Fasten your Seatbelts
as we Prepare for our Nude Descending

by Edward D. Powers

Vagina. Somebody's vagina will explode. Explode us all. -- "Joey"

You Do Something To Me

click to enlarge
Figure 37
Marcel Duchamp, Tu m', 1918
Figure 38
Marcel Duchamp, Bottle Dryer, 1914/61
Figure 39
Gustave Courbet, Woman with White Stockings, 1861
In "Notes on the Index", Rosalind Krauss points to the "indexical" quality of numerous elements of Duchamp's essentially self-retrospective work, Tu m' (1918) (Fig. 37).(61) Krauss' indexical signs are those like the footprint in the sand which betrays the presence of Friday to Robinson Crusoe(62)--or, more generally, any physical or verbal trace which assumes and, therefore, indicates the existence of its erstwhile or immediate agent. In a physical sense, this is exactly the quality which Duchamp's erotic casts, as physical traces, consistently both instantiate and sexualize. Verbally, as in the case of Tu m's title, there can be no "You" if, prior to it, there is no "Me" speaking. Or, as Sandra Bernhard so brilliantly states the corollary, "Without You I'm Nothing". Nevertheless, for Krauss, Tu m' is somehow indifferently indexical: indeed, a veritable summa of verbal shifters ("You", so "Me"), pointing hands ("Here!" which, perhaps from my perspective, is "There!") and cast shadows (indicating the subject of "Me and My Shadow"), albeit spoken by no one and pointing nowhere in particular, rather too emphatically signaling the void. Like the apparent irreducibility of its title verbal shifters--"Tu m'", which Krauss neutrally translates as "simply 'you' / 'me'"(63)--the neutrality of its indexical signs, more generally, is only apparent. For Tu m' is not "simply 'you' / 'me'"--there being no "bar", nor anything else separating "us"--but rather, given the verb its title assumes, "You are" or, more likely, "You do" something to me. If not a Cole Porter-style sexual provocation, Tu m' does at least imply that, rather than standing in the disembodied no-place of entirely abstract You's and Me's, the spectator is instead directly implicated in just the sort of "existential relationship" on which the indexical sign is always predicated. Indeed, standing in front of Tu m', the spectator is in the very midst of the ur-mother of all such "existential relationships": a vagina. 

Like the unspeakably impaled quiddity that is Duchamp's Coin de chasteté , no less bleakly erotic is the terrible caesura which the bottlebrush rips open in the surface of Tu m'. Yet not only is the bottlebrush by definition insertive but also--as with the multi-phallic, even deity-like Bottlerack (1914) (Fig. 38)--it specifically begs a glass vessel. Thus the space the spectator occupies in front of Tu m' is not only penetrated (by the bottlebrush) but also, according to the same logic, is itself uterine (or bottle-like) in shape. Indeed, the space in front of Tu m', and annexed by it, is remarkably consistent, as a virtual space (defined by the virtual presence of a glass bottle), whose opening is likewise virtual (defined by the trompe-l'oeil breach), yet possessed of a distinctly liminal reality: both opened by a real bottlebrush and, in turn, closed by real safety pins. Exactly as Duchamp describes his "bird-plus" reprise of Courbet's 1861 Woman with White Stockings (1968) (Fig. 39), here, too, "you can see a ['faux con'] and a real one":(64) not a falcon ["faucon"] and a fake cunt ["faux con"] perhaps, but rather a fake cunt (a trompe-l'oeil breach, opening onto a virtual glass bottle) and a real pecker (a real bottlebrush).(65)

For Duchamp, it couldn't all be more logical. Rather than impute the surrounding space of the artwork to its glass medium--exactly as we do for the Large Glass, or its freestanding Glissière (1913-15) (Fig. 40), or A regarder (1918) (Fig. 41)--simply perform the reverse operation: and impute the glass medium to the surrounding space of Tu m', no differently than we need also impute the Ready-mades, whose shadows Duchamp projects and paints onto the surface of Tu m', to that same space.
click images to enlarge
Figure 40
Figure 41
Marcel Duchamp, Glider Containing a Water Mill in Neighboring Metals, 1913-15
Marcel Duchamp, To Be Looked at (the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, 1918
At this level, indeed, Duchamp's oeuvre is fairly redolent with sexualized, virtual figures: not only the virtual glass bottle I propose, but also the optical illusions of breasts and other part-objects engendered by his experiments with "Precision Optics", as Krauss suggests.(66) Dissatisfied, perhaps, that the artist's virtual glass enclosure, not unlike the Emperor's New Clothes, can't be (dis)proved?--Duchamp surely cackled to himself. In that case, when did you last take a good, hard look, not through glass, but at it? Exactly as Duchamp's title work, A regarder, instructs us: "with one eye, close to, for almost an hour", the glass is itself "to be looked at".(67) Not only is the glass there, but it also has a reverse side--and it is precisely this reverse side, "the other side of the glass" ["l'autre côté du verre"], at which we should be looking. In addition to the three-dimensional difference of this side versus "the other side of the glass", however, the title also alludes to the difference of inside versus outside: again, the specifically fourth-dimensional process of physical involution. Thus, the other side ["l'envers"] of the glass medium ["l'en-verre"] is always-already inside-out ["à l'envers"]:(68) "l'envers / de l'en-verre / est à l'envers". Or, as Duchamp explains: "the reverse and the obverse acquire a circular significance... [just as] the interior and the exterior (in the fourth dimension) can receive a similar identification" (DDS 45; WMD 29). In this way, the surrounding space, which Duchamp's glass artworks really slice in three dimensions, "mirrorically returns" as the virtual glass enclosure which Tu m' inversely assumes in four dimensions. Nor is the complementary nature of the Large Glass (as really slicing space) and Tu m' (as virtually enclosing it) especially surprising insofar as both works, in the 1930s, originally complemented and, in this sense, even completed each other in one and the same room: Katherine Dreier's West Redding, Connecticut library.(69)

Although we can no more see the fourth dimension than we normally do see glass, by specifically directing our attention to "the other side of the glass", which is always-already "inside-out", rather than ourselves taking a walk around the glass, during an impossibly hallucinatory hour of zero focal distance ("with one eye, close to, for almost an hour"), in effect, the glass takes a walk around us. In the fourth dimension, Duchamp explains, three-dimensional objects (e.g. spectators, penises...) are felt to be "circumhyperhypo-embraced (as if grasped with the hand and not seen with the eyes)" (DDS 126; WMD 89). If "circum-embraceability" is not itself without sexual suggestion, Duchamp makes his sexual-as-spatial premise explicit when he describes ideas like the fourth dimension as grasped by "the mind the way the penis is... by the vagina".(70) Like a specimen in a glass bottle, the spectator of Tu m' thus becomes an object of surveillance, just as by colluding with the key-hole of Etant Donnés, in the self-conscious process of peeping, the spectator himself becomes the actual show.(71) >>Next


page 1 2 3 4 5 6


60. Bettelheim, The Empty Fortress, p. 290.

61. Krauss, "Notes on the Index", pp. 196-99.

62. Roman Jakobson, "Quest for the Essence of Language" (1966), "Shifters and Verbal Categories" (1957), in On language, ed. Linda Waugh, Monique Monville-Burston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1990), pp. 409, 386-92.

63. Krauss, "Notes on the Index", p. 199.

64. Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, p. 885.

65. In some sense, the Tu m' bottlebrush and "Le Pendu Femelle" are even of a chrono(photo)graphic piece. For, just as the shadow cast by the Tu m' bottlebrush (in the manner of a sundial, perhaps) plots a sort of chronographic movement, the similarly phallic "Le Pendu Femelle" is identified to chrono(photo)graphic movement more generally. See "As Time Goes By: The Passage from Pendu(lum) to Chronograph", herein.

66. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T., 1993), pp. 81, 96-97, 135-37.

67. The title-cum-user's manual of Duchamp's A regarder (l'autre côté du verre) [...] is often mistranslated as To be looked at (from [sic] the other side of the glass) [...].

68. See Adcock, "Duchamp's Eroticism", pp. 160-61, citing Charles Stuckey. For Duchamp, "en verre" famously refers to how "picture on glass ['sur verre'] becomes delay in glass ['en verre'] -- but delay in glass does not mean picture on glass... a delay in glass, as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver" (DDS 41; WMD 26).

69. For those wondering where the left-right reversal ["l'inverse"] always accompanying the inside-out reversal ["l'envers"] can be found, look no farther than the Tu m' corkscrew. Ostentatiously abetted by its pointing hand(le), the corkscrew directly signals "the other side of the glass", where, being left-right specific, it will immediately left-right reverse: in Tu m', as in Duchamp's glass artworks, therefore, "l'inverse / est [au-delà de] l'envers / de l'en-verre". On the corkscrew's asymmetrical (i.e. left-right reversible) helix as a venerable, fourth-dimensional trope, see Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass, annot. Martin Gardner (N.Y.: New American Library, 1974), pp. 180-84 (nn. 4-5).

70. Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, p. 111, citing Lawrence Steefel, The Position of "La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même" (1915-1923) in the Stylistic and Iconographic Development of the Art of Marcel Duchamp (1960). See also DDS 131; WMD 93, where Duchamp describes the experience of the fourth dimension as comparable to "holding a penknife clasped in one's fist"; Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, p. 35 (n. 9), where Duchamp perhaps protests too much, "I would not say that sex is the fourth dimension; far from it, I would never say that"; rather, "Sex is three-dimensional as well as four-dimensional".

71. See Jones, Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp, pp. 191-204; Judovitz, Unpacking Duchamp, pp. 199-211, where the authors variously describe the experience of voyeurism in relation to Etant Donnés.


Figs. 37-38, 40-41
©2003 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.