Exquisite Corpse

Irish artists update the surrealists' favourite game at the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Joanne Savage takes a walk on the weird side

Celebrating the unconscious mind, dreamscapes, absurd juxtapositions and the often-anarchic hilarity of the non sequitur,  the Surrealist movement flourished in Paris in the 1920s. Andre Breton, one of surrealism's founding fathers, described the movement as an attempt to get beyond the controls of reason. Dreams and the disinterested play of thought were considered superior. 

Thus surrealism gave us Salvador Dali’s lobster telephone and Rene Magritte’s pipe, painted above the assertion 'This is not a pipe'. It was about letting the vagaries of the imagination take over, casting off the constraints of everyday thought processes and producing art that celebrated the subversion of the natural order. Weird connections, surprises, worship of idiosyncrasy and unfettered flights of fancy: surrealism was a revolutionary movement that aimed to free people from the customs and practices of arid, false rationality. 

One of the techniques used to exploit and celebrate the poetry of accident was a game named Exquisite Corpse, a kind of collage of words or images. Each player writes a word at random, folds the paper over and passes it to the next contributor. The game takes its title from one of the first resulting sentences: 'The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine'. 

The technique was soon extended to the visual medium and suited the surrealist objective of celebratory randomness, absurd beauty and bizarrely penetrating illogic. Each participant draws a body part, without viewing what the others had done. The assembled combination produces a weird whole – a misshapen, unexpected body created spontaneously and haphazardly. 

'We had at our command an infallible way of holding the critical intellect in abeyance,' said Breton, 'and of fully liberating the mind's metaphorical activity.' This random strategy is the adapted theme for the Exquisite Corpse exhibition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, on loan from the Irish Museum of Modern Art. 

We don’t have a collage of strange body parts making a curious whole, but 14 artworks that together make the Exquisite Corpse. These are accompanied by critical ruminations on selected works - something at odds with the very idea of the Exquisite Corpse, which was to cast the critical intellect off, letting random genius and the eloquence of the irrational image take hold. 

The surrealists of the 1920s Paris would not have been impressed by this conceptually-engaged ordering and explication of art that should be left to raise two fingers to reason. Surrealism was an anarchic movement, using irrationality to challenge the establishment. It said 'this is not a pipe.' It wanted to bewilder and confuse. 

But in spite of these odd attempts at reification and exegesis, the spirit of surrealism is at hand in many of the artworks, and the effect of their combination is mad-hatter enough to have amused Dali and his pals. 

'Saddle' (1993) by Dorothy Cross gives us a saddle on a metal stand with erect cow teats where the rider would sit. It is oneiric, repugnant and humorous all at once and recalls the freaky distortions and transmogrifications of the body favoured by Magritte. Like Magritte’s 'The Rape' (1934), which replaced facial features with the nipples, belly button and vagina of the female body to create an unsettling subversion of expected form, 'Saddle' exuberantly and eerily muddles the object. It frustrates common sense by saying here is a saddle – this is not a saddle. 

Set alongside Madge Gill’s 'Untitled (Large Calico Faces)' and Rebecca Horn’s 'Take Me to the Other Side of the Ocean' (1991), the combined effect is definitely surreal. Gill’s intricate drawing is an intense collision of checks, lines, flowers and storybook faces repeated erratically, a scene from a benign and whimsical dream. 

Horn’s piece has a pair of electric blue shoes suspended and spinning slowly on a metal construction, a glass funnel of electric blue power in the middle, powder splodged on the floor. It is a magical and hypnotic installation. Instead of Dorothy’s patent red Mary-Janes that spirited her back to Kansas, we have a pair of dazzling blue shoes that call to ming transformative journeying, David Bowie’s electric blue room in Sound and Vision or Elvis’s blue suede numbers that somehow embodied mojo, Dionysiac movement and creative escape. 

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Simon Popper’s 'Borromean' (2006) is a highlight. It features 150 copies of James Joyce's Ulysses, perfectly stacked. The installation made me think of the immovable way Joyce’s magnum opus hangs over the Irish literary canon, a bulwark that very few people have actually read. In its day it was the acme of literary experimentalism, and Joyce was smugly satisfied that the critics would never, ever get to the bottom of its seismic riddle. 

The surrealists did something similar with their art, flouting convention, common sense and rigidly-defined rationality to out-dance the critical intellect, allowing a more instinctive metaphoric capacity to triumph.

Exquisite Corpse runs at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, until November 28. For more information check out the Culture Live! listings.