A little over a month ago, a student of art history and psychology at Vanderbilt University found my work online. She is writing a paper on Dada, feminism and the influence of Duchamp on female artists. I’m honored to be a part of the dialog, and I’ll share with you the work she was particularly interested in, and my initial responses to her questions. For those of you unfamiliar with Dada, please know that it was a fierce and fun reaction to “Art”, and to the dark politics of the day (post WW1). On no uncertain terms the facets of that movement are relevant today.
“For the DADAist life is the meaning of art” – Jean Arp
HB-What sources influenced this work and how did they influence it and/or your general artistic process? Please describe any of your thought processes or meanings behind this work.
CHE- The work is titled after Marcel Duchamp’s last major work “Étant donnés: : 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage”, or translated in English as “Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating”. I titled my piece “Étant Donnés (1. The Waterfall): An Homage to Marcel Duchamp”. The larger theme of my installation the piece was included was centered around the idea of a waterfall, and the importance of forgetting in a myth story. All of my work to date is focused on the story of Psyche and her four tasks. Each exhibition I have done is a meditation on one of the four tasks.
This piece (the homage to Duchamp) was done for the task on filling a crystal flask – Psyche must retrieve water from the raging waterfall. Disguised as an eagle, Zeus fills the flask on her behalf. The symbolism of the eagle is to create a sharp focus when you want something – to put your blinders on to your fears, to any distraction in order to get what you want. In other words, forgetting as a benefit to keep your eyes on the prize.
This homage to Marcel Duchamp is many-layered, and it must be clearly stated that Marcel Duchamp thought nothing of homages – in fact he thought they were downright useless. It is in this light that I created the work, as I have a fascination and an unpopular dislike of the artist. When he made his urinal and submitted it for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 and was rejected, he declared that he had “won”. By creating an homage to an artist who thought them meaningless, and now filling it with meaning, layers and interest from others then I have “won”.
The work is a reaction to how distraught I was when I first saw the original work by Duchamp. It is an image I could not forget, though wanted in my whole being to forget it. I’ll liken it to a brain stain – you can’t take away an image you’ve seen. As a woman looking at “Étant donnés” is to see a woman in the most vulnerable position, with her face cut off so she becomes anonymous, and in a setting where you can’t tell whether she is dead, was raped or is inviting someone to take advantage of her. Yale University Press published a tomb (over 440 pages) to this work, and only this work, in 2009 for the occasion of the installation being shared with the public at the Philadelphia Art Museum. There are no answers so to speak about the work, so like any good Dada piece it promotes confusion.
Returning to the idea of forgetting, which was my installation’s theme, this was a work that I needed to forget, to subvert and seek revenge for in some way. Like the original Duchamp work where you need to peek into a door to see the image, my work has a peephole. Instead of looking through the peephole, I’ve used the anti-retinal sensation of inviting the viewer to put their hand in the pedestal – the hole is waist high. As the viewer stares at either themselves in the mirror, or the blue sky, their hands reach the handle of a real gun. At this point the viewer/participant will linger with their hand on the gun, curious about the touch, the trigger, the thought of whether it’s loaded or not, what they are comfortable looking at, etc. Really it’s a feeling one never forgets. Or the participant is frightened away, terrified by the sensation. Much like the viewer of Duchamp’s ‘Étant donnés” – one either is curious and investigative, or one is repulsed and angry. Ultimately I am both. As a feminist though I am immediately sensitive to the political implications of the piece, hence the homage containing a gun – a proverbially loaded item, just as the naked woman is in Duchamp’s piece.
For being a declared “anti-retinal” artist, it’s curious that Duchamp would make this final work so visual, so aesthetic, and so related to the eye, what we see, what we don’t see and what we choose to see. He was totally against having any appealing connection to his readymades early on, making sure that he chose them for his pure indifference to them. Is the message in this last piece that ultimately, even after many wives and lovers and naked chess games (his female opponent always naked, not him), is he ultimately sharing his indifference of women to the viewer? It’s quite possible.
HB-What does the Dada movement mean to you?
CHE-I have come to make art in the most unconventional way, it is no doubt that the Dada movement feels close to home, or that there is lineage in what I’m doing that links back to that zeitgeist. I was a math major before I became an art major, I took a very long absence from art and worked in the business world for years, I lose patience with the art world continually, and my mantra is always “art is a verb”. I am anti-art in the sense that I am anti the systems that have been set up to support a market. I am 100% an art advocate in the sense that I believe one needs art for their brain to relax and focus, in the same way that we need exercise to relax and focus our bodies. It’s vital for our existence, and primal – not pixie dust to sprinkle on a school, or stuck on a pedestal.
Dada espoused the word salads, and anything you can use to make something. I too am aesthetically promiscuous in the studio – I use any medium (sculpture, drawings, words, scent, photo, etc). Much like Dada my work is not easily understood. By design Dada artists sat in chaos and exhausted it. I do the same. Last summer I had a phone call with a “senior critic” at a prominent art school in NYC. She was very clear and honest with me, stating she had NO idea what I was doing, and pretty much stopped the conversation there, before wishing me luck in my endeavors. This is a perfect example as to why and how my work is Dada-esque. It will hopefully patina with time, and become enduring at some point. In the meanwhile it’s chaos to many, though many are curious – and those curious ones are invaluable to me, as we can dialog about the issues at hand. I have no allegiance to medium or institution for better or worse. From a mile high view my work looks to be designed to be misunderstood.
Dada was a reaction to political issues, as is mine. Whether I am working on a project about forgetting (the gun is a highly political issue – one where people have VERY strong feelings about it, though have never touched a gun), cultural commons and copyright or domestic violence, I will use materials from anywhere to create corresponding work. One could say that my studio is an an assemblage.
HB-How has gender affected your understanding and usage of Dada/Duchampian ideas?
CHE-Dada is a protest to the art world. As a female artist there are so many protests to contend with – art world inequality, gender disparity, violence and abuse against women, and worldwide misconceptions of women/motherhood and femininity. Dada artists/engineers wanted to be revolutionary, and I am certainly interested in the revolutionary concept – the idea of redefining what art is, how it should look, taste, feel and smell like. For all of the status quo things I’d like to overturn, I don’t think I’d have the same fire in my belly about it if I was a male artist.
HB-Does Dada mean something different to 21st century female artists? If so, how?
CHE-It means the same thing actually. Finding harmony in discord, creating provocations to arouse rage to some degree, thinking for yourself, disbanding hierarchy’s – those are all values and principles that are urgent in certain female artists’ practice that may or may not relate themselves with Dada. I don’t know if these artists are truly understanding the parallels of the Dada movement with what they are doing – there is a cycle of urgencies though and this one is quite relevant today.
HB-Will future artists continue to look back to Dada and Duchamp as sources of inspiration? How might artists’ use of Dada tenets evolve over time?
CHE-Per my previous answer we live in a cyclical universe, as much as we believe we progress, we are always going in a circle. Thought forms will repeat themselves. Order and enlightenment will become vogue in the “art establishment” and you will always have a troupe of artists reacting to that with the radical negation of art that the Dada movement supported. We may not fetishize Duchamp in years to come, and instead see him as a critical pivot that facilitated new ways of thinking versus being a brilliant maker of things. He was not that, he was a terrific thinker. Dada was originally a reaction in 1913 of people being confined and shackled in WW1. A century later we now must urgently react to our confinement and shackles, which are disguised as freedom in the form of media “choice” and the internet – all a predetermined and designed sham. Instead of being wasted away or torn to shreds in a battlefield, our generation is being wasted away intellectually – where the memes and followers replace the lice, gas and rats of a bunker during WW1.
The radical negation of art will always be in the mix, especially in the elite circles of intellectuals, where thinking hockey or chess games rule over the clean and clear necessity of the human need to make things.
Tagged: Catherine Haley Epstine, Dada, Étant donnés, Homage, Marcel Duchamp, The Waterfall, Urinal