by Julia Dür

6. A visit in the Virtual DuCage Museum

                                    An imaginative meeting with Works of Ducage 

I am sitting somewhere in a stuffy room in a Museum of Modern Art. Tired of all the impressions, of the numerous paintings and sculptures I have already observed. The cosy bench in the middle of the exhibition room is apparently there for people who want to observe some paintings in elaborate detail. I guess I am not one of the pseudo art connoisseurs who sit on this bench to discuss with their partner about the revealing colour ‘distribution’ of Jackson Pollock’s Number 4. I find it more interesting to hear the wooden floor cracking as a middle-aged couple enters the room. My head feels in a dubious state; I feel like leaving the museum and yet wish to stay to watch people watching. The couple is walking through the room as soon as they have entered. The artworks apparently did not appeal to them. Which artworks? I have not yet paid attention to the objects that are all around me. Too tired to focus my attention on any painting or one of those small printed plates which contain loads of information on the artist and the work itself. I am turning my head a little so that I get an elusive overview of the works of art surrounding me.

click to enlarge
Figure 14

Something unidentifiable has focused my attention and overthrown my tiredness. Looks like a huge window divided in two that has been deliberately cracked and then fixed again. (Fig. 14) On the glass there are weird technical drafts. Big question mark...…My eyes are slowly wandering to the window behind and the life outside. The church bell is already ringing a loud and clear 5th time. I can perceive a young mother eagerly trying to catch her son who is running away from her. She is wearing high heels which make it almost impossible to catch up with the runaway. The boy and his mother disappear. My eyes are wandering back to the strange object. The second time I watch it, it seems already familiar. The upper half of the glass is somehow more artistic than the lower one which reminds me of a technical draft of whatever. I like the three ‘windows’ on the very top of the upper half. A frame on a frame….it is like featuring a TV on TV…have you seen the movie Pleasantville? The three ‘windows’ tempt me to watch beyond the glass a second time. This time, however, I am focusing my attention on the mysterious glass. Do not misunderstand me – I do not ‘like’ this art-object – after all I would not say it’s beautiful, though it’s not ugly either. It’s simply there. One could object now that everything in this museum is ‘there’. That’s right. But the other paintings hanging on the white walls are not suitable for tired museum visitors like me. They call for attention. The glass is different. I am walking around a little and observe the glass from a different angle. It looks different from behind - I can see through it the painting on the opposite wall. Now I know - it’s the unobtrusiveness that makes the glass somehow special for me. The fact that it’s there and yet seems to dissolve in the background….it can be looked at and looked through at the same time….the glass encourages me to see the world behind. And the world somehow looks different through it. I have never had such an experience in a museum.

“Use ‘delay’ instead of picture or painting…It’s merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture … to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but rather in their indecisive reunion.”(1)
—Marcel Duchamp

This is how Duchamp referred to The Large Glass or better The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even in one of his working notes that he collected in The Green Box. He meant it to be a “delay” instead of a picture. Delay…does this make any sense? Delay: make or be slow or late (be delayed by traffic); put off until later (delay a journey)(2). Maybe Duchamp simply opened his dictionary and chose first term his eyes spotted - or delay was meant as one of Duchamp’s numerous wordplays: “One Duchampian has suggested that it be read as an anagram for ‘lad(e)y,’ so that “delay in glass” becomes glass lady.”(3) Whatever the case, he managed well to keep the secret. The Large Glass is probably Duchamp’s most complex and mysterious artwork and has been subjected to endless analysis. As with Duchamp’s most statements on his artworks, his notes published in The Green Box are very hard if not impossible to decode and leave much space for speculation. Duchamp wanted to leave the door open, for in his mind, the spectator ultimately finished the artwork by observing and interpreting it. Or he did not want us to understand The Glass at all. Duchamp would have probably commented on the numerous speculations on his masterpiece “there is no solution as there is no problem.”(4) I am sure that he would have been quite amused at the endless number of interpretation attempts.

“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”(5) Marcel Duchamp

Unfortunately I have not yet seen the Large Glass in the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art – unless in my imagination.  When observing pictures of The Glass, I do not focus my attention on any of the objects resembling the bride or the bachelor – nor am I tempted to find out about the meanings of the individual elements…The central message for me is the medium of the artwork itself – that is the glass. The glass as a strong contrast to the traditional paintings drawn on canvasses. I like the idea of an artwork that can be looked at and looked through at the same time. The experience of looking at or beyond the glass is an endless one. Whatever is beyond the painting - it looks different when seen through the cracked glass. In fact, it is not only the environment which is in constant change, but also the artwork itself. The life outside  the museum window becomes art – interpenetration of art and life. Thus, the experience of observing an artwork is an unexpected and unique one.

Cage, in his interview with Joan Retallack commented on the Large Glass: “The experience of being able to look through the glass and see the rest of the world is the experience of not knowing where the work ends. It doesn’t end. In fact it goes into life.”(6) The elements depicted on the glass are not beautiful nor ugly – but rather indifferent and thus do not much focus the viewer’s attention. Duchamp remarked that “every image in the glass is there for a purpose and nothing is put in to fill a blank space or to please the eye.”(7) His message is clear: Duchamp, as a consequence of ‘unlearning to draw’, wanted to create an artwork which was completely anti-retinal and free of artistic tradition. Besides using glass instead of a canvas, he worked with unconventional materials such as lead foil and wires. I found it quite interesting that Duchamp never actually ‘finished’ his masterpiece. He remarked that “it may be subconsciously I never intended to finish it because the word ‘finish’ implies an acceptance of traditional methods and all the paraphernalia that accompany them.”(8) It is up to us to ultimately ‘finish’ his Large Glass. Duchamp’s wish to escape the prison of tradition is not something we are unfamiliar with. He wanted to find a way of expressing himself without being a painter or a writer, without taking one of these labels and yet producing something that would be a product of himself.

As Duchamp meant it to be, The Glass is far from retinal as it represents a complex subject which cannot possibly be decoded by simply looking at the artwork. The process of thinking, according to Duchamp, is more significant than the artistic result. If that was the case – why wouldn’t he have wanted to make his ideas as clear as possible? We must at least read Duchamp’s notes or statements and even then we are confronted with the cryptic nature of this artwork. Who would guess an act of love behind the weird mechanical elements of the Bride? One could never suspect the subject of sexual desire from simply looking at The Glass. Duchamp left us behind some more or less abstruse indications in his Green Box notes:

“The Bride is basically a motor. This bride runs on love gasoline which is ignited in a two-stroke cycle. The first stroke, or explosion, is generated by the bachelors through an electrical stripping whose action Duchamp compares to the image of a motor car climbing a slope in low gear…while slowly accelerating, as if exhausted by hope, the motor of the car turns faster and faster, until it roars triumphantly.”(9)

It is not hard to guess from Duchamp’s formulation that the subject of the Bride is nothing else than the sexual intercourse. However, I do not intend to analyse  Duchamp’s notes or statements nor am I interested in reflecting on the numerous interpretations written on Duchamp’s complex masterpiece. I have already commented on my personal interpretation of the artwork and thus believe that I cannot contribute anything more to the endless number of interpretation attempts. My readers, however, can…as every person responds in his own way. Listen to Duchamp’s ‘theory’ how in his mind works of art become works of art:

“A work of art exists only when the spectator has looked at it. Until then it is only something that has been done, that might disappear and nobody would know about it, but the spectator consecrates it by saying this is good, we will keep it, and the spectator in that case becomes posterity, and posterity keeps museums full of paintings today. My impression is that these museums – call it the Prado, call it the National Gallery, call it the Louvre – are only receptacles of things that have survived, probably mediocrity. Because they happen to have survived is no reason to make them so important and big and beautiful, and there is no justification for that label of beautiful. They have survived. Why have they survived? It is not because they are beautiful. It is because they have survived by the law of chance. We probably have lot many, many other artists of those same periods who are as beautiful or even more beautiful…”(10)

It is our responsibility if an artwork is worth preserving or not. According to Duchamp, a work of art is incomplete until it has been seen and thought about by one or more spectators.(11) We are no longer passive observers but part of the creative process - as the artist himself.

Cage’s idea of blurring the distinction between audience and performer was a different one than Duchamp’s. Cage, more than Duchamp was interested in actively incorporating the audience into his art – I am thinking now I particular of Cage’s Silent piece. Cage said that “the performance should make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action – that the music, so to speak is his, rather than the composer’s.”(12)The performer’s responsibility thus shifted from self-expression to opening a window for the sounds of the environment. Cage wished to create a music that was performed by everyone. In Cage’s performance of 4’33”, it was actually the audience that was ‘performing’ by contributing sounds such as whispers and coughs. He wanted his music to be free of his own likes and dislikes and let the audience feel that ‘silent music’ was more interesting than the music they would hear if they went into a concert hall.(13) Cage, as a result of welcoming everything that was non-intentional and natural, aimed at creating a music that was a mixture of all sounds the environment and audience offered him.

Cage’s ideas of incorporating the audience into his live performances are vividly expressed in numerous interviews. I believe his statements do not need any further explanation – instead, they rather speak for themselves. His interviews are a real pleasure to read.

“I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece - 4’33”, 1952. It has three movements and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.”(14)

“More and more in my performances, I try to bring about a situation in which there is no difference between the audience and the performers. And I’m not speaking of audience participation in something designed by the composer, but rather I am speaking of the music that arises through the activity of both performers and the so-called audience.”(15)

“Well, music is not just composition, but it is performance, and it is listening. The Amplification of those cards, though it was high, almost at the level of Feedback - which we heard now and then - produced sounds that were still so Quiet that one could hear the audience as performers too. And I’m sure that they noticed that themselves. You noticed, for Instance, the man in The Back who was having trouble with his digestion. And I would hear many different kinds of coughing and I’m sure that people heard those themselves as sounds, rather than as interruptions. I hope, and I’ve hoped this now for thirty years, when I make music that it won’t interrupt the silence which already exists. And that silence includes coughs. I thought the Audience behaved/Performed beautifully, because they didn’t intend to cough - they were obliged to cough; the Cough had its own thought, interpenetrated - nothing obstructing anything Else.”(16)

“I just performed Muoyce which is a whispered version of my Writing for the Fifth Time Through Finnegan’s Wake, and it was done in Frankfurt. It lasts for two and a half hours. Klaus Schöning of Hörspiel WDR told the audience which was large, about four or five hundred Joyce scholars, that the doors were open; that once the performance began, they could leave as they wish, and that they could also come back if they wanted. After twenty minutes, they began to leave, and he told me later that only about half of the audience was there at the end. So I think that the work is still irritating. People think, perhaps, that they are no longer irritated, but they still have great difficulty paying attention to something they don’t understand. I think that the division is between understanding and experiencing, and many people think that art has to do with understanding, but it doesn’t. It has to do with experience; and if you understand something, then you walk out once you get the point because you don’t want the experience. You don’t want to be irritated. So they leave, and they say the avant-garde doesn’t exist. But the avant-garde continues, and it is experience.”(17)

…I am feeling a bit dizzy of all the writing right now and decide to turn on my CD-player. My friend has recently recorded some John Cage pieces for me. Among them Music for Marcel Duchamp, 4’33” and Imaginary Landscape I do not really know what to expect – yet I have some vague ideas what Cage could sound like. A frenzy huggermugger of sounds and noises is what first comes to my mind….I won’t speculate any longer, I’ll press the play button….The first piece sounds a bit silent; must be 4’33”… I am curious if I can perceive any background noises, but I don’t. At least I have been waiting in expectation for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Cage well managed to keep me curious for this period of time ;)…..The next piece reminds me a bit of a dramatic scene in a horror film. The music gets faster and faster….. My heart feels like bumping in the same rhythm as the music. It makes me feel nervous. At the point it reaches its climax, the piece unexpectedly ends…….The following track sounds, I would say, totally un-cagean…..harmony pure. This is what the beginnings of electronic music must have sounded like. The music permits me to slowly familiarise with it….Cage was apparently working with compositional tools such as repetition….and, believe it or not, the result sounds harmonious. Probably unintentional harmony. I would say that this is the first piece which permits me to think of something else than the music I am listening to. It does not completely take me in……Cage’s pieces are rather short in length…think I need a short break now in order to ‘digest’ this cagean music experience…..The next track starts with a sound I can hardly endure. Reminds me of an extremely boisterous aeroplane departure…. that suddenly turns into a vacuum cleaner noise. If we were able to receive all frequencies surrounding us, it would assumedly sound like this. The music is increasing in loudness and intensity that I have to skip to the following track………Relief…….The piece I am now listening to sounds like a conversation between two instruments. The one is a dominant cello, the other a timid bell. As different as they may be, they seem to be fond of each other. I begin to like the constant changes in rhythm…they bring about a sense of dramatic tension and yet a touch of playfulness. ...I think I will now leave the Cagean music experience in order to reflect…

I would very much like to place myself in the position of being a spectator in Cage’s performance of 4’33”, but I think that it is impossible at least at the time. I have ‘listened’ to it on tape and unfortunately could not perceive any of the background noises. I don’t think, however, that the actual experience of having been ‘real’ part of the audience is what truly matters here. It is rather the idea behind the work which becomes part of our awareness once we have been acquainted with Cage’s philosophy. That is of course also the case with Duchamp. 

Listening to Cage has been an exciting adventure. He offered me everything ranging from….complete silence, quiet harmony, refreshing sound……to unbearable noise. You never know what to expect when listening to Cage. My mind is wandering back to my virtual experience of Duchamp’s Large Glass……it permitted me to see the world beyond the artwork. Total blurring of the distinction between art and life.

Cage’s music left a different impression on me. Most of his music pieces, except of course his Silent piece, completely absorbed me. When listening to Cage’s pieces I was too involved in the musical experience in order to immerse in a different world. Too much intensity of sounds…..and thus little transparency. Cage wanted to incorporate environmental sounds into his music. The sounds we hear every day on the street do not have a distracting effect on us as we are used to them. However, we are not used to Cage’s intensification of these sounds. In my view, the blurring of the distinction between art and life did not work out in all of Cage’s music pieces – at least when listening to the recorded version. I can, of course, only speak about my subjective music experience - I suppose that it would be an entirely different experience if I were able to listen and watch his music in a concert hall. After all it should be considered that his pieces were originally not intended to be listened on CD or tape.

Duchamp, however, did not either constantly manage to realise his conception of breaking down the barriers between art and life. His last masterpiece, Etant donnés, is the exact reverse of the Large Glass. This disturbing and provocative work presents a startingly realistic nude made of leather and reclining on a bed of leaves in front of a mechanical waterfall. She is only visible through two peepholes in a massive wooden door.

“In 1943 Duchamp rented a studio on the top floor of a building in New York City. While everyone believed that Duchamp had given up "art," he was secretly constructing this tableau, begun in 1946, which was not completed until 1966. The full title of the piece is: Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. It consists of an old wooden door, bricks, velvet, twigs gathered by Duchamp on his walks in the park, leather stretched over a metal armature of a female form, glass, linoleum, an electric motor, etc. Duchamp prepared a "Manual of Instructions" in a 4-ring binder which explains and illustrates the process of assembling/disassembling the piece. It was not revealed to the public until July of 1969, (several months after Duchamp's death), when it was permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No photographs of the interior of the piece or of the notebook of instructions were allowed to be published by the museum for at least 15 years. The viewer of the piece first steps onto a mat in front of the door, which activates the lights, motor, etc., and then peers through two "peepholes" to view the construction behind the door. The voyeur strains, unsuccessfully, to see the "face" of the eerily realistic nude female form which lies supine on a bed of twigs, illuminated gas lamp in hand. In the distance, a sparkling waterfall shimmers, backlit by a flickering light, part of a realistically rendered landscape painting on glass.”(18)

It seems rather hard for me to imagine what feelings a real encounter with Etant Donnés would evoke in me. After looking at the black and white reproductions, I had the impression that this artwork represented everything Duchamp so vehemently refused: it is far from anti-retinal – the nude lies there, fully exposed and opened by the position of her legs. In contrast to the Large Glass where the viewer can look at and through it from any angle, he is restricted to a particular position –  we can only see the artwork through the peephole in the wooden door; the way Duchamp prescribed it. Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions for Etant Donnés again prescribes step for step how to take the artwork apart and put it back together. No room for interpretation for those who install it.

When I think of Etant Donnés, I see a big question mark. To me it seems that Duchamp, the confirmed anti-artist tried in vain to keep up his anti-(quite everything) attitude throughout his life. Etant Donnés is after all the best example for a very retinal artwork. His numerous self-contradicting statements give evidence of a character who was not thoroughly convinced of himself as an anti-artist. The following statement made by Duchamp reveals quite a lot in this respect: “I have forced to contradict myself in order to avoid confirmation to my own tastes.”(19)This line may also express Duchamp’s ‘gap’ in maintaining the blurring of the distinction between art and life. Who knows, maybe Etant Donnés was Duchamp’s only ‘honest’ artwork.

I believe, however that there is not only one possibility of realizing the blurring of art and life. Maybe Etant Donnés contributed as much to the blurring as the Large Glass. Duchamp probably wanted the spectator not immediately to see the ‘retinal’ aspects of his artwork, but rather what is  ‘behind’ it. The ‘behind’ I am thinking of in particular, is the artists’ life, his biography. In Etant Donnés, Duchamp undoubtedly expressed suppressed emotions for a woman he had been in love with before he got married to his second wife. Maria Martins was a woman who would not give up her marriage for Duchamp. Maybe, in Etant Donnés he saw her in a figurative sense raped by her husband. In my view, the lamp she holds in her hand symbolizes a mute cry for help. She cries in vain, for she is locked up behind the heavy wooden door. There is no right or wrong when it comes to interpreting artworks – in the end there are only speculations. Cage quite interestingly commented on his friends’ last masterwork:

“I can only see what Duchamp permits me to see. The Large Glass changes with the light and he was aware of this. So does any painting. But Etant Donnés doesn’t change because it is all prescribed. So he’s telling us something that we perhaps haven’t yet learned, when we speak as we do so glibly of the blurring of the distinction between art and life. Or perhaps he’s bringing us back to Thoreau: yes and no are lies. Or keeping the distinction, he may be saying neither one is true. The only true answer is that which will let us have both of these.”(20)

Cage’s quotation once again brings us back to the title of this project – the blurring of the distinction between art and life. Both Duchamp and Cage pivotally contributed to this blurring by realizing unique ideas in this direction -  however, it also turned out to be an endless enterprise. It is now up to us to continue their project……….>>Next

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[1] Tomkins 1.                                          

[2] The Oxford English Reader’s Dictionary.

[3] Tomkins 1.           

[4] Ibid. 464.

[5] Ibid. 397.

[6] Retallack, 110.

[7] Tomkins 124.

[8] Tomkins 250.

[9] Tomkins 5.

[10] Fetz, Kunst in der Stadt 2 x.

[11] Tomkins 397.

[12] Peter Gena and Jonathan Brent, A John Cage Reader (New York: C.F. Peters Higgins, 1998) 22.

[13] Kostelanetz 65.

[14] Ibid. 65.

[15] Ibid. 111.

[16] Ibid. 129.                                                                                                                        

[17] Ibid. 115.

[18] Info about Etant donnés found in the Internet:

[19] Tomkins 419.

[20] Roth 80.