We’re running around in our bare feet, following tracks left in the sand by a hallucinogenic frog.
“He must have gone over here,” mutters Galerie Crone owner Markus Peichl, gesturing at a group of tiny frog prints. “And then jumped here,” he posits. The tracks start and stop, as the runaway frog possesses the annoying ability to leap several feet at once, making it nearly impossible to trail him.
Jerszy Seymour laughs when I later relay this scene from one of his “environments,” Brain Cave Spaceship—part of his exhibition “The Universe Wants to Play” at Berlin’s Galerie Crone. Born in 1968 to noted BC-raised ballerina Lynn Seymour, the Berlin-based Canadian is known internationally for his playful design work, which ranges from zig-zag-shaped hair dryers to kit houses assembled by spraying liquid polyurethane into an inflatable mould. As these types of objects suggest, his practice also increasingly branches into art.
Featuring a dreamscape of rocks sprayed with fluorescent paint, hallucinogenic cacti, a bed, animal skulls and other oddities, Seymour’s installation at Crone essentially invited gallery-goers to explore the inside of his brain. In contrast to the hierarchical Freudian sense of the brain, Seymour’s installation is a non-hierarchical mess of systems, inputs and outward projections, the faulty lines between memories, daydreams, desire and reality hopelessly blurred.
“The frog has this capacity to just jump like crazy and jump over horizons, farther than we can see,” muses Seymour. The particular frog in his installation—placed in a little terrarium he calls a “memory tank”—also has special properties. “If you lick the back of it, you’ll get high,” he adds playfully.
But Seymour has other reasons for including the creature in his exhibition, as the frog represents early steps in our prehistoric journey towards consciousness. He reminds me that a frog-like creature was the first to move from water to land hundreds of millions of years ago, then fluidly steers our conversation about tetrapods to topics ranging from Georges Bataille’s essays on prehistoric art to the writings of Emma Jung and Sigmund Freud, ontological anarchy and Chrétien de Troyes’s story of the grail.
The grail myth provides the narrative backbone for Seymour’s 48-minute video Thank God Hip Hop, Pop Art And (Your) Desire Are Back, filmed on the S-Bahn and featured on the first floor of his exhibition. A decontextualized, slowed-down hip hop beat thuds loudly, setting a sombre tone that starkly contrasts with the performers’ colourful attire—it’s a marriage of art and fashion, as the performers’ outfits wouldn’t be out of place in an American Apparel advertisement.
The performers’ slow, deliberate actions feel quite removed from the day-to-day world of commuters: three young men in bright yellow sweatshirts solemnly eat currywurst on the moving subway; a girl in a green hoodie and a boy dressed in red stand in the centre of the subway holding a bone while gazing intently at one another; a young woman in black kneels in front of a large mirror; and a German shepherd sits eerily still in front of a bloody bone.
The commuters’ reactions—or more correctly, the lack thereof—is by far the most unnerving part of the video. The performance exposes the very palpable feelings of fear Westerners experience when commuting on public transit—not surprising given the wave of terrorist attacks that have dominated news headlines in recent years. Those riding on the subway quickly look away from the spectacle at hand, behaving as though the performers didn’t exist, prompting me to consider the fact that society often perceives those operating outside of accepted social norms as threatening.
“I couldn’t have hoped for better. That was quite good,” says Seymour regarding the way commuters ignored his performers. For Seymour, presenting a social critique was never his intent; rather, much like a kid in a sandbox, he made use of the conditions and materials at hand in his surrounding environment to achieve a specific creative vision—“the overlaying of abstract acting and surreality with the total reality of the situation” to create a kind of “real surrealism.” It works; viewers are plunged into a familiar setting, but must contend with duelling realities that overlap but don’t acknowledge one another, each governed by a different set of laws and objectives.
Seymour found inspiration in C.G. Jung’s wife Emma, whose life’s work attempts to unravel the grail myth often understood as a quest for the divine self. In The Grail Legend, Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz discuss the way disparate experiences help form the self. They write, “As threads of fabric are woven into a pattern, so the self as a living garment of divinity is woven out of the many decisions and crises, in themselves possibly insignificant, by which we are affected in the course of our lives.”
Such a collagist approach to understanding the self doesn’t seem far removed from the way Seymour mines multiple sources, ranging from pop culture to the anarchist library, to create his own projection of himself when he turns his inner terrain outwards. The title of the exhibition, “The Universe Wants To Play,” is a quote from anarchist writer Hakim Bey’s book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, a fast-paced manifesto and love letter of sorts to creative chaos.
Though Seymour poetically muses that one should be more of “a dancer” than an anarchist, his work is ripe with the anarchist’s disregard for hegemonic boundaries between disciplines. It’s a notion he explores as director of the Dirty Art Department (a.k.a. applied arts master’s program) at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, described as “an open space for all possible thought, creation, and action” and “a dynamic paradox, flowing between the pure and the applied, the existential and the deterministic, the holy and the profane.”
In fact, when it comes to the idea of autonomy in art, Seymour says he might just be “its biggest offender.” He explains, “There’s this kind of ironic truth that there’s no such thing as autonomy in art, because the moment that something lands in any context, it’s already not autonomous.”
Indeed, “The Universe Wants To Play” served as a treatise on letting one’s creative impulses run amok, with Seymour irreverently merging the ideas of divergent thinkers and disciplines, inviting others to remove their shoes and do the same.