Thursday, May 9, 2013

After Duchamp

At the Barbican Centre in London (where Richard and I are currently), as part of their "Dancing around Duchamp" season, the art gallery is showcasing through June 9th a stunning show called "The Bride and the Bachelors." It highlights the influence of Marcel Duchamp on John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, as well as the creative exchanges Duchamp's work and friendship fuelled between the four younger artists across a variety of media.

A highlight for me were the sets that Johns and Rauschenberg designed for several of Cunningham's dance pieces, including Walkaround Time (1968), which Johns based on Duchamp's Large Glass, a replica of which serves as a centrepiece to the exhibition. Then there's the string of bicycle wheels and chairs that Rauschenberg designed for Cunningham's Travelogue (1977), an homage to Duchamp's first readymade, which I featured in The Objecthood of Chairs, and the sight of which here (again, not the original) nearly caused me to burst into tears.

Also featured are several of Cage and Duchamp's scores, excerpts of which play throughout the show, along with other audio compositions, including metteur-en-scene Philippe Parreno's recordings of dancers' feet as they perform Cunningham's choreography. In lieu of an actual live dance performance (which happen on Thursdays and weekends only), this was the next best thing.

My only complaint is that gender and sexuality were completely absent from the narrative of this show, notwithstanding the coded "bachelors" reference in the title, and despite the images of Duchamp as Rrose Selavy throughout the show. Having just come from the Man Ray show at the National Portrait Gallery, where images of a young, very beautiful, and very androgynous Duchamp were abundant, it struck me that one of the additional appeals of this creative genius to four young gay artists in 1950s America would have been the way he made the performance of sexual identity a central part of his oeuvre.

Also on in the Curve Gallery on the ground floor of the Barbican is an installation by Vancouver artist Geoffrey Farmer called "The Surgeon and the Photographer." Made up of hundreds of hand puppets "dressed" with cut-out images from second-hand books and magazines collected by the artist, and supplemented by a found audio score and projected visual index of Farmer's source images, the work is a dizzying mash-up of iconographic human "types." I had seen an earlier version of this work at the National Gallery of Canada in 2009. Here, in expanded form, and juxtaposed against Duchamp, it takes on added significance. A major work by a major artist.


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