Monday, August 05, 2019

Leonora's Journey by Susanne Christensen
Published by Forlaget Oktober in Oslo July 2019
Contact Henrik Francke

This long essay traces the life of the British surrealist Leonora Carrington (1917 – 2011) from her rebellion against her upperclass family, to the inner circles of the Parisian surrealists, her time as a fugitive during Nazi Germany's invasion of France, her breakdown and hospitalization in Northern Spain and her wild escape across the Atlantic along with terrified fellow artists. Then, after a short stay in New York, she relocates to Mexico City where – as part of a group of female artists exiled from Europe – she constructs her own brand of surrealism. Leonora’s encounter with mental illness is very real, but her views on it are influenced by the surrealist idea of madness being a magic portal to another world, a place to retreat from bourgeoise conformity.

Amongst this are stories from the present day where Christensen, freelancing in the culture sector, experiences a different kind of madness with no portals to new worlds. There is no alternative, as the British cultural critic Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017) wrote. Fisher sought to define depression as something political rather than a chemical imbalance of the brain. Christensen tells the story about two colleagues – who suffered from depression and took their own lives – wondering if their troubles were a consequence of their work situation and the current Capitalist system. How can we start viewing this modern affliction as a collective issue rather than something we should deal with alone?

The crises of the mind and the environment seem to be two sides of the same coin. The dream spaces of the surrealists often depicted other worlds; outer space, undersea vistas, and borderline landscapes like beaches where objects appear to dissolve and merge into hybrids. The dream-like world of the coral sea is now in dire trouble yet our thoughts are occupied by the "magic" of new technology, rather than the seemingly pointless nature we’re surrounded by. References to sci-fi movies and climate-crisis documentaries flow through the text along with quotes from contemporary pop songs and other free associations.

In the second part of the book Christensen travels to New York, Mexico City and Los Angeles in search of Leonora; with the ghosts of her friends alongside her in New York on Halloween, and in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. She experiences Leonora's art first hand, and interviews the American scholars that were in touch with the artist in the 70s and 80s. The feminist pioneer Gloria Orenstein (b. 1938) helps to reframe Leonora as an early ecofeminist who addressed today’s problems many years before we arrived where we are now. Christensen also imagines a conversation between Leonora and the ecophilosopher Donna Haraway (b. 1944) and how the tension between the two women erupts in wild rants and states of shared inspiration. Through her journey in Leonora's footsteps Christensen looks for the strength to deal with her losses and for a more hopeful outlook towards methods of collective mobilization.