July 18 – August 25, 2015
After Marcel Duchamp seemingly gave up art for chess, he toiled away in virtual secrecy on an installation for twenty years, which was discovered after his death. The work in question, Etant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946–1966) was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art posthumously, thanks to extensive instructions the artist left behind. For years, no photographs were allowed, increasing the diorama’s mystique; today, it can be experienced remotely through widespread still images, and YouTube to boot. The iconic work consists of an arched wooden door with peepholes at eye level, to be experienced one viewer at a time. Through a broken brick wall, the viewer sees a life-size naked female mannequin splayed in a landscape. Critic and curator Amelia Jones has compared her exposed genitals to a gash, and art historian Arturo Schwarz has likened the visual cropping of her limbs to mutilation. Feminist artist Hannah Wilke described it as repulsive, and appropriated it in a retaliatory self-portrait. Etant donnés was a curious labour of love for someone who dismissed accusations that he was misogynist.
In Behind Closed Doors: Body of Evidence, Natascha Niederstrass also revisits this work with an installation of Duchamp’s imagined studio and a wall text from the manual. Her expressed intention was to explore Duchamp’s potential involvement in the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia), whose dismembered body was found in a position not unlike the one seen through Duchamp’s peepholes. It was a high profile case at the time, but one that may be unfamiliar to the contemporary viewer.
The studio contains accoutrements common to artists, like a paint-splattered jar, as well as elements specific to the work, such as twigs, bricks, and cast body parts. A sketch anticipates the ultimate position of the three-dimensional figure. The gallery’s press release stated that I would find myself in the role of investigator, and that I would feel simultaneously attracted and repelled, but to assume an investigative role or to feel this push and pull would require the ability to enter the space. However, I asked if entering was verboten and was told it was so in no uncertain terms. As a result, the installation lacks the quality writer and Duchampian scholar Octavio Paz identifies in Etant donnés, of the viewer being part of the work, as well as the continuity between interior and exterior noted by art historian John F. Moffitt. Since the studio is off-limits, potentially critical details are hinted at but cannot be processed; for example, the Daily Police Bulletin is posted on the studio wall but it is too far away to read any text other than the publication name.
Viewers were deeply disturbed by the realism of the body in Etant donnés, which Duchamp enhanced with his material treatment of the mannequin. In contrast, contemporary audiences have been inundated with television shows like Dexter, in which bodies are dismembered regularly. A grisly scene no longer reads as foreign. Thus, the state of the uncanny so beloved of the surrealists (with whom Duchamp was affiliated) is compromised. The foreign must combine with the (personally) familiar.
On the wall, there is a white contour of a splayed, dismembered female figure whose crotch is at the viewer’s eye level. She is surrounded by the following translated preface from Duchamp’s Note 124, running right to left:
We shall determine the conditions for the instantaneous State of Rest (or allegorical appearance)/ of a succession [of a group] of fait-divers seeming to necessitate each other/ under certain laws, in order to isolate the sign of the accordance between, on the one hand, this State of Rest (capable of all innumerable eccentricities) and, on the other hand, a choice of Possibilities legitimized by these laws and also causing them.
Niederstrass appears to be inviting judgment in the court of public opinion, recalling recent responses to alleged crimes against women by celebrities like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi. The press release references writing by Jean-Michel Rabaté and Steven Hodel, who both imply connections between Duchamp and the murder.
But conflicting theories are noticeably absent. Useful counterpoints would include Duchamp expert Michael Taylor’s observation that Duchamp began the work well before Short’s murder; Jonathan Wallis’ consideration of Etant donnés as a copycat crime played out in art; and Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss’ refutation of Duchamp’s even indirect involvement. (Duchamp’s direct involvement would have been impossible, as he was aboard an ocean liner at the time of Short’s death). Should the public not be made aware of all possibilities with a capital P?
Duchamp may have expressed a desire to kill art, but that does not make him a murderer.
Heather Saunders is an artist based in North Bay, Ontario. She has worked at commercial, artist-run, campus, and public galleries, and is
a former publisher of FUSE magazine. Currently, she is an adjunct professor in the Department of Fine & Performing Arts at Nipissing University, where she also works as a library manager.She is the author of the blog Artist in Transit.