Surreal is a hard word to describe. A simple Google search reveals a circular definition: “having qualities of surrealism; bizzare.”

That’s helpful, Google.

At the recent Dior exhibit at DAM, the opening section showcased the connection between Surrealism and the artistic brilliance of haute couture. Salvador Dali’s piece, Retrospective Bust of a Woman, was on display as one example of Surrealism. I overheard a woman trying to explain it to her young daughter. The best she could come up with was, “It’s like the painting with the melting clocks.”

Surrealism. Surreal. Why is it so hard to define these things and yet almost everyone can say they’ve had a surreal experience?

Perhaps surreal is hard to define because the word itself is inadequate. “Surreal” is an attempt to define a feeling, a brief second. We know it when it happens. We can’t describe the feeling before the moment happens and we still can’t, even after experiencing it.

Surreal exists between the expected, the unexpected and the incomprehensible. It takes something we know, something we think we know, and then demands we expand our thinking. Or maybe it’s an attempt regain something we lost as we became adults. Lobster Telephone starts to make a bit of sense when you remember that you played with a banana phone as a child.

Maybe that’s why we need surreal in our lives. It brings us back to the spontaneity and free association of childhood. In that world, a banana became a telephone, a blanket became the sail of a boat, and a tub full of bubbles created a mountain range. To watch a small child at play is to watch the imagination discover possibilities. Anything and everything can become part of a play world. Objects can be one thing one minute, and another the next. It’s ever changing, ever new and ever exciting. And from an adult’s perspective, it’s weird, bizzare and perhaps, surreal.

As adults, we rarely see beyond the black and white world of objects in front of us. Becoming “more creative” often demands we get out of our own assumptions and into the magical world where anything can become anything. In that way, surreal is an invitation from our inner five year-old to come out and play.