Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.

11/27/2005

21st century Dada

From the International Herald Tribune:
After almost a century, is Dada still among us?

PARIS Viewed from almost a century later, Dada can be easily recognized as a short-lived but influential movement that expressed its revolt against World War I by challenging artistic and intellectual conventions. Yet magnified in a large exhibition at the Georges Pompidou Center, it risks being reduced to its component parts.

Of course, that may be how Dada intended things to be.

Certainly, from its birth in a Zurich club called Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, the Dada movement appeared eager to avoid classification. Its impact was immediately felt in New York, Paris and the German cities of Berlin, Cologne and Hanover, but in each city it expressed itself differently. Then, like many revolutions, its ardor waned. By 1924, if not earlier, Dada was over.

But not, it seems, for the Pompidou.

Its new show, which runs through Jan. 9, proposes that Dada is still very much alive, its influence on contemporary art all too apparent in today's collages, installations, ready-mades and performances. After Paris, this premise will travel: Versions of "Dada" will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from Feb. 19 to May 14 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 18 to Sept. 11.

But what is Dada? Legend has it that its bizarre name was chosen in a typically Dada manner: by chance. Using a paper-knife, the story goes, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and others in Zurich arbitrarily selected a word from a French-German dictionary. Its meaning - hobbyhorse - was, well, meaningless in this context. It simply served as an empty vessel into which artists could pour themselves.

"It is the only art movement named not by critics but by the artists themselves," said Laurent Le Bon, the Pompidou show's curator.

Dada did have a purpose - to protest against society in general and the art world in particular. This gave it a reputation for being destructive, intellectually if not physically (though some early performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were decidedly raucous). But again, the Pompidou differs: It believes Dada was creative in its radical nihilism - and it has deployed more than 1,000 works to prove it.
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After almost a century, is Dada still among us?

PARIS Viewed from almost a century later, Dada can be easily recognized as a short-lived but influential movement that expressed its revolt against World War I by challenging artistic and intellectual conventions. Yet magnified in a large exhibition at the Georges Pompidou Center, it risks being reduced to its component parts.

Of course, that may be how Dada intended things to be.

Certainly, from its birth in a Zurich club called Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, the Dada movement appeared eager to avoid classification. Its impact was immediately felt in New York, Paris and the German cities of Berlin, Cologne and Hanover, but in each city it expressed itself differently. Then, like many revolutions, its ardor waned. By 1924, if not earlier, Dada was over.

But not, it seems, for the Pompidou.

Its new show, which runs through Jan. 9, proposes that Dada is still very much alive, its influence on contemporary art all too apparent in today's collages, installations, ready-mades and performances. After Paris, this premise will travel: Versions of "Dada" will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from Feb. 19 to May 14 and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 18 to Sept. 11.

But what is Dada? Legend has it that its bizarre name was chosen in a typically Dada manner: by chance. Using a paper-knife, the story goes, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and others in Zurich arbitrarily selected a word from a French-German dictionary. Its meaning - hobbyhorse - was, well, meaningless in this context. It simply served as an empty vessel into which artists could pour themselves.

"It is the only art movement named not by critics but by the artists themselves," said Laurent Le Bon, the Pompidou show's curator.

Dada did have a purpose - to protest against society in general and the art world in particular. This gave it a reputation for being destructive, intellectually if not physically (though some early performances at the Cabaret Voltaire were decidedly raucous). But again, the Pompidou differs: It believes Dada was creative in its radical nihilism - and it has deployed more than 1,000 works to prove it.

The movement naturally has its icons, notably Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, including "Fountain," the ceramic urinal signed R. Mutt that he presented in 1917, and his Mona Lisa with mustache, titled "L.H.O.O.Q.," which read quickly in French is a slightly vulgar rendering of "she feels sexy." These, along with Duchamp's coat stand and bottle rack, also in the show, are undeniable precursors of conceptual art.

But as the exhibition demonstrates, Dada refused limits on its expression. Its proponents experimented in painting (while declaring painting dead), sculpture, photography, movies and literature. Indeed, distinguishing the Pompidou show from those planned for Washington and New York is the large number of texts - magazines, books, poetry, letters and manifestos - on display.

This helps underscore that Dada was principally an intellectual movement, one that set out to provoke and scandalize as a strategic response to prevailing social and artistic values. If art was meant to be beautiful, for example, Dada anticipated Arte Povera by using the detritus - the throwaways - of emerging industrial societies.

Most striking, perhaps, is how almost simultaneously artists and intellectuals in cities far apart felt a need for Dada. In Zurich, despite Switzerland's neutrality, the reaction was against the futile war raging across Europe. As Arp later recalled: "While the thunder of the batteries rumbled in the distance, we pasted, we recited, we versified, we sang with all our soul."

In Berlin, as the Kaiser's empire crumbled, giving way to a fragile and vulnerable democracy, Dada's message was also political. It organized meetings intended to shock audiences numbed by war and defeat. George Grosz and Otto Dix noted the movement in their drawings and paintings. Other artists used photomontages to turn reality inside out.

In New York, still charmed by Post-Impressionism and puzzled by Cubism, Duchamp and others took on the art establishment as a way of holding up a mirror to modern society. "Cher Tzara," the American photographer Man Ray wrote in a letter in 1921. "Dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival."

Understandably, the Pompidou has not tried to impose an artificial order on its exhibition. Instead, it has created a chessboard of some 45 interconnecting spaces, each representing an artist, a city or a special feature linked to the movement.

Paintings, collages and wooden reliefs by Arp and Francis Picabia, for instance, show Dada's influence over abstract art. The connection to Constructivism is illustrated in a film of geometric drawings by Hans Richter. Man Ray's "Rayographs" placed everyday kitchen objects on development paper to create unexpected shapes.

"Max Ernst said that Dada is a bomb and you can only pick up the bits," Le Bon noted. "When you pick up the bits here, you can see all the elements of 20th-century art."

In 1921, Tzara, a Romanian-born poet and Dada's central figure, moved to Paris and a highly literate form of Dada flourished briefly around the likes of Andr√© Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul √Čluard. But while Dada found space to breathe in other cities, Paris was an intellectual pressure-cooker and personality clashes soon erupted, with Breton often at their center.

In fact, it was Breton's Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 that announced the birth of a new movement and the demise of Dada. Open, nonconformist and spontaneous, Dada was not equipped to resist Surrealism, which was closed, disciplined and ritualistic. Over the next 15 years, Surrealism ruled the Left Bank.

But yes, the Pompidou has a point. Just as Surrealism helped to shape modern perceptions, Dada continued to inspire artists: Abstract Expressionists; the "happenings" of the 1960s, which echoed the Cabaret Voltaire; and conceptual artists like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas owe much to Duchamp and Dada.

Where the difference lies, though, is that Dada is now part of an evolutionary process. The shock has largely disappeared. Dada's aesthetic values may even have triumphed, but its political message has been forgotten. Today, many artists like to shock, not to overthrow the art establishment but to join it.

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