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Delirious Art: Art at the Limit of Reasons
“Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—Face)”, 1972Courtesy of Ana Mendieta

Why we need absurdist art in uncertain times

Andy Warhol, Ana Mendieta and Yayoi Kusama all feature in a show that proves absurdist art needs a resurgence

While science oppresses delirium as a state of insanity, art gives it powerful life. Met Museum’s current show, Delirious Art: Art at the Limit of Reasons, proves that in this expanding dystopia, escapism and absurdism can be an important tool for harnessing new ways of thinking about – and changing – the spaces around us.

Waking up in today’s world feels like a fucking nightmare. Trump and his bigotry are now 365 days in power, Brexit is an absolute mess, the systematic oppression of women, PoC, the LGBT community is still incredibly prevalent and our beautiful planet is decaying. When these are the effects of rationality, can anyone have faith in reason?

Absurdist art will tell you no, and it’s this timeliness that was the impetus for curator Kelly Baum to create Delirious. With over 100 works from 62 artists, the show charters how some of the world’s best absurdist creations either defy or use rationality to destablise logical structures, give form to pure mental and emotional states, and to radicalise perceptions of reality. “Indeed, irrationality is in many respects the repressed other of art after 1950... Practicing hysteria, stimulating mania and cultivating lunacy were ways of revolting against an oppressive rationalism,” Baum writes in the show's catalogue. From Andy Warhol to Yayoi Kusama and Ana Mendieta, the works included allegorise the 1950-1980s era, where hyper-rational politics created a manic state of reality. “Delirium was one of the defining experiences of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and it gave rise to delirious forms of art,” the curator continues.

The atrocities of World War II and the Cold War were some of the greatest human disturbances to occur during this time – caused by the rationality of Enlightenment and modernisation. “To the perfect storm of discombobulation… must also be added the widespread social and political unrest of the 1960s and 1970s," Baum writes. “These two decades witnessed the birth of the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, environmental, free speech, and gay liberation movements, all of them accompanied by protests, on the one hand, and brutal acts of retribution, on the other.” It’s havoc which sounds all too familiar.

“Practicing hysteria, stimulating mania and cultivating lunacy were ways of revolting against an oppressive rationalism” – Kelly Baum

Split into four parts, the show traces alternate forms of absurdist art. The Dada-inspired “Nonsense” section shows how artists used symbols to challenge the use of language as political propaganda. “In the hands of institutions like (governments and corporations), spoken and written language served only to persuade and elude, not to enliven and galvanise,” Baum says. If there is anything the last two years has demonstrated, it's how propaganda is still king (cue white-cis men wearing pathetic ‘make America great again’ caps.) Included artist, Lee Lozano, refuses to stand for language as a political weapon. His nervous, stoned notebook scratchings take from the Freudian Surrealist theory of free association and employs gibberish to divorce language from rationality.

“Excess” invokes panic, as the section shows art built on obsessive uses of material. Yayoi Kusama’s “Ladder” is a key feature. Her intense use of high-heeled shoes and phallic sexual appendages threaten to suffocate the ladder underneath it. Whereas the show’s “Vertigo” segment heightens the escapist abilities of absurdist art by showing works with hallucinogenic effects that disrupt feelings of balance. “Illusionistic compositions warp space and mirrored structures debilitate vision,” writes Baum. Works such as Edna Andrade “Colour Motion 4-64”, with its trippy black and white checks, push the limits of geometric and perceptive possibilities to create another world in of illusion. “Many of these works derange the grid in the process, making something irrationality, or at least highly eccentric, out of something systematic.

Lastly, Delirious’s “Twisted” section surveys absurdist mutilations of the body and how these interpretations defy rationality to provoke existentialism. “In the classical tradition, the body was seen as an emblem of human accomplishment, both physical and moral, political and intellectual. No greater testament to perfection existed than the beautiful nude body, especially the nude male body pictured in ancient Greek sculpture and late eighteenth-century French painting", writes Baum. But it is this exact logical perfection of the body that post-War absurdist art vehemently rejected. Baum explains, “A great deal of figurative art made after 1950 features grotesque, deformed bodies, the irregular proportions of which suggest a corresponding loss of nobility and mental coordination.” Take Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled” glass works as an example. The 13 piece photo series shows Mendieta using a slate of glass to distort her face. Bones become malleable, eye sockets entrenched, jaws unhinged. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to witness, but it’s this discomfort that provokes viewers to question the possibility of their surroundings. If the body and all its physical limits can be pushed this far, what else can be moved within the viewers themselves, their surroundings and their delirious world?

In questioning our boundaries, our possibilities become limitless and change becomes undeniable. The artists of Delirious prove this in the way they each revolutionised and radicalised practice. “They... challenged good form, disobeyed the rules of grammar, performed bizarre tasks for the camera, indulged in excessive repetition, destabilised space and perception, and generally embraced all things ludicrous, nonsensical, and eccentric. Theirs was a moment when rules were routinely broken,” writes Baum. Now it’s our turn to pick up where they left off.

Delirious: Art at the Limit of Reason is on at New York's Met Museum until January 14, 2018. You can find out more info here