Duchamp Etant donnes museum context Period Room infra-thin

Etant donnés as a Form of Experience (PDF with illus. and fn. 1.930 KB)


„Etant donnés“ as a Form of Experience

in: Marcel Duchamp and the Forestay Waterfall, hrsg. von Stefan Banz, Zürich 2010, S. 132-145.

Chapter 2: A kind of Period Room

The thematization of the wall that separates and connects the two spaces of Etant donnés like a hinge leads me to the second section of this essay. Here we are not concerned with the emptiness of the room, which is filled up as a space of action and situation, but with what is materially contained in this space and what it becomes through this. At the same time I am changing perspective. So far I have attempted to contextualize Etant donnés in time, not by situating the work in the chronology of Duchamp’s work-as the summation of the oeuvre, as the continuation of the Large Glass, or the like-but by working out an aspect of its contemporary aesthetic qualities. Now I would instead like to contextualize it in terms of space by discussing Etant donnés in its aesthetic relation to the place for which Duchamp conceived the work: the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Three of the four walls of that first room, which is my sole topic here, are empty; the fourth wall, however, which was constructed especially for the work, is a carefully executed artifact over its entire surface, consisting of a wooden door and a brick frame, for which Duchamp selected the raw materials in Spain and had them transferred to America, as well as the plaster surface covering the remainder of the wall. The design of this wall, which in its current form decidedly bears the stamp of Duchamp’s stepson, the engineer Paul Matisse, is based on photographs that Duchamp had taken during his summer trips to Spain of similar doors and walls (fig. 7). This combination of using original materials and artificially recreating a space in the context of the museum is precisely the aesthetic logic of the Period Rooms, which the Philadelphia Museum of Art already possessed in great number and was already famous for by the time Duchamp was working on Etant donnés and determined the space for it within the museum. The Period Rooms seek to merge individual elements that may not necessarily belong together in the way shown-pieces of furniture, elements of decor, artworks, etc.-into a complete aesthetic situation, which makes it possible for the viewer to go on a visual trip to another place and another time.

Interestingly, the fact that Duchamp’s installation forms a bridge to the Period Rooms is one of the arguments that had to be made on January 15, 1969 at a decisive meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum in order to accept the endowment of Duchamp’s posthumous work. As the third speaker, after the president and then the director of the museum, Henry Clifford, one of the Trustees and earlier a Curator of Painting, stressed that „in a Museum so rich in period rooms [Etant donnés] would add one of this century.“ Clifford’s remark is absolutely pertinent; but I suspect that the aesthetic point of Clifford’s statement, that Etant donnés would be another Period Room in the museum, has not yet been sufficiently addressed.

Therefore I would like to draw our attention to another element of that first room of Etant donnés: to the Sisal carpet that fills the entire room, from the threshold at the entrance to this first room, up to the wooden door where one finally stands and looks. When I stood in this room for the first time, I found this Sisal carpet considerably disturbing. Why was it there? In the meantime I have been able to find out from Michael Taylor’s extensive and precise catalog, published in conjunction with the 2009 exhibition on Etant donnés, that it was the last element to be installed, shortly before the work was presented to the public. It cannot be traced back to any decision of Duchamp’s, but was rather installed to hide the electronic sensors that had been built into the flooring, which caused the lights to go on behind the wooden door as soon as someone entered the first room of Etant donnés. In the meantime, however, the Sisal carpet has actually become unnecessary, as I was also able to find out from Taylor’s catalog. For in August 1998, the floor sensors were replaced with motion sensors installed in the ceiling of the room. Nonetheless, the carpet is still there and even gets replaced when it is too worn out. We must therefore now ascribe to this carpet no longer merely a pragmatic function, but an aesthetic one. This aesthetic function, however, is significant. For in fact we also encounter this Sisal carpet at decisive spots in the museum’s Period Rooms. There, they do not only have the pragmatic function of protecting the valuable flooring, but also a further aesthetic function. They mark that indeterminate space, both spatially and temporally, that you find yourself in when you stand in the viewing station from which you look into these Period Rooms which you can not enter. In figure 8 we see Gallery 256, the reconstruction of a room of the so-called Stiegerhof near Villach in Austria, built in the late 16th century. On the left is the viewing station with the Sisal carpet, from where one has the view shown in figure 9. Actually you stand on a section of the floor in the room that you are looking at, but at the same time you are elsewhere, as if there were an invisible wall separating you from what you are seeing. The situation becomes even more peculiar when two rooms that are temporally and spatially different are directly adjoined. In Gallery 262 with Netherlandish paintings from the 17. century, you can enter a viewing station from which you are looking into the adjacent room, originally part of a hunting lodge in Kent, in England, made one century earlier, in 1529 (figs. 10 & 11). When you stand at this viewing station, you are still part of the first room’s time-space, but are already looking into the second room’s time-space, literally standing in a spatial-temporal nowhere.

A further element of the Period Rooms corresponds with this non-place of the viewing stations: the light falling through the windows that lights up the rooms, along with spot lights mounted in the rooms themselves that serve to draw attention to details in the furnishings. The light falling through the windows is not natural light, but artificial light simulating natural light. It falls completely evenly, free of the fluctuations that would be caused by the time of day or weather conditions, shining in through panes that are usually made of frosted glass. The Period Rooms are thus transformed into a constant present, which gives them a peculiar, somewhat surreal atmosphere. In Gallery 268, a salon from a Parisian town house, there is yet another dimension to this (fig. 12). A balcony railing is visible through the high windows. But of course we cannot walk out onto this balcony, nor even open the window, not only for reasons of conservation, but because we would not be able to look out onto the Rue Royale in Paris, where this palace was constructed shortly before the French Revolution, but onto an interior wall of the museum, complete with the neon lights that are the source of the light coming through the frosted glass. The balcony railing appears on this glass like fantasmatic shadows. In Duchamp’s context, one is tempted to speak of this balcony railing as the three-dimensional shadows of that ungraspable four-dimensional spatial time in which this Period Room lives, somewhere between Paris and Philadelphia, between the French Revolution and the present. In the so-called Late Gothic Room, a French late 15th century interior, the viewing station and the windows are directly opposite one another (figs. 13 & 14). For anyone standing here after having seen Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés, the impression is overwhelming. The view from the station into these windows is structurally the same as the view through Duchamp’s door, only that here the door is missing, which makes this view over time and spaces all the more inscrutable. In short, the link between the position that one takes standing at the station with its Sisal carpeted floor and the spaces that one looks at from there, is infra-thin. In precisely the way that I have just described them for the Period Rooms, the viewer in Etant donnés stands on the Sisal carpet and looks through the peepholes (fig. 6), at that female figure and that landscape that are bathed in an even, timeless light by an elaborate arrangement of spot lights and neon, which is installed above the strange diorama (fig. 15), hidden from the spectator and visible here only by way of the photographs Duchamp made for his manual of instructions for the dismantling and reassembly of Etant donnés.

In his lecture on the Creative Act, Duchamp speaks of the fact that it is not only the artist that makes the work, but that the spectators, who come into the world later, contribute equally to it. The first room of Etant donnés, which was constructed in Philadelphia without having previously been dismantled in Duchamp’s atelier in New York, is a space in which this programmatic statement becomes constructed reality. For it is as much conceived by Duchamp as it is added to by posterity, at least in its current form. It is marked by an irrevocable différance between Duchamp’s intentions and the actual reality. In his lecture on the Creative Act, Duchamp claims that this difference is precisely the art-coefficient held in the work. It has been my wish to show that the art-coefficient of Etant donnés is closely connected with the hinge function of the wall that simultaneously separates and links the two very different spaces of Etant donnés. I wanted to show that this hinge function of the wall only becomes apparent if we take Etant donnés not as beginning with and beyond the wooden door, but conceive of it as a two-room installation, where the door with its peephole is not the delimitation of the installation, but is located in the middle of it. To end this essay by coming back to its title-Etant donnés as a Form of Experience-my argument sums up to this: Etant donnés is an apparatus which produces for the beholder a very special experience: the experience of the infra-thin.

Translation: Daniel Hendrickson

Chapter I: Empty Space, Action, Situation
Kapitel Chapter II: A Kind of Period Room
Etant donnés as a Form of Experience (PDF with illus. and fn. 1.930 KB)