over time.’ This is a fine interpretation but I find the cage with golden bars to be a more suitable analogy. The cage with golden bars keeping one trapped in a relationship that grows ever more toxic. I have my own experience with this too. I was in a relationship with a wealthy man for a few years and he was happy to pay for everything which in hindsight, I realise, was his way of compensating for the lack of passion in the relationship. Fortunately the cage I found myself in did not have a padlock and I escaped from that situation. I may be a little lonely at times but at least I am free.

Or am I free? Part of what this fascinating exhibit explores is that, in fact, we are not free at all when it comes to love. We desire the freedom to love who we want and we cherish sexual freedom, but as soon as we are in love or infatuated with someone, we are anything but free. If it is a love that is unrequited it is torture. If we are still pining over a lost love we are also imprisoned. One of the most disturbing installations of the exhibit is ‘High Moon’ by German artist and film maker Rebecca Horn. It consists of two Winchester guns hanging from the ceiling and rotating both away and towards each other, two funnels filled with fake blood and a steel gutter on the floor below. On the wall there is a poem. All I can say is that the lovers who were in this scenario are finally free from all the harrowing pain that accompanies love, because they are now dead. Death is ultimately the only way to relieve ourselves of all our earthly confusion over love, as much as we like to live in denial of this and balm ourselves in fantasy. The poem by Rebecca Horn accompanying this piece reads:

High Moon

From the deepest part of the ocean

And the brightest light of the sun

Collected in a pair of identical moon funnels

The full-blown energy of two distinct creatures

Dancing about in abandon

Suddenly face to face with each other

Generating up to their maximum voltage

To meet for a second of equal eternity

Opening their pores and unleashing their bloodstreams

Accelerating each other to the point of near-bursting

Screaming like moon dogs in lost icy nights

When the arrow of Venus taps lightly the funnel

Unleashing the tandem explosion of energies

Transforming the creatures into illuminated fusion

Not missing a drop of each other’s volcanic residue

Flowingly forming a river of passion

Burrowing its way back to the limitless ocean

Bathed in the moon

(Rebecca Horn, New York, 1991)

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‘High Moon’ 1991 by Rebecca Horn – photo by Claudia Benedettelli

One especially fascinating part of the exhibit is an interview with British neurobiologist Semir Zeki about recent discoveries that have been made in the neuroscience of love. Accompanying this interview is an art installation by Berlin based Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw who has also worked with Zeki in Berlin probing the neuroscience of love. We are now beginning to understand more clearly what areas of the brain are activated and deactivated during romantic attachment and sexual arousal. Shaw’s work uses images of specific people’s brains as they experience romantic love, maternal love as well as the effect of various recreational drugs in a bid to prove that the same areas of the brain are activated in all instances. Most of us know the feeling of dopamine being pumped into our bloodstream while having good sex and Zeki’s work shows that serotonin levels in people freshly in love are at the same levels that are in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Surrealists ‘Amour Fou’ or crazy love for which they lived in their creative lives, is now all beginning to be understood more from a neuroscientific standpoint. I personally find all of this knowledge very comforting. I like knowing the reason why I pine and obsess. It is interesting to understand it on a deeper level. In the interview Zeki says: ‘The prefrontal cortex, the parieto-temporal junction and the temporal poles constitute a network of areas invariably active with ‘mentalizing’ or ‘theory of mind’, that is the ability to determine other people’s emotions and intentions. It is also a truism to say that most people develop a preference for the kind of person they want to love, and hence a concept of their potential lover(s); their likelihood of falling in love with that kind of person is much greater.’

So when we say we have a dream partner there is a neuroscientic explanation for this. And when we fall in love and can’t stop thinking about the person and we experience feelings of well-being as well as a subsidence of fear, it is the deactivation of the amygdala that we can thank.

It is psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who sums it up most eloquently when he writes the following in his book ‘Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life’: ‘All love stories are frustration stories… To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing- nothing comes of nothing- but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognise them with such certainty, because you already, in a sense know them, and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them forever and yet at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familar, foreign bodies.’

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Brain image scans by Jeremy Shaw

Therein lies the reason I pine. I experienced exactly what Phillips describes with the man I still miss and there have been times when I truly think I would have been better off never meeting him at all, rather than have him remind me of a frustration I didn’t know I had. He knows how I feel, and yet, there is little he can do to comfort me as he lives far, far away in another country. I still dream of being reunited with him someday, but I am reminded that that could end in disappointment and disenchantment too in the essay in the IMMA brochure that has intrigued me by sociologist Eva Illouz entitled ‘Against Desire’. She says that when our deepest desires are fulfilled we are then left unfillfilled and she uses a couple wonderful Greek myths to illustrate this. One myth is that of Midas and how everything he touches turns to gold, including his food and his daughter whom he tries to hug. Midas’ deepest desire quickly becomes a misery. ‘One could live in a gold palace’ writes Illouz, ‘but it is the ordinary gestures like hugging and eating that turn out to be the only ones that matter, and these ordinary gestures become unattainable precisely because they evade the logic of desire.’ The second myth is that of Tantalus who is punished for killing his son by being put in a garden near fruit and near a river with water but he can never reach either and so is tortured by the object of his desire being continually out of his reach. ‘Desire’, says Illouz, ‘is an insoluble contradiction. Unfullfilled, it makes us miserable, fulfilled it blocks access to what is essential but not determined by desire in our lives.’

I have had a hard time writing this review about love, considering the current status of my own love life which is the pathetic state of continuing to pine over a love that is lost and continuing to feed the fantasy of that lost love. But I am still full of hope that I will fall in love again at some unexpected point. I will meet another dream man, and I will celebrate the chance encounter in the same way the Surrealist artists and writers celebrated these coincidences of crazy love. And I will write more and be inspired and find a new muse. As Georges Sebbag points out in his video installation in the exhibit: ‘For the Surrealist, art, love and freedom took central stage. Ultimately, poetic expression was inconceivable for them independently of love.’ I would suppose this love has to be real or imagined, because some form of fantastical love or imagined muse has inspired me to write this essay even though I am experiencing a prolonged period of singlehood. The exhibit at the IMMA is immense and I have barely scratched the surface of this topic, but that will have to be dealt with in a second essay. Love is, after all, a vast topic with infinite interpretations and variations.

‘What We Call Love – From Surrealism to Now’ runs at the IMMA until February 7th 2016.

Feature image by Claudia Benedettelli

5 Responses to “Review: ‘What We Call Love-From Surrealism to Now’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art”

  1. Norah Byrne February 2, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for this review. I went today with my son who is nursing a bruised heart after almost a year after the relationship ended. He is nearly 25 now and a beautiful soul. I think the exhibition normalised what is so common to the human experience and yet so hard to express. Your review really enlightened me but you also hunamised it with your honesty. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours. Norah

    • rheahboyden February 2, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

      Thank you so much for your lovely message Norah. I wish you and your son the very best. Regards, Rhea

  2. Edward J. Steeden May 15, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    The eternally ineluctable heavenhell that goes by the fateful name of love has had many precious words visited upon it by the passionate and sensitive observer they most clearly show you to be, Rhea. Edward

  3. Pamela Willis-Watters September 4, 2016 at 9:47 pm #

    I felt and related to every word. What a remarkable writer you are, Rheah. A painter with words. Thank you.

    • rheahboyden September 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words Pamela. You are a brilliant painter. I so love your work. 🙂

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