SkyMall Might Be Dead, but Its Surrealism Is Immortal

SkyMall Might Be Dead, but Its Surrealism Is Immortal

SkyMall, the in-flight magazine of inventions fantastic and absurd, was the catalog that every airplane passenger loved to mock — at least until the company declared bankruptcy last week. Suddenly, its oddities (like the around-the-neck wine glass caddies, cat-litter robots and personal saunas) became treasures that we would never again be able to peruse in our anxious preflight boredom.

Why oh why didn't we appreciate SkyMall soon enough!? It didn't seem sustainable anyway, but were people really buying enough to keep it afloat for so long to begin with? Did our playful mockery of everyone's favorite in-flight companion bring the company to its knees?

But more than a humorous listicle generator and the inspiration for half-serious wish lists (hey, my dog really does need a carpeted bed ramp), the magazine of oddities was likely many readers' first brush with artistic surrealism. The catalog echoes the 20th-century French poet Comte de Lautréamont's famous surrealist dictum that beauty lays in the "chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." 

In fact, SkyMall's legacy goes far beyond a cultural in-joke for the absurdity of conspicuous consumption. In fact, visual art in the Internet era has become flush with the magazine's weird brand of mash-up culture. SkyMall as we knew it is going away, but I think we can look to its stylistic predecessors and the art that it helped create for comfort. Regardless, its uniquely strange aesthetic is never going away.

Because SkyMall may be dead, but SkyMallism is thriving more than ever.

SkyMall belongs to the world of surrealists. SkyMall was founded in 1990 as a same-day delivery sale system for airports and riders, but to find SkyMallism's sources, we have to go back to the turn of the previous century. Poet Andre Breton's "Surrealist Manifesto" of 1924 was the founding document of his movement; in it, he declaims society's oppressive rule of rationality. "We are still living under the reign of logic," he writes. "But in this day and age, logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest." Breton was confronting the horrors of modern warfare; our weapons and industrial factories seemed design to solve all problems of human want and need but those of the soul.

This idea of following logic till its endpoint, when it becomes a solution to a problem we never really knew existed, is clearly visible in Salvador Dali's melting clocks and Rene Magritte's paradoxical pipe. But it's also in SkyMall's ridiculously haphazard utilitarian offerings. What could be more invested in breaking the reign of logic than a rappel backpack or the Siamese Slanket? These products extend our earthly desires to the point that we are confronted with the fact that perfect safety and perfect comfort are impossible in the flawed world we inhabit.

"Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality," Breton writes. "There remains madness."

One tactic of surrealism was the "exquisite corpse," a game in which one artist drew the top part of a figure— the head and shoulders, perhaps — then folded her portion of paper over so the next player would have to draw the figure's torso without being able to see its head. The result is a clashing set of segments that don't make any sense next to each other, but nevertheless make up one whole unit.

It's tempting to argue that SkyMall used the same process. Otherwise, it's impossible to explain the existence of the aerating wine glass (essentially a miniature wine glass inside a larger one) or the garden zombie, a terrifying visage fit only for Halloween yet made to last all year, poking out of the ground like a spectral reminder of our collective mortality. Madness, indeed: These are goods fit only for social revolutionaries.

Despite its kitsch factor and pointed irrelevance to everyday life, we still love SkyMallism. Perhaps it's because, as Breton pointed out a century ago, we continue "living under the reign of logic" despite the Surrealists' attempts to break us out of our torpor. Real-world problems assault us from every corner, so we retreat into the realm of the absurd, where nothing is supposed to make sense anyway.

We've grown to love absurdity, which might be the Internet's primary sensibility. Meme culture is ridiculous; there's no reason for the existence of LOLcats or Doge other than that we find their quirks funny because they're so unlike what we encounter in the rest of our lives. Weird Twitter, the movement of writers who craft bite-size pieces of surrealism for social media, is great because it aggressively embraces the escapist possibilities of not making any sense.

These cultural artifacts represent the continuation of SkyMallism. It's also found in The Jogging, a Tumblr started in 2009 by artists Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen. At first, The Jogging collected ephemeral sculptures. Troemel and Christiansen would throw together a jumble of objects found in their studio, photograph it, put it online and then destroy the piece so all the remained was the image moving through the Internet.

Over time, The Jogging evolved into a kind of SkyMall on social media, where customers could buy sculptures as strange as a Doritos taco from Taco Bell that had been pierced with a combination lock or vacuum-sealed magazines covered in cookies and raw fish. Now, the site hosts underwater Wi-Fi routers, guitars on beach chairs and a model-felon wheatgrass planter. The net result is a beautiful meaninglessness.

Artists like Darren Bader and Ryan Trecartin have also championed SkyMallism as a way to further the argument that just about anything can be art. Bader is famous for filling a gallery in New York's PS1 contemporary art museum with a live iguana, a croissant and a large plastic maze, then calling the composite sculpture complete. At an art fair, he filled a french horn with guacamole

Trecartin surrounds installations of his frenetic video art with sculptures made from hacked-together Ikea furniture. You might not know you need a table mounted on the wheels from a desk chair, but you will soon.

The demise of SkyMall prompts a consideration of the role of meaninglessness in our era. The magazine was in some ways the garbage can of the late 20th century, containing the detritus of our desires, a mash-up of utilitarian kitsch both aesthetically bold and offensive. It more than fulfilled another motto of Breton's for surrealism: "Amid the bad taste of my time I strive to go further than anyone else." Certainly no other publication strode further into bad taste — and no other publication did it as proudly as SkyMall.

It was at times just what we needed. Its sublime strangeness was a reminder that hurtling through the air in a metal tube wasn't the weirdest thing out there. SkyMall is requesting that an auction be scheduled in late March to deal with the liquidation of its remaining inventory. The sale could kick-start a whole new generation of art.