I went to Philadelphia to see the Dali exhibit the other day, and while there, stopped in to see one of my favorite works. Calvin Tomkins, author of a wonderful biography of Duchamp, considers it to be the weirdest piece of art on exhibit in any museum in the world. I agree.
If you are in the area, stop in, go to the big room with the Duchamp pieces, and venture into the room way at the back…and prepare for something very strange and unsettling.What you will see is the door shown above, set into a wall. And on the door, two holes drilled, just right for peeping through with both eyes. And once you have situated yourself into this Peeping Tom position, feeling that you are somehow degraded by your transformation to a voyeur, you will get a shock. You will see in front of you the something like what the image below shows:
Just what is that…! Is that what I think it is?!! You never see her face, you can’t. Are you really seeing something? Is it pornographic? (Yes.) Is it some weird spoof or comment on porn? (Yes.) Is it repulsive? (Yes.) Is it fascinating? (Yes.) Is it real? Looks real…That waterfall in the back, is that from some tacky advertisement? Well…maybe. The lamp, the arm, whaaa?
This work walks that razor line that Flaubert knew so well, the one between art and kitsch, the one that shows what is and what the artist thinks about what is, the one that doesn’t show anything but the obsessions of the artist and the world that is not by the artist…
Duchamp, the one who denounced the ancient western tradition of “retinal art,” subverted it with his ready-made urinals and bicycle wheels. The one with his bizarre-Dada construction, “The Bride Stripped Bare,” the one who retreated from the art world to play chess, who scorned movements and art history – he gives us something that looks…sort of…like a soft-core porn postcard from the late 19th century, or a perverse image for an early 20th century advertising campaign. Was he thinking like the Buddhist who says:
When I began to meditate, I thought there were clouds and mountains; when I learned something of Zen, I saw that there were not really any clouds and mountains; and when I was enlightened, I saw that there were only clouds and mountains.
As Duchamp said, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” There is only what is, the things given (L’Etants Donne in French, the name of the piece).