„Etant donnés“ as a Form of Experience
in: Marcel Duchamp and the Forestay Waterfall, hrsg. von Stefan Banz, Zürich 2010, S. 132-145.
In 1954, when Duchamp was supervising the installation of the Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he also inspected and measured the room that he would later use to present his then nascent work Etant donnés: a long, narrow room at the far end of the eastern wing of the museum, where works by Kandinsky and Jawlensky were hung until 1969, when it was cleared for Etant donnés. From this moment on, he not only knew where his installation was destined to appear; he also knew the exact spatial dimensions he had to plan for. He thus also knew that the installation that he was building in his atelier would only take up half of the space available to him in the museum. Actually, he was not able to set up the other half-that means the part not behind, but in front of the wooden door of Etant donnés-in his atelier to test its effect, because the atelier was far too small to accommodate it. Nevertheless, it can not be denied that Duchamp must have been absolutely clear about the fact that Etant donnés would be a two room installation, consisting of a space that the viewer must cross through in order to be able to look into a peephole, and the space that would then be revealed beyond the peephole. Between these two halves of almost identical dimensions, serving as both their separation and their link, there is a wall with a wooden door, brick framing, and plaster-a wall which looks as if it were always there, but was only built for the installation of Etant donnés in 1969.
Surprisingly there is hardly any mention of the front room in the extensive literature on Etant donnés, and up to now, there has been no depiction of this space as a space in its own right; the image reproduced here (fig. 1) has been made only for this essay. In short, it is a blind spot in the reflection on Duchamp’s final work. This is surprising, given the fact that Duchamp planned Etant donnés specifically for this space and could therefore consider all aspects, not only of the work’s production, but also of its reception; and given, on a more general level, that throughout his entire oeuvre Duchamp constantly reflected anew on how the viewer and the work encounter each other in space, concretely staging this aspect, for instance in 1938 at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, where he designed the central ‚grotto‘ of the exhibition, or in 1942 at the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, where he mounted a network of strings, but also when installing his works in 1954 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, creating a precise spatial viewing apparatus for the Large Glass, including an especially made door which opend to the eastern terrace of the Philadelphia Museum. My thesis is the following: that we must understand Etant donnés as a two-room installation, that is, that Etant donnés does not begin with the wooden door and the view through the peepholes, but already with entering the empty door frame, which separates the big, bright room where the Large Glass is exhibited from the significantly smaller and darker room that leads to the wooden door (fig. 2). In this paper, I will be speaking only about this first room in the two-room installation of Etant donnés, and I will use it to address certain aspects of the experience of Duchamp’s last great work. In doing so, I will focus on two aspects: first I will thematize the particular emptiness of this space, as well as the specific way that it activates the viewer. In a second step, I will be speaking of Etant donnés as another of those Period Rooms for which the Philadelphia Museum of Art is so famous, asking what insights might be revealed by viewing this work as another Period Room. Here it will not so much be a matter of the emptiness of the room, but of what the room does contain: the plaster wall with the Spanish wooden door and its framing made of Spanish bricks, as well as the Sisal rug covering the entire floor.
|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)|