As all things that matter, the exquisite corpse started as a game. For surrealists, whose main art consisted of living, it was a magnificent opportunity to do things just for doing them, freely. Out of a parlour game, emerged a creation game, a game to “liberate the metaphoric activity of the mind”, in the words of André Breton(1). Later, Breton would develop a knack for control, definition and authority, like so many artists when they forget how to play, but for now we are in 1925 and “the universal disrespect was the norm”. The possibility of playing was frowned upon, maybe because it underlines the fragility of the rules under which we operate almost all the time.
“Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau”: the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine. This was one of the first outcomes of the game, which consists of each participant adding an element to the previous player’s one, that only him can see; folding the paper, and handing it to the next player, who in turn contributes his part and hides that of the previous player, and so on. Be it a verb that follows and adjective, or a hand that sprouts from an unfinished arm, the outcome is that they all create together something impossible to plan or imagine on their own. The pleasure is not in the outcome, but in the game. In creating just for creating, doing just for doing.
Now, we must not forget that one of the names for the original parlour game was “Consequences”. What we put on the page has them, what we don’t, does too. It is not very fashionable anymore to invoke divine inspiration to justify the interest in creating art (in any of its forms), but the hunger that drives it still has something of undefined. The only thing that is clear to it is that it will never be satiated. The dancer Martha Graham used to say that there was no satisfaction, none, ever(2).
It can consume it all: it even becomes cannibal. When Nabokov was asked what he did when he was not writing, he said: “I don't belong to any club or group. I don't fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co-sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, or to the analyst.”(3) What did he do, then? Compose sentences like this one here, just like that, which is already quite a lot.
If the desire to create is like that, and devours the body that feels them, is it possible to elude that other old-fashioned idea, the one about the artist as a suffering being? Undoubtedly, a large part of the matter of writing a page or taking a photo is to suffer most of the day, either from not being able to close the notebook or not being able to close the eyes, but most of the time, the restlessness is pleasant. A woman looks towards somewhere and you think what she thinks, you look with her, photograph her, write her. One thing leads to another.
A large part of the work of creating, whether with a camera or with a pencil, is precisely to move from one thing to another, almost always, without knowing what. The gesture of a man we see in a van reminds us of the man from another story, elsewhere: one that walked through a vacant lot, say, or the security guard watching us behind the graffiti. We spend our lives “lighting a cigarette with the tip of another one”, to quote Carlos Cortés, who was quoting Blas de Otero, jumping from one thing to other.
One poet leads us to another one, a photo to the next one. The fun of a game like the exquisite corpse is that it liberates the participant from the unbearable weight of having to say something. What excited the surrealists, says Breton, was that the shared creation bore the mark of something that could not be created by a single brain. Dispersed the authorship, knots such as responsibility or ‘having a goal’ are undone. What remains is a hand over paper, willing to take the suggestion of an arm or a mouth that the previous player hands us in secret.
If we think about a photo taken in the street of one of our saturated cities, we can find in it an infinity of suggestions of possible drawings that may be continued, members of exquisite corpses, some of them destined to remain severed. Others sprout deform. Others rhyme with unusual grace. Somehow, one photo devours the other, grows within the other as a parasite… and moves on. They are driven by hunger, the “something else”, the diffused resonance of an image within the other that continues to spin in spirals. The exquisite corpse will never be satiated with the new wine.
(1) Catalogue for the exhibit Le cadavre exquis: son exaltation, at La Dragonne, Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, 1948
(2) Agnes de Mille (1991) Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, New York: Random House Inc.
(3) Strong Opinions, 2011 (1973), London: Penguin Modern Classics.