Who’s afraid of surrealism? I can’t have a certain answer to it, but what I and Google do know is what were the surrealists afraid of. The literature and visual art movement whose foundations were laid in interbelic Europe, strongly opposed the rationalism seen by surrealists to have been the cause behind World War I. Like so, a new way of looking at reality came forth.
The ‘pope of surrealism’, poet and critic Andre Breton defined the movement by means of its aim, i.e to unite the conscious and the unconscious mind in ‘an absolute reality, a surreality’. Surrealists thought (they had a true fondness for Freud, you see) that while the subconscious drives are outside of human awareness, they ultimately find a way out of our psyche through various forms of expression. According to surrealists, Art was the most appropriate of all. They navigated the unconscious through ‘the dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason and outside any aesthetic or moral concerns’, as said by Andre Breton. Release the mind, know the mind.
And that is precisely the creative philosophy behind the art of Swedish photographer and visual artist Tommy Ingberg, who describes his spellbinding photographic series ‘Reality rearranged’ (2010-2013) as an attempt to ‘express the subconscious with a picture’. Now an internationally recognised name, his work displayed in galleries in London, Shanghai or Hong Kong, Ingberg’s story started out simply, with a child in love with beauty. It was in his first years that he found art and he followed it ever since — in school, when books were kind to him, but people weren’t; later on, when he and social circumstances made the joint decision to study for a degree in Computer Science; a couple of years after, when he started the normal life he was expected to live; in his late 20s, when he entered a ‘personal abyss’; and most of all, when he had to find a way out. At that point, art came to be the one instrument Ingberg trusted to help him make sense of the world as he journeyed back to personal equilibrium. “This time it was different; it was a way for me to try to sort out what was going on inside me, and in that process I found my own artistic expression. I did not actively choose surrealism, as I did not have much knowledge about different forms of art. I simply started doing what felt meaningful to me.”
To that end, Ingberg’s usual process of creation is, not the surrealist blueprint I prepared for, but a personal blend of structured creative sessions and a practice that seems to come close to meditation. “I don’t believe creativity is something that ‘strikes’ you, but rather something you have to work actively on. Therefore, I try to schedule creative sessions of one or two hours a couple of times each week, where I don’t do any actual work. In these sessions I shield myself from the outside world and the distractions of everyday life, and simply try to find ideas. I need to be in a calm, playful and open mindset where I can focus. I need to hear myself think, and in all honesty, this is easier said than done.” He goes on to say, “Sometimes I start with a visual aspect, like something in front of me; hence, the great number of hands in my pictures. Most of the times however, I start with a thought or a feeling. Once I have an idea, I let it rest for a couple of days in the back of my head. It is an unconscious flow, and all I can do is make time for it. Then there’s the technical part, of course, namely photographing the source material, then putting it all together in Photoshop and proof printing; all of it takes anywhere from 4 to 16 hours of work.”
Ingberg’s work, like most surrealist art, is difficult to read. Its interpretation takes time and, words to the wise, is almost impossible to do outside self-questioning. Its intricacy comes, among others, from the unusual juxtapositions so loved by surrealists. Television-headed humans and heavy stones pouring out of the sky. You’d think it wouldn’t be such a violent struggle for us to embrace familiar concepts in less familiar contexts, wouldn’t you? Nonetheless, it is. And this deep discomfort seems to exist as there are social forces meant to discipline the known reality by fitting it into comprehensible contexts. While the conscious mind responds to these forces, the unconscious doesn’t. The unconscious eye sees reality closer to its primary state, not included in rational and recognisable systems. What Ingberg’s work does, much like all surrealist art, is to bring out what Freud described as the bulk of the iceberg: anxieties, complexes, traumas in savage juxtapositions that happen inside the mind, only to be later extracted and translated visually.
In Ingberg’s photographs, there is a wealth of factors to analyse. I started with what seemed to be the simplest observation one could’ve made: Ingberg’s photographs have a seemingly simple composition, with the elements being clearly delimited and displayed. “I try to make simple, scaled back compositions with few elements, where every part adds to the story,” he says. “By making them devoid of any distractions such as elaborate backdrops or figures in the foreground, I try to achieve a kind of dreamlike silence. Sometimes less is more. For me, one of the greatest challenges is to find the most appropriate way to illustrate great complexity of thought in simple yet ambiguous visual representations.” He talks about his choice of colour, saying that “the aesthetics of black and white with its subtlety of tones and the play between shadow and light helps me throughout the process. Adding colour would not improve my photographs; on the contrary, it could potentially distract the viewer from really seeing what I want them to see.” In this process, a significant role is played by symbols, some of the most frequently used ones being the hat, the stone and the bird. “In all conceptual work or visual storytelling,” says Ingberg, “it is important to use a symbolism that is somewhat universal. Hats, hands, roots, umbrellas, balloons, birds, stones; all these things are universal symbols that most of us understand and can relate to. Think of something heavy. A stone? Something very light. A balloon? Although I try to find others, it is indeed difficult to escape the basic ones completely.”
Another prevalent aspect of Ingberg’s art is that most of his images seem to feature only one human subject. Could this be a visual discourse on loneliness? Are we essentially alone? “I don’t think that we are, not in a general sense at least. That’s not a thought I’m comfortable with,” he says. “I do however think that whatever goes on inside one’s mind, the thoughts, the dreams, the decision-making processes, are something that, in its essence, is yours alone, impossible to be truly understood by another’s mind. With self-reflection being by definition an egocentric activity, one is the centre of one’s own inner world. I think that is what my pictures ultimately reflect.”
Whether we are alone inside our minds or alone altogether, is a question with many answers. However, it is a proven fact that the fragmentation of the individual is being aimed at by many political and economic systems of the 21st century. Of how useful can surrealism be as an adhesive to keep us psychologically compact, of the significance of having control over the conscious mind and trying to express the unconscious mind, Inberg says, “I think that our society today has gotten its values terribly wrong. We are taught a doctrine of individualism and self-interest where we should separate ourselves from the rest. We are born into a competition where the ultimate goal is to become, not good, but better. That is why we idolise the rich, the beautiful and famous because we celebrate them as the strongest competitors. This kind of society isolates us not only from each other but also from our true nature, which I believe to be one of compassion, empathy, kindness and cooperation. I see isolation as the fundamental cause of much of what’s wrong with our world today and also a major cause of our unhappiness as individuals. At least for me it was.”
“Art was my therapy because it forced me to self-reflect, to start asking the difficult questions about life, death, meaning — my life, my death, my meaning. But don’t think that self-reflection is an easy task! For me it happened out of necessity, but I think generally we are unconsciously trying to repress these questions and their answers to be and surround ourselves with distractions, mostly those provided by consumerism. But I do think that art, surrealism or other forms can act as a counterpart to this repression and may be a part of the solution.”
“Don’t ever forget that: anything that makes you stop and think may be a part of the solution.”
Image Courtesy: © Tommy Ingberg