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The Debutante: Feminist Surrealist Odysseys - In conversation with Australian Artist Dr. Kelsey Ashe

Image: Kelsey Ashe, 2020. Sculpture Involuntaires. Red Helmet Shells, Leather, Metal, plastic. Image Courtesy of Artist.

The Debutante in conversation with overseas co-editor Dr. Kelsey Ashe

Dr. Kelsey Ashe is an Artist, Curator and Academic based in Western Australia, although originally from Tasmania and New Zealand. Ashe is fascinated with the Antipodean, (Austral-Asia-Pacific) and the things hidden, mysterious, meta-physical and mythic which emanate from the landscape and in particular from Seascapes. Ashe’s work recently came to prominence in International Surrealist Art Practice when she received 2nd Place for her short film ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ in a remake of Peggy Guggenheims notorious 1943 surrealist exhibition ’31 Women’ in Sedona, USA, January 2020 curated by Dr. Catriona McAra – featuring 31 women including Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini.

D: Given the prominence of travel overseas for surrealists' creative exchange in the movement's heyday, what do you think is the value of opening up dialogues of feminist-surrealism on an international level today?

KA: Surrealism has always been an International movement and always will be, because it is not merely a discourse of aesthetics, reduced to style and iconography of a particular art-historical time and place. It was and is, a literary based movement, a complex multi-faceted and progressive philosophy that applies to myriad artistic modes that appeal to the very notion of the universal human desire to see more than what our usual senses can offer. Its network of sources are social, political and metaphysical and only secondarily aesthetic. It’s a manifesto with practical strategies to use art practice to see past (or through) the veil of the real to the unreal/surreal/hidden/beyond and merge with that, so it’s ‘value’ as a dialogue is immense, as it is a living, evolving, global conversation. Surrealist thinking pervades much contemporary art making, unfortunately the theory has been divorced from the movement, making it (sometimes in my experience) appear only as a stylistic genre – which is so far from the truth.

I also believe that we are at a time in global history where Gaia philosophy (where physicists see the earths ecosystem as a single unified, inter-related organism) and an eco-feminist viewpoint is more relevant than ever. Female surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo knew this instinctively. Surrealism has historically illuminated a path back to mythic structures of matriarchy and universal female principles via its innate inward looking viewpoint that can unite nature/animal/hybrids with a political/defiant vision. Surrealism offers women artists a self-image that joins roles of woman and creator, often with a spiritual awareness of sensuality, abundant nature and cosmic/mythic/celestial divinity. Breton himself wrote passionately about his vision for a world where women had greater political power. Although orthodox surrealism laid out by Breton, largely failed to meet the needs of the women involved, he did envision a ‘New World Order’ characterised by a secular spirituality and harmony and time of inter-connectiveness. (See Arcane 17 Andre Breton, written in 1944).

On a practical level, to be part of an internationally thriving ‘conversation’ within feminist surrealism, particularly in this COVID era has been enormously enriching and I suspect the same to many of the women and men drawn to its manifesto and ideals. Inter-national collaborations are rewarding for both groups and the personal, academic and artistic rewards seem all the more enhanced from this expansion of ideas and conversation, from local to global.

D: In the early half of the twentieth century, women surrealists were drawn to the ocean, its mythical inhabitants and found objects. In your feminist-surrealist practise, do you consider the sea a terrain of artistic freedom?

KA: The sea is my church. Its glimmers of dark and light teach silently and patiently. I grew up beside it and its treasures have always enamoured me. As a young artist I drew and painted the ocean and its mythical inhabitants repeatedly. Island hopping in the Pacific, free diving, coastal shelling and dreaming of mythic other-worlds have formed part of my artistic and personal identity. My PhD studies illuminated that my early naïve investigations were part of a natural progression of practice-led creative production – a searching, a journey, a way to ‘finding’ something. My practice-led work has meandered through exoticism, symbolism, Japanese aesthetics and dark- romanticism. Recently I’ve deeply considered the different kinds of relationships that women of different cultures have to the ocean. For example, in my recent film of 2019 ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ I investigated (through performative embodiment, research and experimental film) the way that the ocean has been a place of both entrapment and freedom for Aboriginal and Japanese women in complex ways. Entrapment for female Aboriginal Pearl Divers; who often drowned or died in slavery to White men and the freedom for Ama divers of Japan who were born into Matrilineal roles as a sacred Ama (traditional free divers). It was a fascinating topic to research. Surrealist philosophy envelopes all of my interests like a large umbrella, allowing me to investigate these topics with a view to ‘see beyond’ history and re-write myth, imagining my own characters, stories and happenings under the ocean.

So yes, the ocean is a place of artistic freedom for me – and a place to consider myths of the past and new myths I want to invent. It is the place that gives me a sensation of connection, of bottomless history and spiritual emanation.

D: Do you think your artwork fits within a matrilineage of women surrealists?

KA: Yes I hope so. I like to think I belong here, I feel nourished in this environment. I’ve long admired that bold group of ‘first wave’ women artists who explored more fully than any group of women before them, the interior sources of creative imagination – Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Dora Maar, Leonor Fini. I feel an affinity with the creative process described by the women in this legacy – in fact it’s one that I developed independently and only in retrospect realised that my approaches were similar. I’m so pleased they have received so much critical and intellectually rigorous re-evaluation in the last decade for their contributions – paving the way for new artists now.

I love the early women surrealists’ radical streak and their ready willingness to defy social convention. Their persistent anchoring in self-image and goal of self knowledge steered their sources within; rooted in real experience, no matter how strange the imagery – there is an absolute acceptance of their own psychic reality. Breton described Frida Kahlo as “ribbon around a bomb” (Breton, Le Surrealisme et la peinture, rev. ed (Paris: Gallimard, 1979) I like that idea of the women surrealists as nicely packaged explosives – they have a rebellious streak – they are willing to burn down walls, swim across rivers, whatever it takes – I love the heightened passion of this state of mind. I see Leonora Carrington’s works as a search ever forward for freedom – freedom as a woman, freedom from ingrained patriarchal norms which have skewed our sense of strength and autonomy for eons.

As an under-graduate at art school in the late 90s I was interested in Feminist revisionist artists of the 1970s and 80s plus the artists listed above–but my (male) painting lecturers told me to ‘turn 180 degrees away’ from such research and to try to ‘paint in bitumen’. Formalism was King and there were no exceptions. It really threw me and I scuttled off to the Textile department where my ‘feminine’ interests in Gustav Klimt’s ‘decorative’ water serpents, ancient myth and matriarchal symbol scripts were more accepted. Armed with an MA and PhD in Art now, I wish I could go back to those days and march forward with my ideas and slay with my rhetoric. I think some (not all) women have felt pressure to adjust their approach to art-making to have it fit within formalist and abstractionist theories based in cubism, minimalism and constructivism, devoid of emotion or narrative. And of course these movements have made brilliant art that I really love, but thank goodness that limited mentality is (starting to be) behind us.

I don’t aim however, to be separate from my male counterparts in the art-world and try not to pigeonhole anyone. I don’t particularly want or aim to be divisive, rather I seek unity - to be accepted for my femininity for that which it is – innate, irrevocable and hopefully a critical counterpoint and valid viewpoint.

D: Do you align yourself with women surrealists who evoked water-dwelling femme-fatales (e.g. Mélusine, Undine, the Siren) in their artwork?

KA: Interesting question! Graphically drawn hybrids are scattered throughout my lexicon of print work for the last 20 years. I also think my work of the last couple of years has inched closer to a kind of further, more well-realised self-embodiment. What some people might see as a femme-fatale (perhaps my underwater ‘Dream’ series, 2019) was a personal and cathartic search for the dark and light in a giant sea. That body of work is my most raw, (I’ve never published the film!) but also completely authentic. I was grappling with my father’s traumatic death and questioning the veil between death and life and beyond, whilst researching for ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’. To evoke the Melusine was a powerful and healing process. This woman is intimately linked with the depths of consciousness and the nature of the imaginary – her hybridity suggests the links between, nature and culture, animal and human, conscious and unconscious. Her identity and appearance can shift and change, defying gender and moral codes, she transgresses all boundaries set for her. She represents the constraints of femininity, impossibly contained sexual impulse but also a supreme unity of all of the above. She is linked with second sight and the ability to reveal to man his destiny – a mythic figure the male surrealists sought out in their partners and muses. The ‘Dream’ Series allowed me to explore a hidden, perhaps truer, wilder, freer but socially unacceptable self.

In 2004 I had a powerful dream where I gave birth to a mer-child that sparkled and glimmered. I was on a beach at night and I was acutely aware of what I had created/birthed and the power that I held. I was all at once the mother and the child, seeing from all eyes at once and I was also aware of my own mother and her mother and so on to eternity. It was a creation dream – one that I’ve tried to paint many times. Women surrealists are very partial to the use of animal symbolism and hybrids in their work and I think it comes from that practice of looking deeply within, pursuing esoteric and occult methods to reveal unconscious epiphanies about our human nature. This is also were automatism can be very helpful – creative writing, decalcomania/ rorscharch methods etc – giving your subconscious mind ways to draw out things into the conscious world.

The hybrid siren or mermaid figure also highlights the incompatible roles of mother and source of life with the destructive harbinger of death. The heroine, cannot be both. It is a myth that has played out in many ways, in just about every country in the world – even land locked countries have lake and river dwelling hybrids. She cannot be lover/mother/muse and single minded creator/artist/seer at the same time – one must be sacrificed for the other. I want to play with these allegories and re-invent them. Surrealist women also seemed to be deeply in-tune and able to comment on the erotically charged universe, using hybrids as a means to express this. I think this comes from the intimate relationship between automatism and sexual desire. When we work with secondary states; lucid dreams, epiphanic visions, near death experience, hallucinations, day dream/fantasy, drugged states, etc, they will undoubtedly rove toward desire. I explored many of these secondary states of consciousness in ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ (2019). These methods were historically embraced as a further move away from conventional bourgeois culture. There is also a really strong sense of working with intuition – also linked to automatism and my practice-led research – I enjoy the links between all these ways of working. I trust the process unquestioningly.

D: Underwater, women’s voices are ostensibly reduced to sound. In this respect, the concurrence of water and women denies their right to be heard. How does your artwork defy this assumption?

KA: The concept of a woman’s voice underwater is a powerful metaphor. I recorded my voice underwater during the ‘Dream’ Series as I was researching for the film-work ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’. I was trying to imagine the enslaved Aboriginal pearl diving girls of the 19th Century far North-West Australia, and their days spent literally underwater, forced to dive from dawn till dusk. I chained myself up underwater and sang to myself and filmed it. I like to imagine the people that came before me within a landscape and listen for their voices. I have sensed so much pain in some parts of the Australian Landscape due to our horrific post-colonial treatment of the Indigenous people here.

This is where the role of art and cultural production plays its role and it is vitally important. ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ was played in our State Museum (WA Maritime Museum as part of the Fremantle Biennale ‘Undercurrent19’) with the rationale that it would be exposed to a wide and engaged audience. The film depicts the women denying the roles forced upon them by the patriarchy and defiantly breaking free of them by returning the pearls to the ocean and opting to re-join with nature, morphing into multi-limbed Octopi-like hybrids (‘Eight Limbs’) and into the eternal. The film and images from ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ play a role of ‘resistance’ to the marginalizing of women’s voices by creating a new allegory.

Artistically, women surrealists have employed complex strategies to subvert the role that men had imagined for them and their historical sisters – that of the silent passive muse, slave, sex object – they began to assert their own subjectivity within a patriarchal system. The masculine desire that played such an active part in patriarchy’s misogynistic positioning of women, as femme enfant, muse and ‘typewriter’(slave) – vastly diminished their roles within the movement – hence their divergent practices away from the orthodox in subsequent years.

D: Your practice cuts across disciplines, but for the most part, the sea is your stage. What happens when you work inside? Do you use any surrealist strategies in the studio?

I think my general outlook in life embraces surrealist strategy on a moment to moment basis. My husband marvels at my ability to manifest miraculous chance, flukes, catching natural phenomena and pursuing the marvelous, synchronistic encounter. I relate this also to practice-led research in the studio – where one thing leads to another and the natural influences of my day, my dreams or meditative visions merge with research and art-making. I invite my kids to work into my paintings – knowing that it is a type of decalcomania – look closely at many of my paintings and prints and the smudges and scribbles of children can be seen – they are just part of the process. I trust that the right thing will be there at the right time to inform a decision. I trust that the right people will walk into my life to fulfill a project. ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ was such a synchronistic experience - like a higher source guided every step – like it had all been done before, the film was already made and I just had to follow the signs to bring its completion into physical reality. This process has never failed me.

During the COVID19 lockdowns I painted because it felt natural. I photographed my shell collection and the empty streets of Fremantle where I live. The streets were reminiscent of a Delvaux or de Chirico painting because they were deserted. I found it beautiful. Like the city was resting and allowing the world to heal. Planes, cars, trains, everything stopped and the quiet was lovely. The giant shell became symbolic of the forced retreat inside, the animal within, but also, in its emphatic femininity, it represented a return to nature in focus. Playing with my shells and listening to the ocean within, my ‘Sculpture Involuntaire’ was created, my shell earphones, they have many messages, but also introduce fun and laughter – another important surrealist ingredient. I’m finally coming into a time where I’m able to spend more time in my studio than in the past, where I might have only worked sporadically or on weekends. I’m looking forward to where my studio practice might turn to from here. I always ask myself, ‘What next?’.

D: Speaking of up next, you are curating an exhibition this year; what are the implications for you of staging an all-womens surrealist exhibition in 2020?

KA: The idea for the exhibition ‘Imaginary Territories’ began in 2018 on the closing night of another exhibition I curated. A juicy conversation with artist Lucille Martin (whom I interviewed for this Issue) and I, discussed the imminent centenary of surrealism and the idea developed from there. After being selected for ’31 Women’ by Dr. Catriona McAra, I decided to make it female only as I thought it was more topical and provocative. I’m really open to critical dialogue – positive or negative – Curation allows this to happen at a ground level and emanates outwards and I find it highly valuable and stimulating for my artistic and academic practice.

We may never have Surrealism reach again the heights of its heyday in Europe, but its lineage and dialogue that abounds from it is crucial. Because of its philosophical nature, Surrealism has been recognised to come in waves – and often at times of political/environmental/religious unrest….it is no wonder to me that Surrealism has ‘returned with a vengeance’ to quote the author Hal Foster, because we are at a point in history that everything seems more unstable than ever. Exhibitions, Symposia, Art Journals like this one, books and Art are pouring forth from all corners of the globe under the banner of Dadaism and Surrealism – in a wave of re-evaluation that supports all kinds of postmodernist mentality – so the exhibition I’m curating is part of that. I can’t wait to see what the artists create…

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