„Etant donnés“ as a Form of Experience
in: Marcel Duchamp and the Forestay Waterfall, hrsg. von Stefan Banz, Zürich 2010, S. 132-145.
Chapter 1: Empty Space, Action, Situation
I come to the first aspect by which we can view the anteroom to Etant donnés, that of emptiness. In his later lecture „Where do we go from here,“ given in Philadelphia in 1961, Duchamp complained about the reification and commercialization of art, which had created the need for an ascetic revolution. His own artistic response to this was Etant donnés, which radically resisted the object status of the work, in the first place because it is not a movable art object, but instead a place where the viewer must go, and secondly because the experience of Etant donnés is less the experience of an art object and more the experience of a situation in which the viewer experiences him or herself as someone who productively takes part in the experience to be had here, which creates a connection between the experience of the work and experience of the self. Due to these qualities, and although Duchamp had been planning the work since the late 1940s, Etant donnés can be seen as having a specific currency at the time of its public exhibition in 1969. In 1969 it is a contemporary artwork n a quite particular way. But in what sense?
On the one hand, what Etant donnés shares with the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s is the attempt to break through the boundaries of the particular arts and métiers to get to practices that could incorporate all kinds of materials and all artistic processes. On the other hand, it also shares that trait that Lazlo Glozer expressed with the famous formula ‚exit from the image.‘ With the formula of an ‚exit from the image‘, Glozer grasped a significant trait of those phenomena that marked the era, such as installation art, performance art, or conceptual art. What all of these phenomena had in common was an iconoclastic shift away from the conventional forms of the image, and this iconoclasm was applied to the image as an object of art as well as to the image as a model of representation. What was being sought on a broader front, and in the most various forms, was the an aesthetics of spacial and temporal actuality, the presence of bodies and materials, as well as the situational involvement of the viewer, precisely in order to resist that reification of art that Duchamp had also complained about in his 1961 lecture. In this quest to get beyond the boundaries of the image and into a situation that includes the viewer, the first room of Etant donnés, with its emptiness, is absolutely essential. I would like to clarify this by taking a slight detour to look at two performances-or performance spaces-that were created a few years after the presentation of Etant donnés. As far as I know, they were made totally independent of Duchamps work, but share with Etant donnés the intention of undermining or overrunning the conventional triad of artist, artwork, and viewer.
The first of these performances is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, which he created in 1972 (fig. 3 & 4). One of Acconci’s goals-in this performance but also more generally-consisted in simultaneously understanding and undermining the position of the artistic field of his time, which he experienced as the playing field of „exaggerated formalist criticism“ and which he was skeptical about much like Duchamp. To this end, his performances thematized three central aspects of the field: the act of artistic production, the act of seeing, and the experiential space of the gallery. For Seedbed, Acconci had an inconspicuous ramp built in the New York Sonnabend Gallery, which caused the floor in the entire back half of the room to rise gradually to a height of 75 cm. Anyone coming in the gallery at first did not see much more than an empty room, in which no distinct object could be identified for viewing. Acconci was lying under the ramp, invisible to the spectators, for a total of nine days during the three-week exhibition.
When the spectators walked onto the ramp, he would begin to communicate with them by means of two loudspeakers set up in the room. He masturbated (or pretended to be doing so) and fantasized while the visitors walked around on the ramp above him. Thus, Acconci was confronting two very different spaces with each other: an empty room in which the viewers walked around, and a space separated from it where he himself was. In contrast to Etant donnés, here the two spaces are not behind one another, but on top of one another. Furthermore, in the space inaccessible to the viewer there was no life-sized female figure, but Acconci himself, and the contact between the two rooms was not optical, as was the case with Duchamp’s peepholes, but acoustic. I am thus not interested in any direct analogy between Seedbed and Etant donnés, but in the structural relationships in the layout and in the processes of experiencing both works. This will be particularly clear when we consider the goals that Acconci was pursuing with Seedbed. For in a quite aggressive way, the performance reverses what Acconci described in an interview as the common and equally aggressive behavior of viewers in relation to artworks. They enter the exhibition space and single-mindedly let loose at the artwork, that is, they treat the artwork as if it were a target. In his own words, Acconci says:
„It seems like in any kind of art situation, viewer enters exhibition space, viewer heads towards artwork, so viewer is aiming towards artwork. Viewer is treating artwork as a kind of target, so it seems to me this is a kind of general condition of all art viewing, art experience.“
Seedbed is an answer to this instrumental way of seeing, since Acconci leaves the viewer looking at emptiness. The work was not an object on the wall or a sculpture in the room, but the situation as a whole-a situation in which the gallery visitor was simultaneously both inside and outside, part of the work and at the same time excluded from it. He or she could no longer approach the work frontally: the work was everywhere and nowhere. The slanted surface where the gallery visitor walked around becomes a symbol of the destabilized relations between the viewer, the artist, and the work, and at the same time the relations are slipping into the realm of the sexual.
The second performance that I would like to draw on is Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure from 1974 (fig. 5). In the Konrad Fischer Gallery in Düsseldorf, Nauman had an artificial wall built into the room and hung a notice next to it. The text directed the visitors to press their own bodies against this wall as hard as they could. Furthermore the text directed the viewers to imagine that they were themselves pressing back from the other side of the wall, that is, that they were not pressing against the wall, but against themselves. The final sentence in the directions, which revolves around this gradual, imaginary replacement of the wall by the double of one’s own body, states that „This may become a very erotic exercise.“ In the case of Nauman’s Body Pressure, the artist himself is not present like in Acconci’s Seedbed, but is instead using the printed notice to direct the visitor to carry out a specific activity. But here as well, the work is no isolated object on the wall or in the room, but a situation. The negation of the conventional work structure on the part of Acconci and Nauman is accompanied by the production of a spatial apparatus in which the visitor becomes activated as the co-producer of the work. One of the things this means is that the positions of subject and object overlap. The visitors are not only the subjects of an aesthetic experience that they are having in relation to the artwork. They simultaneously experience themselves as the objects of the artistic situation, which directs their movements and which forms their perceptions of other and self. While Acconci says that the viewers normally aim at the artwork like a target, in Acconci’s Seedbed and Nauman’s Body Pressure the situation is reversed and the artwork becomes something that aims at the viewer.
These dynamics and reversals are also provoked by Etant donnés. In this case, the deconstruction of the conventional forms of viewing artworks does not begin with what we see beyond the wooden door. It is already happening when we enter the first, front room. Upon entering, we initially see nothing more than a disturbingly empty and underlit room, illuminated only by the light coming in from the open door frame. Some viewers simply turn around and walk out after taking a short look around in this empty room, thinking there’s nothing more to see. But even those who notice the door, its brick frames and the plastered wall and move toward it to examine it more closely do not encounter any artwork in the conventional sense, which would call on us to contemplate it like a picture or sculpture. Until the viewer figures out what is here to see-that is until he discovers the peepholes-he walks around searching for it like on Acconci’s ramp, and when he has discovered the peepholes, he has to press up against the wooden door like in Naumann’s Body Pressure (fig. 6). But neither walking around nor pressing against a door are typical activities when dealing with art. Afterwards-as soon as one has looked through the holes in the wooden door-the experience of the first room of Etant donnés is altered once again. For at this moment it becomes clear that when we were walking around in this first room, we have been both in the artwork and outside of it, being already part of it and at the same time not yet knowing it.
I would like to end this comparison between Duchamp, Acconci and Nauman by mentioning two more structural parallels. The first parallel is that all three works tend to individualize the viewer and produce a one-to-one relationship between the work and the viewer-in Acconci’s case through the dialogue with the visitor, in Nauman’s through the directions for a bodily encounter with the self, and finally in Duchamp due to the impossibility of two persons looking through the peephole at the same time. All three works thus prevent the art becoming the kind of mass spectacle that Duchamp saw coming and explicitly condemned. The second structural parallel is the following. As soon as one is looking through the peephole and is discovering the interior of Etant donnés, one becomes, as the viewer, an exterior element, who can be observed by other visitors. As awkward as it may be to be observed while walking around on Acconci’s ramp, being the target of his fantasies, or to be observed pressing against the wall that Nauman had built, trying to have the erotic experience promised by him, it is equally awkward to turn around after looking through Etant donnés‘s peepholes only to discover that one has been the object of view for other museum visitors.
What binds Etant donnés with other contemporary aesthetic projects is thus its concern with an apparatus of viewing, which has striking parallels to the neo-avant-garde critique of the modernist understanding of art that defines art as an object that is perceived by a unbiased viewer, who unlocks its meaning and value with the appropriate knowledge. And it is this modernist and aestheticist understanding of art that has the tendency to turn artworks into fetishes not only of the contemplative gaze of the beholder, but also into fetishes of the art market. Instead Acconci and Nauman, and in a different way also Duchamp, follow another idea, which I called an aesthetic of spatial and temporal actuality, the presence of bodies and materials as well as the situational involvement of the viewer. Not only Acconci and Nauman, but also Etant donnés links seeing to the completion of an action, understood as a bodily activity carried out over a certain period of time, which in Etant donnés includes having to press one’s body on a wooden door. At the same time, it links seeing with a situation, understood as a place at which this special action takes place.
This expansion of seeing into action and situation opens up the experience of art along a fault line that in a certain sense coincides with the wall set up in the room, which separates Etant donnés into two distinct spaces and at the same time links these spaces like a hinge. This hinge separates and links not only the two distinct spaces of Etant donnés, it simultaneously separates and links qualities that are commonly understood as oppositional: inside and outside, here and beyond, presentness and timelessness, materiality and immateriality, etc. Duchamp gave this hinge a name: he called it an infra-thin.
|Chapter I: Empty Space, Action, Situation|
|Chapter II: A Kind of Period Room|
|Etant donnés as a Form of Experience (PDF with illus. and fn. 1.930 KB)|