What is surrealism in a nutshell? It’s probably something along the lines of The Earth is Blue Like an Orange, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ latest exhibit of contemporary art. The exhibit is mostly standard surrealist fare right down to its title, which is plucked from Paul Ã‰luard’s 1929 poem of the same name. However, it deviates from the surrealist canon with its almost moral stance against urbanization.
Already, the title is a nod to the importance of literature in the movement: it places the exhibit in the middle of the “Golden Age” of surrealism. In fact, much of the exhibit reverts to the roots of the cultural and philosophical movement. The dichotomy between nature and urbanity, fantastical scenes, and Freudian psychology are all prominent features. For example, Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo’s work is visually very evocative of DalÃ¬’s “The Persistence of Memory,” which is regarded as one of the staples of surrealist art.
Where the exhibit parts ways with the movement, however, is in how it portrays man’s detrimental effect on the world.
This theme is striking, although not from the get-go. The exhibit both begins and ends with film installations, which signals that the battle between city and nature is fluid and ongoing.
The two pieces that make this statement the most strongly are installed in the center of the exhibit, separated by an orange wall. On one side is Canadian artist Emily Vey Duke’s piece “The Kingdom of the Emancipated Companion Animal,” in which two feral cats docilely sit on a tree trunk fashioned to look like a chair. The trunk is oriented towards a screen, across which the words “We are the afflicted and the rash” eventually appear.
On the other is Montreal photographer and sculptor Karine Giboulo’s “All You Can Eat” installation, which connects the natural world and the man-made one. Giboulo represents the food chain as an assembly line, where pigs are grown, then consumed by children, who in turn follow a factory-like existence. According to her website, the piece was inspired by a 2007 trip to a factory in Shenzhen, China, where young workers live their lives in close 24/7 proximity to their work assembling products for Western consumption.
The rest of the exhibit is arranged around these two statement pieces in a circular fashion, so that they seem to rest at the core of the exhibit.
The Earth is Blue is the second exhibit in the MMFA’s recent move to display its contemporary works in “unusual theme-based presentations.” The first exhibit, Global Warming: Scenes from a Planet under Pressure, also touched on the condition of the environment.
The MMFA succeeds in creating an exhibit that both retains its historical sensibilities and feeds discussion on the place of surrealism in the modern world.
The Earth is Blue Like an Orange is on display for free at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Jean-NoÃ«l Desmarais Pavilion, 1380 Sherbrooke St. W., until March 2011.