Comparing the Artist’s Use of Water to Dali’s Deserts
Sometime in 1927, on what is quite possibly a weekday, Salvador Dali wakes with a realization. Perhaps it had been building quietly within him for weeks, months even, stemming from a persistent dissatisfaction or an inability to express himself. On this day in 1927, Dali wakes, considers the works of his peers — possibly his friends and countrymen Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró — and thinks, No, their world is no longer for me. I must find a new arena for my art.
And so Salvador Dali travels into the desert. Metaphysically speaking, that is. And from that desert emerges his new brand of surrealism — the oblong shapes and unidentifiable objects, the bizarre figures (either hyper-realistic with their bulging features, as in Soft Construction With Boiled Beans below, or shadowy and small and ineffable, as in The First Days of Spring), the barren vistas, the crags of faraway rock, the slightly-psychotic scenes playing out atop sand — which he comes to be known for.
Much of what he’d make during his Surrealist period (1929–1941) would emerge from that same place, Dali’s Desert, the wasteland where lived and from whence arose his wildest fantasies. The desert dust blows through much of Dali’s oeuvre. It provides his works a sense of place and a certain grounding, like initials carved into every canvas, no matter how unknowable and strange the subjects prove to be.
But Dali is dead, there will never be another, and no artist will ever again go to that desert.
Nor, however, do they need to. Frenetik Void, the Argentine-born neo-surrealist, is Dali for the internet age, crypto art’s King Surrealist. But where Dali found his expression in aridity, Void finds his in aquatics. If Dali cooked himself and his creations to death under the hot desert sun, then Frenetik Void is drowning. He, his monstrous subjects, and the endless ocean which frequently seems to surround them.
One could find a number of ways in which Frenetik Void’s works seem to both respond to and subvert Dali’s legacy, but perhaps the most easily-identifiable is that, where Dali’s work is characterized by inhuman figures and objects, Void’s is the opposite, he an artist obsessed with organics.
An overwhelming majority of Void’s works focus on or around living things. In pieces like Panik and Gilgamesh, this means human faces stretched into monstrous dimensions, whereas in his latest series of pieces — Isn’t this a Good time to buy Frenetik’s, Falling for Fakes (above), IN.VEST, and RARE — Frenetik meditates upon a single Gollum-esque character, a naked and squatting and bestial creature with a giraffe’s neck and an ant-eater’s tongue, gold-nosed and bug-eyed and with a mouth full of mutated teeth. While elsewhere it’s not as easy to detect the life in his pieces — like in The Unique (below), where a tangled mass of floating wires are presented anthropomorphically, or Stacked Fantasy رویا, where the beings blend somewhat into the background — they’re always there, these nightmare beasts, creeping out of Frenetik’s pained subconscious and escaped out onto the canvas.
Frenetik composes his pieces cautiously, deliberately, as if to ensure that his creations cannot escape further.
Void’s subjects are often presented in the ideological center of each piece, sometimes standing upon a pedestal, or elsewhere simply suspended, floating in the air, while muted water extends in every direction beneath them. The Offering of the Condemned, from February 2020, is Void’s first piece to feature this maritime motif, but from there, no less than 18 pieces include this same compositional technique.
When I look at Dali’s deserts, I feel the overwhelming presence of all that open space. When Frenetik Void uses water, however, and he uses water often, it has the opposite effect, acting as a kind of prison, the mimetic representation of each square image’s literal four borders. So many of Void’s characters appear to be in great pain as a result of their confinement. Sometimes, it distends their very being. Sometimes it absconds with their faces.
It’s unclear whether Void is consciously responding to Dali, although I’d be hard-pressed to think that this 21st-century master of surrealism — whose works constantly feature items and objects and creatures and things that have no obvious analogue in the waking world — would not be a student of Dali’s works. Especially because, in the works of both artists, we find the pulse of a similar motivation.
Dali’s arguably-greatest artistry was created in the interim between two World Wars, as the Spanish Civil War unfolded and Europe slowly surrendered to fascism, a time of unprecedented weaponry, warfare, and death. His work with the desert can be seen as a distillation of his Lost Generation’s nihilism, hopelessness, and lack of control.
Void’s work, meanwhile — which he began minting on Superrare only a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic began — obviously indulges in the repugnant and the bizarre, the twisted and malformed, similar to Dali. Void expresses the inner angst of his own age: His subjects seem outwardly sinister, they’re trapped in their tiny surroundings, and they’re often disfigured.
We are the creatures of Void’s own age. Our homes and communities are the twisted structures he captures in pieces like ✞︎♓︎❖︎♓︎❒︎ ♋︎♍︎◻︎ and ☹︎♋︎ ◻︎♋︎⌘︎ ♎︎♏︎●︎ □︎⧫︎❒︎□︎ and Terrakion Freezer (baby love). It is our shared world which Frenetik Void captures, but churned through the meat-grinder of the artist’s mind. And he presents it to us unfiltered, so we can gawk, wide-eyed, at what he’s made, and say:
“Hey, I recognize that meat-grinder. I have one just like it.”
Which brings us back to the water. By comparison, we expect Dali’s desert to be a place of disheartenment and disability and death. While nevertheless a misconception, a century of pop cultural representations of deserts have shaped such an understanding. Deserts, home of the rattlesnake. Deserts, where gunslingers of the wild west would spill each other’s blood onto the lawless sand. Deserts, where dunes are dotted by what bones the vultures picked clean.
Water is much more present in most of our lives than sand, in our rivers and streams and oceans, and our pop cultural interactions with it are usually more banal, if not outright religious. Water, the lifegiver. Water, the cleanser. Water, that most baptismal of images; a rain to wash away all sins, a sea to bathe in.
But Void knows it can be more than that too.
During my years in university, I took up surfing. While, to an extent, this represented a deeply uncool person’s desire to do something objectively cool, it now seems, in hindsight, a response to a traumatic episode from when I was much younger. There I was, a still prepubescent 14-year-old, caught in a riptide about 30-feet off a Mexican beach. I remember the lifeguards — mere specks, so far away — standing on the sand staring at me. I think one of them waved. I remember how the waves formed a vortex around me, preventing me from moving in any direction, turning me into little more than a breathing buoy, and the shore was way the hell over there, and my toes barely scraped the sea-floor beneath me, and waves were lapping against my chin. As you may have guessed, I survived. I was more-or-less dragged to shore by my father, all the while cursing my string-bean body and its inability to save itself. Henceforth, the ocean became a terrifying place. Waves which looked benign from the beach would send me into apoplexy when they were crashing down on me from above. They were no longer breakers but behemoths. I surfed so as to overcome my fear.
Though it didn’t really work.
I lost count of all the times I stood at the edge of the ocean, board under my arm, feeling my heart start slamming against my breastplate. On those days, looking out at those waves, it was clear that I wouldn’t be surfing. I would simply stare at the water, wish I were a different person, and eventually shuffle, sadsack, back to my car.
Void’s water is that water. It’s the water of my fears. It is open water. It is the middle of an ocean, and it is unfriendly, and it is disconnected from frivolity. It is Hemingway’s shark-infested waters from The Old Man and the Sea. It is Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis. It is hurricanes, tsunamis, and mudslides, The Titanic. It is not a safe and comforting place. It is terrifying. It is churning. And it. Never. Ends.
Positioned within this water, Void’s characters exist in a space of great uncertainty, where survival becomes a paramount and omnipresent concern they cannot turn away from. One knows the dangers of the desert, at least has their head wrapped around what they look like. The open ocean is a much more wily beast, with a hundred-thousand ways to destroy, and you’re left there, alone, to imagine them all.
The ocean is also capricious, momentary, unpredictable. A storm that suddenly billows up from the deep blue. One wayward wave. All the unknown movement of all those unknown creatures shielded from view by the shimmering surface. It is a much more accurate reflection of this moment’s collective mind. We are not empty people with empty heads and directionless lives, as many were in the displacement of Dali’s era. We are a collection of generations characterized by anxiety, the mind working actively against itself, turning mundane interactions into monstrosities. We are without the attention span required to best these demons, just as we are without freedom from the helter-skelter of existential angst that our plagues, politics, and climate crisis all engender.
The very first thing we read in Frenetik Void’s Superrare self-description is this: “As digital technologies change the definition of what it means to be human, the relationship between physical presence, virtual identity and digital corporeality becomes more diffuse.”
Human beings are stretched and mutated into countless forms everyday. We have the many selves we present to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, the one we take to work, the one we show our friends, the one we need to black out drinking in order to access, the one we only share to those whom we share a pillow with; all of us are a collection of what people these environments dictate we be. And we change between them so suddenly, clicking between personalities as quickly as we click around tabs.
To be human today is to be stretched in demented ways. It is to have our necks elongated, our teeth sharpened, our faces carved away, our bodies concave and our mouths slackjaw, compelled to communicate but never with anything to say.
And yet, neither I nor Frenetik Void would be the first to suggest that we are more alone than ever. We are less knowable — to others, and to ourselves. We are indeed akin to malformed monsters adrift upon an endless sea.
Perhaps that’s why Void’s work is so easy to connect with. It is universal, speaking in a visual language that comes not from any specific place, but which seems to contain every one of the disparate fears in our collective subconsciousness. Void is the cartographer of our paranoid psyche.
And 20, 30, 50 years from now, people will be looking on at Frenetik Void’s works just as they do Dali’s: with amazement, with abject recognition, and with slight alarm. Because we all believe, somewhere deep down, that our internal world — the demons which haunt us and the routines which ensnare us — is specific to us and us alone. And yet Frenetik Void will be there, revealing the minutiae of his own world. And it will all seem very, very familiar. Too familiar. Sharp shark teeth, just where they are in our own mouths. Eyes the same color as mine. And the water, always the water, that we’re adrift on as well.