Shana Lutker

Shana Lutker discusses her show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Props from Shana Lutker's The Average Mysterious and the Shirt off Its Back, 2015. Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo: Devin Christopher.

Los Angeles–based artist and 2014 Smithsonian artist research fellow Shana Lutker here speaks about “Le ‘NEW’ Monocle: Chapters 1–3,” her exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, which runs from October 29, 2015, to February 15, 2016. The show includes a performance, The Average Mysterious and the Shirt off Its Back, 2015, on Thursday, October 29, at 6:30 PM.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS I’ve been creating a body of work titled Le “NEW” Monocle. There will be eight chapters when it is complete. At the Hirshhorn, chapters one to three will be on view. The subject of all of the chapters is the history of the fistfights of the Surrealists—a story that hasn’t been written yet, as such. Not long ago, when reading Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton, by Mark Polizzotti, I kept stumbling across these fistfights instigated by Breton and his compatriots. They were always somewhat theatrical and very content-driven—they were fistfights about art and ideas.

I’m interested in this moment someone’s fist hits someone else’s face—when ideas exceed the limits of the body. The Surrealist fistfights I study were all recorded in the papers and the literary journals of the time. They were . . . let’s not say staged media events, but they were covered in the news, and they were strategic. The aim was to establish Surrealism as the premier art movement of the time.

Each chapter of Le “NEW” Monocle includes a piece of writing, a group of sculptures, and a performance. These three modes are parallel; they don’t depend on one another. At the Hirshhorn, there will also be three research tables. Each one is associated with one of the chapters, and each shows images and objects I’ve collected and attached to each fistfight and that, in some cases, were the sources of the artworks in the adjacent gallery—for example, a picture of a wall grate on the building that used to be the Bureau of Surrealism I saw walking around Paris, or a photo of a discarded ladder on the street. There are also pictures of archival materials I sought out in DC and Paris. The Library of Congress holds the amazing personal archives of Bronislava Nijinska, who was a longtime primary dancer and choreographer at the Ballets Russes. That material relates to chapter two, which concerns the collision between the Surrealists and the Ballets Russes in 1926, when the Russes was no longer the radical Russes of Rite of Spring in 1913. By 1926, it was more like the Ringling Brothers, and the Surrealists thought it was commercial sellout bullshit, which they didn’t want associated with their avant-garde brand.

The performance I will stage at the Hirshhorn—which premiered in May at Pérez Art Museum Miami—is associated with chapter three. It collages together pieces of the story of a fistfight at a lecture about literature by Robert Aron (who was not a Surrealist), which was to be followed by a play by Louis Aragon (who was a Surrealist)—Au Pied du mur (Backs to the Wall)—directed by Antonin Artaud and starring Artaud and Génica Athanasiou. There is some mystery as to what ignited this fistfight, but based on my research I think it’s a collision of factors including the Surrealist play slotted to follow a lecture on mediocre literature and Artaud’s recent ousting from the group. But I’m drawn to the bigger picture, how Breton was establishing a new philosophy for art and politics and revolution and gathering a team of people around him. Of course, the Surrealists were also childish, impetuous, authoritarian, macho, remarkably sensitive, and overreacting to most everything.

For the performance, I’ve rehearsed with actors in Los Angeles to present three scenes from the play that I believe were performed on the night of this fistfight. I’ve also included contemporaneous piano music by Arthur Honegger and scenes from Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), a 1926 proto-Surrealist film, originally written by Artaud.

Grounded by the foundation in research, ideas come to me about what I want to make. I allow myself to intuitively make decisions about materials, using shapes and forms from the archive of images. In one way, the things that I produce are straightforward; I work with solid, often singular, materials like lead or felt, that I shape into seemingly familiar objects that are literally or associatively linked to the research, like a sculpture of a foot or a cone of sand. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know that the pile of sand is a reference to a Joan Miró drawing, you can make your own interpretation.