Has Duchamp’s Final Work Harbored a Secret for Five Decades? This Artist Says Yes
Could a new meaning be revealed five decades after the work's unveiling?
In a 1964 conversation with New Yorker scribe Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp said that modern life had become too fast. People should be allowed to be lazy, he said. In his view, that excessive speed had come to artworks as well:
I think there is a great deal to the idea of not doing a thing, but that when you do a thing, you don’t do it in five minutes or in five hours, but in five years. I think there’s an element in the slowness of the execution that adds to the possibility of producing something that will be durable in its expression, that will be considered important five centuries later.
The French artist was surely smiling inwardly, since he’d been at work for nearly two decades on his final work, Étant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau 2. le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) (1946–1966).
Now, Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya says he has found a secret in the work, notwithstanding an industry of Duchamp scholarship before him. He’s built an exact replica of the piece to test his theory, which is now on view (by appointment only) at Duchamp’s former studio, on East 11th Street in New York.
The original Étant donnés has been on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969. It consists of a semi-dark room with an ancient wooden door drilled through with two peepholes, through which one views a creepy diorama: behind a hole in a brick wall lies a naked woman on a bed of sticks, her spread legs and crotch facing the viewer. Her head is obscured, so it’s hard to know whether she’s alive or dead. In her left hand she holds aloft a gas lamp.
Özkaya’s theory quite literally upends the way you look at the work. The work, he claims, functions as a camera obscura. Instead of being just a tableaux you are supposed to look in on, it is also meant to project, via its two peepholes, an hidden image of the artist’s face out onto the wall opposite.
Özkaya bases his theory partly on Duchamp’s having said that every one of his works of art is, to some extent, a self-portrait. (The notion came to turning Étant donnés into a projecting device came to him, he explains, after reading Anne Friedberg’s book The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft.)
I visited the site Monday, hosted by Magda Sawon, head of New York’s Postmasters Gallery, which will show the piece starting later this month. The 11th Street building may have a major place in art history, but you wouldn’t know it: It is neighbored by a Pret a Manger, an antiques store, and an Avis car rental. The building is mostly occupied by doctors’ offices, according to Sawon. The fluorescent-lit halls are nondescript.
But open the door to room 403, and you’ll find a dark space, a few feet deep, still floored with the same cheap, checkered black-and-white tiles as in Duchamp’s day. Black trash bags surround a space about 13 feet deep and nine feet high that houses the sculpture. A few leaves and branches litter the floor.
Sawon turned off the lights; my eyes adjusted; the image thrown by the backlighting came, gradually, into view.
It’s an innately intriguing experience—though I have to say that I found the contours of the projected face very, very hard to make out. The eyes, resembling a child’s line drawing, are very clear. It took a lot more convincing, and the consultation of some photographs, to see what is supposed to be the mouth and nose.
The very idea of this hidden self-portrait may seem hard to put stock in. Then again, what if someone had told you, back in 1968, that Marcel Duchamp had been working for two decades on a diorama with actual leaves and sticks and a naked woman viewed through a peephole?
(Özkaya’s proposal wouldn’t be the first far-out Duchamp theory. A personal favorite comes from Rhonda Roland Shearer, who claims his readymades were not mass-produced objects, as the artist claimed, but rather made by hand by the artist. Mark Haxthausen, director of the grad school where I heard Shearer speak, tells me that famed critic Arthur Danto’s response to this claim was, “If she’s right, I’m not interested in Duchamp.”)
By phone, Özkaya said that the museum refused to let him test his theory on the work itself, saying they needed to protect the work. In his view, their concern is more about protecting their own interpretation of it. “Maybe they don’t want to change its meaning,” he said. “To me, protecting it would mean engaging in possibilities as well. [Duchamp] said clearly that his real meanings would come after his death.”
Indeed, representatives of the museum seem surprisingly closed to the notion that there might be any unexpected new way to look at Étant donnés, however unlikely. Presented with the possibility that the museum could allow Özkaya to test his theory without any physical intrusion on the work, the museum’s curator of modern art, Matthew Affron, would say only that the museum is “respecting what we believe the artist’s intentions to have been.”
Affron also said that no one at the museum plans to come see Özkaya’s piece, despite New York being a quick hop away from Philadelphia via Amtrak.
We Will Wait, as the installation is called, picks up a thread that has run through Özkaya’s work for years. He has long been preoccupied with issues of original and copy. For an exhibition at New York’s PS1 Contemporary Art Center in 2006, he copied a page of the New York Times, specifically the page on which an article about him appeared. For a work at the 21c hotel chain, he reproduced Michelangelo’s David in plastic foam, painted gold, at double the original proportions.
In the end, the theory Özkaya proposes in We Will Wait may seem out there, but it also is admirably inventive, all about keeping the space open to imagine new layers in the work of a revered artist.
“I find it almost insulting to Duchamp to think he never looked at it this way,” the artist told me. “There’s no way a master of shadows, and optics, and stereography and projection didn’t look at it this way.”
Asked what he expects the master would say if he were alive today and confronted with his theory, Özkaya paused.
“He would for sure be very coy,” he said. “As far as I can tell, he would say yes to everything. He wouldn’t deny it, for sure. But then the answer wouldn’t lead you to any real closure.”
We Will Wait goes on view at Postmasters Gallery, 54 Franklin Street, October 21–November 25.
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