November 7, 2011

Going Gaga for Dada

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The private eye is no stranger to modern art. He has, of course, appeared in various disguises. The Baudelairean flâneur was a perpetual idler who strolled along lively Parisian streets scrutinizing everything. Most memorably depicted by the nineteenth century painter Eduoard Manet, the flâneur relished the game of searching for signs of social difference. These signs were becoming increasingly invisible with the rise of department stores which sold mass-produced fashion. Half a century later, the Situationist critic of leisure drifted through the capitalist city, trying to recode urban spaces and symbols.

The Dadaist was also a serious detective. The early Dadaist combed the chaos of World War I gathering clues to make sense of the violent spectacle. He was puzzled as to why people were acting as if all this “civilized carnage” was a triumph (in the words of Zurich Dada pioneer Hugo Ball). His response was to dramatize pandemonium as a means of attacking the idiocies of his age. At the Cabaret Voltaire, the Zurich Dadaists dressed in outlandish costumes, performed bizarre dances, recited manifestoes or simply grunted and mooed.  Even after the Cabaret’s demise in 1916 (it had become irrelevant since war had ended), Dada still did what it did best, albeit in quieter ways. Dada was still anti-art.

The Johnson Museum is celebrating the opening of its new wing by revisiting this paradox. Selected Dadaist and Surrealist works drawn from the Brandt collection, will be on display in the Schaenen Gallery till December 31.  The exhibition is a more intimate reprise of the Johnson’s 2006 exhibition, which featured over two hundred works.

Stepping into the gallery is like entering a dollhouse. Everything seems to be in miniature. It’s startling; Dada has long been associated with turning the tables (even on itself — “Dada is anti-Dada” was the early Dadaists’ favorite refrain) and conjuring spectacles. Most of the works are either in monochrome or earthy colors. The surrealist paintings on the white walls mostly resemble crude anatomical sketches or fantastical, child-like sketches. An example of the latter is Valentine Hugo’s “Stars and Legs,” a pencil sketch that literally depicts a series of legs radiating from a small star. In sharp contrast to these (pseudo) scientific drawings are Kurt Schwitter’s delicate cubist collages made of tiny pastel and satin-colored scraps.  One of these rather pretty and feminine collages is fittingly titled “The Milkbottle Flower.” A casual observer might be tempted to conclude that the exhibition is, well, rather underwhelming despite the famous names on the marquee.

But the exhibition really is dazzling — that is, if you stare long and hard at the works. It’s like looking through a keyhole. The viewer often has to complete the work by privately playing with the possible significances.  One example is Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (one of the many versions of the work Duchamp produced during his lifetime). The work has acquired such great stature in the history of modern art that the work’s diminutive size and faint pencil marks are shocking. By irreverently penciling a moustache on a cheap copy of the “Mona Lisa,” Duchamp may be prodding the gender controversies and Freudian implications raised by Da Vinci’s work — reading “L.H.O.O.Q.” aloud sounds like “she’s got a hot ass” in French.  Or perhaps Duchamp is just creating anti-art. Where is the “art” in this vandalized reproduction? Is it in the idea, the act of violence or the aesthetic qualities of the original picture?

There is an air of secrecy about the star of the show. Aptly, Duchamp’s “La boîte-en-valise”(“Box in a Suitcase”) is a nondescript, pale green fabric briefcase. Again, Duchamp’s wit and humor sparkle. “La boîte-en-valise” is literally a miniature travelling exhibition of Duchamp’s most significant works, most notably his intricately recreated major installation “The Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even.” Two of Duchamp’s tiny replicas, the readymade “Fountain” signed off by R. Mutt and the cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase Number 2,” were infamously rejected by prestigious art shows because they were deemed inappropriate. These rejections raise questions central to Duchamp’s art: Who has the authority to decide what is art?  What distinguishes high art from kitsch? How meaningful is this division? Peer closely, and you’ll find that some works, such as a copy of a green window, are signed off by Duchamp’s female alter ego Rose Sélavy. Selavy lends her enigmatic presence to another miniature readymade. “Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy” is a small bird cage filled with what appear to be sugar cubes, except that the cubes are really made out of white marble. As in much of Duchamp’s work, things are not always as they appear.

If all this seems too surreal, look around again. As the eminent detective Sherlock Holmes once remarked, “There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.”

Original Author: Daveen Koh