For Marcel Duchamp, the cracks that appeared in his work The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) during transit in 1926 were nothing more than a happy accident – a continuation of the tangles of replication and infinite adjustment, a further debunking of the role of the artist and his divine creation. And yet, the exactitude with which he carefully ‘repaired’ and recreated the piece, noting the way that the cracks formed new lines of thought, new traces of paths for the Bachelors to pursue the evasive ‘Bride’, reveal what Robert Hughes described as the “fine tuning” of Duchamp’s indifference. Duchamp may have been a master of the throwaway, the readymade and the aleatory, but he was also a meticulous calibrator of thought, where ideas are suspended in their solid states with aching deliberateness. The exhibition presents Duchamp as a type of spider, weaving a web of strings and lightly thrown ‘stoppages’, in which he catches his illustrious protégés: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
The exhibition is Duchampian in its narrative of presentation – both overtly literal (in the first section works by Johns and Rauschenberg orbit bachelor-like around a replica of The Large Glass, grandiose in its nebulous clunkiness) and esoterically metaphorical, concentrating on an aesthetic of the ‘trace’ or ‘imprint’ rather than concrete representation. The central space of the exhibition is dedicated to a stage, where Cunningham’s Events (amongst other performances) are lyrically enacted beneath suspended stage sets by Rauschenberg and Johns. Johns’ stage sets for Walkaround Time (1968) are plastic inflatables, which were originally moved around the stage by dancers. Shapes within these inflatables appear as forms stolen, imprinted, from The Large Glass which looks on approvingly at its lighter reincarnations floating above the gallery like a gathering of jellyfish. It is this lightness of touch which permeates the whole mood of the exhibition. While the open-plan lower floor offers a type of spillage of thought, an opportunity to wander and encounter, the upper mezzanine floor provides a stricter narrative: we move from interpretations of the Duchampian readymade to questions of chance and chess, rigour and game-playing, where the work of Cage has a prominent position. However, throughout the exhibition we are released from the migraine-inducing rigorousness by the ever-present Duchampian shrug, the French ‘bah-oui’, that absolving of any responsibility towards meaning.
A wonderful representation of such lightness within the exhibition’s tangle of representation, glassy mirrorings and distorted visions, is suggested by a work by Johns on the upper floor, M.D. (1964). This was Johns’ first visual response to Duchamp, and the work consists of a profile silhouette of the artist, composed in collaged paper and pencil. The work references Duchamp’s Self Portrait in Profile (1957), a broken line in torn origami paper, a papery shadow. Departing from the original, Johns shifts the orientation of the silhouette and the paper from which it was torn, hanging it from a string (Duchamps ‘stoppages’ of chance) and casting a second shadow, which is subsequently preserved, traced. The viewer might despair in this infinite series of mirror images, endless versions and inversions. But the key is in the lightness, the suspension – the promise of flux and airiness. Duchamp’s famous ‘boxes’, placed at intervals throughout the exhibition are exemplar of this paradox between lightness and heaviness. A witty ironisation of a method of physically filing ideas in terms of weighty ephemera, here the contents of the boxes are spilled outwards and shown in their various re-interpretations and traces, such as Rauschenbergs’ plexiglass Shades (1964).
This is an exhibition that plays havoc with the viewer’s mechanisms of interpretation. Like the list of shapes contained within The Large Glass (sieves, capillary tubes, a chocolate grinder..), there might be a temptation to treat the whole thing as a sort of assault course, a mental gymnasium to be approached with muscles flexed. If Duchamp had his way, every box could be ticked: “every item in the glass is explained with language, words there is nothing spontaneous about it. People want the subconscious to speak by itself – I don’t. I don’t care.” Yet, try, and you might just have your brain turned into blotty granules by the Bride’s chocolate grinder. His followers knew better.
To describe the exhibition as ambitious is infinite understatement. It attempts to be utterly immersive, to plunge the viewer into a labyrinth of sound, sight and movement, presenting the work and interactions of the eponymous artists, whilst also offering a self-conscious staging or ‘scripting’ of the exhibition experience itself. This self-staging reveals itself through Phillipe Parreno’s mise en scène, consisting of a looping “soundscape” of works by Duchamp, Cage, David Behrman and Parreno himself. At its most subtly effective we hear the sound of ‘ghost dancers’ stomping to unseen works by Cunningham, filtering through projections of pre-recorded and live sound (the latter an interpretation of Cage’s iconic 4’33” of 1952). Conceived as a ‘vital’, enlivening way of engaging with the works of the artists, using light and sound, paradoxes of materiality and ephemerality, presence and absence, to create an ever-changing interaction with the works on display, Parreno’s work is perhaps an overdose in this already intensely complex and self-enwoven exhibition. Parreno is beating the artists at their own game of homage, invocation, modification and inversion. However, such a fearless approach seems necessary to break the glass screen between the viewer and these awe-provoking masters. Parreno puts us in the scene. We become bachelors, revolving round these fragile bodies of reputation, memory, mechanism and materiality, offering our own light contribution to sound and movement. This is an exhibition of exchange, of onward movement. If we view the world through a glass, darkly, here that glass is presented to us partially shattered, providing a labyrinthine, self-multiplying continuum.
Words/Photo Matilda Bathhurst © ArtLyst 2013
The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is accompanied by a corresponding programme of dance, theatre and cinema at the Barbican.