23 March 2006
DADA at the National Gallery
DADA; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shame-faced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: DADA every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: DADA; abolition of memory: DADA; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA....
Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918
In Washington for a few days for a work-related conference, I managed to slip away early one day to catch the National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Dada: Zurich/Berlin/Cologne/Hannover/New York/Paris." The exhibition explores the work of European artists reacting against the horrors of World War I, and the beginning of the mechanical age and mass advertising.
"Dada, one of the crucially significant movements of the historical avant-garde, was born in the heart of Europe in the midst of World War I. In the wake of that brutal conflict, Dadaists raucously challenged tradition, and art-making was changed forever. The most comprehensive museum exhibition of Dada art ever mounted in the United States, Dada features painting, sculpture, photography, film, collage, and readymades emerging in six cities: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris. The exhibition presents many of the most influential figures in the history of modernism, as well as others less known, including Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber, Hans Richter, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp."
I was very taken by the political engagement of the artists. Although often their work intentionally 'doesn't make sense' that non-sense was created in reaction against what they saw as the collapse of western european civilzation caused by the war.
Also impressive was how fecund and inventive they were, how many different fields their expression took: painting, sculpture, 'ready-mades' or found objects, craftwork, music, poetry, performances, print materials from Dada journals to broadsides, pamphlets, and posters.
As a poet, I'm also drawn to the nonsense poetry many of the writers associated with the movement wrote for performance. I first got introduced to this work through The Talking Heads, who did a very rocking adaptation of Hugo Ball's poem "Gadji beri bimba" as 'I Zimbra' on their album Fear of Music. Recordings of some of their readings are included in the exhibit and on the audio tour.
One raucus, fascinating, part of the exhibit is the daily performance of sections of George Antheil's, Le Ballet Mechanique. Performed by 16 programmed grand player pianos, sirens, and alarm, two fans, various drums and a gong, it is a heck of a strange conglomeration of noises. I'd heard the work on the irreplaceable Naxos label, and didn't particularly care for it. I'm still not too sure (and I usually like 'noise':), but seeing it 'live' makes me want to think about it again. The pianos and instruments are like an otherworldly ghost orchestra, and watching the keys on the pianos move 'all by themselves' is particularly striking and eerie. One can't help but be struck how well the work ties in with the shock and losses of World War I, as well as the consern that Dada artists had over how people were to relate to the increasingly machine-oriented world.