Dancing Around Duchamp at London’s Barbican

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain&...

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”. (Urinal “readymade” signed with joke name; early example of “Dada” art). A paradigmatic example of found-art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The free thinking that took shape when MarcEl Duchamp met composer JOhn Cage met choreographer MErce Cunningham, visual artists RobErt Rauschenberg and Jasper JOhns from the 1950s till the modern art inventor’s death, informs the multi-media exhibition Dancing Around Duchamp.

The two-floor exhibition is a serious endeavour, more so, when it seeks to unite works that spanned art, theatre, dance, film and music with Duchamp’s inexorable pursuit of experimentation. It captures the thought processes, techniques and experimentation of chance and collaboration which takes this philosophical and intellectually led exhibition beyond the ordinary. The ambitious piecemeal curation is a meditative collection documenting the experimental processes of these artists who contributed to the Dada movement born out of negative reaction to the brutal horrors of World War I.

The exhibition is designed so that selected works of art can be viewed alongside timed sequences of John Cage’s compositions. Designed for Cunningham’s dance choreographies, Cage’s set pieces interfere with and enrich the visual experience. Unfortunately, the Barbican’s ‘Dancing Around Duchamp’ only has the dancers operating on selected days. A fact that is not made clear, if like me, you have made the journey to see the exhibition on the wrong day. The lack of dancers at ‘Dancing Around Duchamp’ does however, afford other opportunities.

John Cage’s timed pieces weaved in and out of the art and my internal thought processes. Timed interventions, visceral samples that reference their way into the musical art of today be it silence, the sounds of life, ordered notes, poetry and the natural world. The compositions linger.

Upon entering, the impact of the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, commonly known as the Large Glass, looms large in size and shadows. It is however compromised. I first experienced feelings of being short by the positioning of the ‘Large Glass’ downstairs because the shadows seemed an important part of the whole. The top section including the bride was obscured. My feelings were confirmed upstairs. The space afforded to The Bride is not extended to the ‘Large Glass’ even though the installation’s artistic expression needs space in order to be fully realised. The power of the bride’s shadows are diminished, blurred remnants dumped underneath a stairwell to give room to Duchamp’s paintings. Confirmation, if it is needed, is found in one of Jasper Johns’ paper works upstairs. This work itself is inspired by Duchamp’s use of shadows and perspectives for the ‘Large Glass’.

The exhibition is a triumph of perspectives, inspirations, processes and selected themes upstairs. Chess is the metaphorical representation of the players playing with interventions by chance and purposeful collaboration. Documents of John Cage revival of the works of the then forgotten Erik Satie and Schoenberg reference the need to revise secondary opinions about art and artists. Jasper John’s NO references the abstract work of this period. No is also an imprint, a string a shadow that also makes room for an imprint of Duchamp’s bronze female fig leaf. John’s The Medallion dedicated to Duchamp’s wife Teeny on NYE 1976 is an iconic work casting a spiralling eye on the death of the liberal 70s.

I found myself in pursuit of more Jasper John pieces because of this exhibition. But John’s bronze figures confronted me with the problems of being a product of my time. The bronze painted tins and paintbrushes in a tin were now common images found in fashion and interior magazine photoshoots. I tried different perspectives but every which way I looked, I could not get past the feeling that these bronze figures were now nothing more than the art of selling images. This pop art was now a by-product of the ubiquitous consumption of great art. Advertising’s continual re-appropriation and misappropriation of art would leave me with nothing more than a metaphorical toilet but not Duchamp’s urinal.

A curator has a difficult job to not detract the viewer from the holistics of an artistic journey. An exhibition is expected to reference and contextualise the era in which it was created to find it’s resonance and influence in the present. The authorial voice of the curated exhibition has been lost to create space for art but none for contextualising its purpose. The exhibition does not lack intellectual breadth and nor did it seek to lead me by the hand but the exploration of rich ideas and ideals are to be found in the accompanying catalogue. For this, you must pay £35.

The collaborative efforts which released ideas from the tyranny of convention and instead laid bare the alter of free thinking are only suggested. But at least they are to be found at this exhibition. It is on this note, artists and free thinkers are invited to meditate on the creative breadth.



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