Remnants of the Surreal: Zoe Gilbert on "Patagonia"by Fringe Magazine • 03.05.2012
The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney, East London invites experts to lecture on such esoteric subjects as charnel houses of Europe and introductions to taxidermy, so I knew there’d be some eccentric content the first time I went along. Sharon-Michi Kusunoki did not disappoint. I had never heard of Edward James – a rather unprepossessing name compared with that of the presenter – while Sharon had dedicated years of her life to researching this patron of surrealist art. Yes, James had been a dedicated champion of Salvador Dalí, and adored the art of Leonora Carrington, a favourite of my own. But it was what he did with his own belongings before he died, and the project that this created for Sharon, that fascinated me most.
What she described was so bizarre, so devious, and so funny that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, which was why I wrote the story. Charged with building a picture of a now obscure man’s life from the belongings he had left, Sharon began trawling through the storage rooms at West Dean, where she works as an art historian. They were filled with delicate tissue parcels, built up in layers – either by Edward James himself or at his behest – and containing a bewildering assortment of objects. In one, for example, she might find a shred of a letter, with a piece of ancient chocolate cake stuck to it, and then moving through the layers discover items of clothing, sketches, objets d’art or any manner of household objects. In one instance it took her over a year of working through these parcels to piece together one letter from the fragments that James had left.
Sharon went on to show images of the houses in England that James decorated as theatres of surrealism. One included a fish tank where ladies dressed as mermaids might float, viewable through portholes along the staircase. He really did weave the wet footprint of his wife, ballerina Tilly Losch, into the carpet that lead to the bathroom.
James built a surrealist fantasy paradise at Xilitla in Mexico, using concrete to create surreal structures to be explored in the forest. I imagined what it would be like to stumble across this, and combined the daydream with my own obsession with visiting Patagonia to create two worlds in my story – one in which a man researches the life of an eccentric, and one in which a woman finds herself living it.