ASRL / PERPETUAL 2014
 
Centuries Before Duchamp, Spanish King Elevated Chess Strategy to Occult Art
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-02-11
Astrological Chess
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The deep affinity between chess and Marcel Duchamp is well known. It's not only that picture of him playing with a nude Eve Babitz, or the striking, abstract set he designed with his friend Man Ray, or even his official decision to abandon art production for a period of 20 years whilst cultivating his tournament game. There is also the sense that the rhythms of chess were deeply intertwined with everything Duchamp did: from the carefully laid Fountain gambit set to trap his opponent the Salon Des Independants, to the fact that, as he once told interviewer Pierre Cabanne, he considered his "greatest work of art" to be his "use of time." (This of course is a point of pride among any professional Chessmaster playing on the clock). Ultimately, one suspects that the universe which swirled around the figure of Marcel Duchamp was structured, fundamentally, like a chess game--and that this is amongst the central secrets of his art.

In this respect, there is reason to believe that Duchamp may have had a seminal ancestor in a perhaps unlikely place and time: 13th Century Castile. This is where and when King Alfonso X, known also as Alfonso the Wise, a "lettered" monarch known for his skill at astrology and verse composition, commissioned the Book of Games: an allusive, luminously illustrated text based partly on pre-existing Arabic works. It is among the first known documents to consider in depth the relationship between gaming, aesthetics, and cosmology.   Backgammon, dice, chess and others are looked upon not just as diversions, but fundamental ciphers providing insight into the order of things (while also constituting standards of beauty.) One tableau, for instance, allegorizes the dialectic between chance and strategy as a mystical union between dice and chess. One cannot but think of this in relationship to the tricky, faux-stochastic work of Duchamp's: the "Standard Stoppages." These appear to leave measurements to fate, but in fact were most likely carefully, intentionally glued in the precise configuration predetermined by the artist. Seeming to appease the God of chance, while in fact leaving nothing to it: is this not one authentic, if perverse way of manifesting Alfonso's dialectic?

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