Marcel Dunchamp: Bicycle Wheel, 1913,(replica).

Biting The Mother Who Feeds You

Juxtaposing unlikely artworks or exhibitions is one way to tease out meanings. I call it the hermeneutics of the unjustified comparison, the depth analysis of opposites, the free flight or free fall of critical discourse. Although a word in different context may mean something else, by pretending it has the same meaning wherever it turns up offers the possibility of turning contexts upside down, inside out. Puns and other double meanings can be used that way too, particularly I am told in Hebrew and Arabic where consonant “roots” can be filled in with different vowels.

And although English is rather limited in terms of playful exegesis, here we will compare “Dada” and “Douglas Gordon: Timeline”, both exhibitions on view, as if by chance, at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art,11 West 53rd St.), the mother of us all.

Chance is of course a Duchampian ploy and thus central to the Dada heritage. Dada heritage! The very term is anti-Dada. Well, never mind. But is that why most of this avalanche of archival art, with the exception of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (and perhaps some objects by Man Ray and some Francis Picabia paintings) looks so stale and fussy? A flurry of paper scraps and old headlines now looks apolitical and dusty.

Born of war, more than ever Dada is our Mama but not at MoMA where Dada becomes a kind of dodo. What is clear here is that it is nasty, elegant Duchamp and his readymades — and not Kurt Schwitters or Duchamp’s sister — that provides the precedent for Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst and other contemporaries we may like.

Yes, Dada was indeed more than just a prelude to Surrealism. In the imagination and in Artopia it is a way of life. In this exhibit, the two entrances (“New York” and “Zurich”) are also the two exits. Thus the installation is more Dada than most of the art memorabilia arrayed inside. With the addition of Dada protest art from other cities – Berlin, Hanover, Paris — we grasp Dada internationalism. Perhaps this set a precedent for the globalism of Surrealism which at its height had branches in South America, India, and the Far East. And we now dare to call auction-house art globalism?

Truly, Dada should have been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where all dead art belongs. On the other hand, the ceilings are too high there. We should be thankful that at least this in-depth survey (no scrap or minor artist was left unturned) is in New York and we didn’t waste time and money traveling to Paris and then D. C. for its previous incarnations.

Why weren’t things brought up to date? Well, because Dada, at last, has been officially contained. Cut off, not by Pope Andre Breton who deemed surrealism the new thing, but by art historians.

Douglas Gordon: 24 Hour Pyscho, 1993

Movies As Sculpture

But as chance would have it, isn’t Douglas Gordon, also at MoMA (to September 4) a bit of a Dadaist? He is certainly using “found” material and in at least one case “chance.” And, as in the best of Dada, his meanings are ambiguous, perverse, sarcastic, critical, and perhaps even sexual. It is indeed ironic that this outrageous Scotsman (b.1966) has already won all the prizes: The Turner, The Hugo Boss, and the Venice First Prize.

This is not the retrospective that he probably already deserves but in this sampling it seems his best work is in the realm of movies projected in art spaces. I’ll use the vernacular term “movies” as a way of getting around having to distinguish between film and video. Gordon’s projections are described as video and they are most famously video transfers of Hollywood movies.

Gordon’suse of Hollywood movies is the “found” aspect of his work: 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down so that stately single frames are visible. Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), 1997, is composed of superimposed projections of The Song of Bernadette and The Exorcist in their entirety. Between Darkness and Light is shown, please note, in a second floor gallery, as a kind of adjunct to the main event on the sixth floor, making it appear even more religious or anti-religious than it may have been designed to be.

These are Gordon’s two “masterpieces,” although no similar consensus has yet been formed, I’d add his more recent Play Dead: Real Time, 2003 – a multiple screen movie of an elephant playing dead, at the artist’s off-camera command. This, the helpful handout explains, “echoes a real event: in 1903: an elephant named Topsy, who had killed three people, was electrocuted at Coney Island, and the procedure was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company.” That early real-time one-minute movie became “a traveling sensation.” Unlike 24 Hour Psycho and Between Darkness it is possible to actually stand there and see the entire11 minute loop. No one, I venture to say has stood through Psycho and Between or even sat through them. It’s the idea that counts or the texture or the place.

What these works have in common aside from the showing of full-scale movies in galleries, which was still novel in 1993, and, oh, yes, death, is that they are projected on large, free-standing screens. You can walk up to and around the images. They are not frozen on the wall like so much projected gallery art now is (as are two other works by Gordon shown here). The moving images sculpt time, but because they are in the middle of darkened rooms they also sculpt space. They become something other than television set images or movie theater presentations.

“Dada” (to September 11), across the vertiginous sixth floor walkway, includes, as it should, several films: little windows on several walls presenting classics by Fernand Leger, Man Ray, Duchamp, Hans Richter. How distant these look in comparison to the Gordon presentations, how antique.

Anyone who keeps up with art has to know that 24 Hour Psycho refers to Andy Warhol’s Empire and that the dying fly on the B-Movie video monitor has just escaped from Yoko Ono’s movie showing a fly crawling all over a naked woman, New York actress Virgina Lust. This makes it clear that Gordon is not really a Dada. Duchamp’s bicycle wheel or Man Ray’s Gift have no obvious precedents or art references. That’s almost impossible to match.

Two further observations:

One: I happened to see the debut of Play Dead at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, where it was actually “filmed” or “taped”. Now that’s a space for art! Must we again complain about the lack of vision and sense of style that allowed the new MoMA to end up with such mingy exhibition rooms? Shouldn’t MoMA take over the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and 67th Street? This would make the Hamburg Bahnhof, a “museum of the present,” housed in an elegant old train station in Berlin, look like a cottage and definitely dwarf all of Gagosian’s real estate.

Two: How many other movies would profit by being stretched out to 24 hours? Would become more terrifying? More operatic? Furthermore, at last we have something to do with bad Hollywood productions. Show them superimposed. New meanings in images and in sound would be inevitable.

A new parlor game has thus emerged. I happen to be great fan of superimposition sequences in movies (and of montage sequences) but I also like the time-saving device of being able to watch two bad movies at once. Maybe there’s some way I can rig up my home entertainment center. Side by side is easy enough; too easy. I want those bad movies actually superimposed. You could do this with television shows too. And if two, why not three? Picabia’s superimposed images were way ahead of their time.

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Not Looking a Trojan Horse in the Mouth

Finally, since you cannot avoid “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward Broida Collection” (to July 10) on your way to Dada and Gordon, I might as well tell you that it is a much too generous selection from what seems to be a virtually random collection bequeathed to MoMA. There is no focus. With apparently more money than taste, Broida brought impulse shopping to a new level of arrogance.

On the other hand, if the deal was to show at least 100 of the 175 artworks given, then the acquisition of in-depth gleanings of works by Philip Guston, Christopher Wilmarth, Ken Price and the remarkable Vija Celmins makes the whole gift horse worth the temporary sacrifice of precious exhibition space. Such is the way museums now acquire art works. Donors were once satisfied with “Gift of…” citations on wall labels; now they want, even after death, full scale displays of their largesse.

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