Since 2011, Shana Lutker has been researching the history of Surrealist fistfights, which often resulted from Andre Breton’s fractious relationships with other members of his splintering movement. For each fight she devises an installation with physical elements inspired by details of the conflict, as well as the visual language of Surrealism; they are titled as “chapters,” to hint at Le “NEW” Monocle, the book she plans to publish when her research—and the cycle of works—is complete. “Chapter 2: Protestation!” (2014) was one of three tableaux included in Lutker’s Hirshhorn show. It evokes the scrimmage that occurred during a 1926 performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Ballets Russes. Max Ernst and Joan Miró had designed the set and costuming. Here, Lutker conjures Miró’s hand with hanging sculptures—wiry, biomorphic lines free from the canvas—while an en pointe foot made of lead recalls the dance.
Despite the suggestions of Surrealism’s elegant automatic mark-making, a heated tension emanates from this installation. Breton, who objected to Ernst and Miró’s commercial affiliation, provoked the scuffle by throwing pamphlets titled Protest at audience members. Lutker commemorates his action by echoing the foot’s torque with a twisting ballet bar of red pamphlets. Their color matches the vermilion ink used in the original publication. Breton instigated public protests to challenge the artists of his inner circle to remain true to the anticommercialism of the 1924 Surrealist manifesto, which predicts a time when poetry “decrees the end of money.” Lutker’s three mise-en-scènes not only restage the fistfights but also remind us of art’s stakes before irony, detachment and the posture of “coolness” became commonplace.
Tables displaying photographs and archival ephemera illustrated Lutker’s interest in documentation, but lest the installations be taken as mere reenactments of art history, “Chapter 3: Again Against, A Foot, A Back, A Wall” (2015) showcased her adept hand as an artist and her prerogative to draw on practices and histories outside the Surrealist context. The installation is based on a 1925 fight at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris between two Surrealists, Phillipe Soupault and Robert Desnos, who interrupted a lecture and a staging of scenes from Louis Aragon’s Au Pied du Mur (Backs to the Wall). Lutker’s colossal granite sculpture in the form of an open book echoes the fissures, speckled granulation and simple geometry of Scott Burton’s chairs. A mound of shattered glass shimmers on a black shelf above the stone tome. It refers to Melanie, a lovesick, poisoned Aragon character who smashes a vial of an antidote, but also engages in a dialogue with Robert Smithson’s use of mirrors to convey geographic and temporal shifts.
Lutker’s interpretations deploy current theoretical perspectives to question the stability of the historical archive. The platform in “Chapter 3” is painted Apricota, a sensuous peachy color from Benjamin Moore that does not refer to any aspect of Surrealism but rather sunders this scene from the movement’s male-dominated history by overpowering it with a lush, feminine pastel. Here, as elsewhere, Lutker dexterously reinscribes and reframes accepted histories. The quiet installations invoke the moment of stillness in a brawl, when the score is unsettled and everything is up in the air.