It is common knowledge that the DADA movement began as a general disgust for life within the context of war in 1916, and much like the concept of Superstudio’s ‘anti-architechture’, DADA’s claim was to produce ‘non-art’ as a means of revolt against the spirit of the times.However in 1922, artist Francis Picabia proclaimed the movement to be dead. A result of it stagnating from over organisation. Through the dying bones of the DADA ideology, a fertile ground for a new social and artistic myth was cultivated, that was to coincide with developments in relation to ideas about how the human mind worked. These two aspects respectively were called Surrealism and Psychoanalysis.
One of the founders of Surrealism, Andre Breton (1922), described how he wanted to combine the conscious and subconscious into a new “absolute reality”, largely based upon the free association promoted by Freud.
Breton first used the word ‘surrealism’ to describe any work found to be a “fusion of elements of fantasy with elements of the modern world to form a kind of superior reality.” Nevertheless, this was a superior reality borne from the acknowledgement of it’s relationship to smaller sub-units and mental nuances of the psyche.Taking the notion that the DADA movement gave permission for the radical thought of Surrealism to rise, through which it was then able to articulate it’s concepts by interpolating ideas of psychoanalysis, we begin to understand the relevance and interconnectedness of all phenomena.
In a biological context, this kind of relationship would be called ‘symbiosis‘. A symbiote can be a species of plant, or animal, that plays a role of mutual benefit to its counterpart. This kind of relationship is common throughout the natural world and gives us things such as mushroom cultivating ants, fish that organise ‘cleaning stations’ for other fish and nitrogen factories for trees founded by mushrooms.Born in Basel, Switzerland (1900), Kurt Seligmann adopted many of these themes within his art, expanding from his collection of books on magic, motivated by a desire to stay connected to traditions of Europe and the printing of his Swiss homeland, as well as his interests linking to magic, science and the human psyche.
He stated, “I am an artist and I think as a painter. This is the true reason why magic attracts me—the completeness of the magical world. For an artwork should as well be complete in itself. There should be a manifoldness of forms, a variety held together by a coordinating law similar to the magical world law spoken of in clear words by the Babylonians, the Egyptian magic and the Greek metaphysicists …the great philosophers have not been able to break through the magic circle…The great axiom of magic: all is all and all is one has haunted our civilised west and the near east for thousands of years.” There is a great tradition of magic, mythos, psychological archetype and the irrational contained within Surrealism generally and within Seligmann’s work specifically. When we talk about these themes however, I can’t help but think that we shy away from exploring their meanings in favour of keeping them within the confines of the trivial. Archetype, for example, deriving largely from the work of CG Jung, simply means an experience, feeling or image that everyone seems to have in common. Mythos or myth, a recurring narrative or theme that penetrates the personal realm. Magic, from Magus or Magi, meaning a follower of Zoroaster, the inventor of astrology, also relates to the Three Kings, or Three Magi, of The Bible.
The magician, the sorcerer or the trickster, are also terms that we would associate with the mentalities of the DADAists and the Surrealists, which in themselves have a vast array of meanings ranging back to shamanic cultures, where the concepts are used as a kind of medication. All of these are persistent motifs in Seligmann’s work, and only strengthen the symbiotic relationship between art, science and magic. A good example being that our word medication derives from meditation, meaning to consider, think over, reflect, advise and limit, in order to assert a ‘magical influence’ upon something.
So with the “fusion of elements” that Breton hoped to achieve through Surrealism, to the independent cleaning stations organised by managerial marine fish, we come to a term coined by philosopher Arthur Koestler. Holon.
By combining ‘holos’, Greek for ‘whole’, and the suffix ‘on’ denoting tiny things such as electrons, neutrons, etc, a Holon is defined as a system that retains its own identity whilst still being a functional part of a larger whole. There are many examples of Holons, from social to biological, but I think it illustrates the point that no two things are mutually exclusive of one another, but contain within them the traces of many fluid interactions, so dynamically highlighted through Seligmann’s characters and their environments.
You can find further and more information about Kurt Seligmann on his biography here.