A few weeks ago I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, although I had been there recently – in January for an event I organized based on the Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) series by Cy Twombly (below) -, on this visit, I had more time and so I finally had a chance to explore other parts of their wonderful collection.
|Cy Twombly Fifty Days at Iliam, 1978 (installation view)
I was especially excited to spend some time in rooms devoted to the work of Marcel Duchamp, including his final masterpiece Étant donnés (1946-66). For those of you who know about this work, you will appreciate the fact that it is impossible to reproduce here, so instead below is a recent reuse of part of the work (the ‘framing’ door) for the first issue of the newish journal about curating: The Exhibitionist:
Yet in honour of the artist who is the main focus of my post today, here is the list of the materials Duchamp used for the work:
Mixed media assemblage: (exterior) wooden door, iron nails, bricks,
and stucco; (interior) bricks, velvet, wood, parchment over an armature
of lead, steel, brass, synthetic putties and adhesives, aluminum sheet,
welded steel-wire screen, and wood; Peg-Board, hair, oil paint, plastic,
steel binder clips, plastic clothespins, twigs, leaves, glass, plywood, brass
piano hinge, nails, screws, cotton, collotype prints, acrylic varnish, chalk,
graphite, paper, cardboard, tape, pen ink, electric light fixtures, gas lamp
(Bec Auer type), foam rubber, cork, electric motor, cookie tin, and linoleum.
(….iron nails…hair…nails…cookie tin!) Now, in the room that included Duchamp’s Large Glass and the three versions of Nude Descending a Staircase, I encountered a small cabinet that included a curious piece that I had recently seen before in another context. It is called With Hidden Noise (1916):
|Marcel Duchamp With Hidden Noise, 1916
If we look at the list of materials Duchamp used for this work, we can begin to unravel the mystery behind its title:
Ball of twine between two brass plates, joined by four long screws,
containing unknown object added by Walter Arensberg.
What was this ‘unknown object’ and who was Walter Arensberg? To answer the latter, he was an American collector, critic and poet, and a good friend of Duchamp, who you can see in the below photo of 1916, wearing a pointed hat and standing behind the fellow holding (tightly!) onto a cat. He is snugly sandwiched between Duchamp (left) and Man Ray (right):
As the list of materials intimates, Duchamp asked Arensberg to add an object to the work, which made a noise when rattled and to not disclose to the artist what it was. In 1963, after Arensberg’s death, Duchamp allowed the curator of his retrospective show in Pasadena, Walter Hopps, to open it and see the concealed object. Now, since Hopps died in 2005, who now knows what the object is? One person that may know is the artist Robert Rauschenberg who in the early 1950s made works called Music Boxes and it is claimed that when Duchamp saw one of these and shook it, he supposedly said to Rauschenberg ‘I think I recognize that tune’.
This rich tissue of anecdotes surrounding With Hidden Noise seems to have been Duchamp’s way of generating ‘noise’ out of the curiosity of his audience – perhaps including echoes in the work of artists he has inspired. One such echo is found, if purposefully hidden, in the work of the LA based artist Elliott Hundley called the lightning bride (2011), which was part of his exhibition at the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus last Fall called Elliott Hundley: The Bacchae.
|Elliott Hundley the lightning bride, 2011
Once again, let me continue to cite the list of materials as a way of reproducing the work here:
Wood, sound board, inkjet print on Kitakata paper, pins, paper, plastic,
magnifying lenses, metal, photographs, wire, found paintings.
In the fifth panel, just below the figure of Semele, suffering from the lightning of Zeus, we find a reproduction of the curious work by Duchamp (I have outlined it in a garish white square):
|Elliott Hundley the lightning bride, 2011 (detail)
And here is a blurry detail of that detail (the best I could manage):
|Elliott Hundley the lightning bride, 2011 (detail of detail)
So, what is Duchamp’s work doing in Hundley’s reworking of the Bacchae? It should be noted that Duchamp’s is not the only appropriated modern artwork in Hundley’s collages, you can find others by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Roy Lichtenstein and (perhaps) Kenneth Noland. Nonetheless, is there anything that specifically ties With Hidden Noise to Hundley’s particular retelling of the Bacchae and the story of Semele’s death? My tentative answer is bound up with the web of anecdotes surrounding Duchamp’s work and the key them of curiosity and transgression in the Semele myth and replayed in the Bacchae in general. Promised anything she wished by her divine lover Zeus, then tricked by a jealous Hera, the Theban princess Semele asked him to appear to her as he did to his immortal wife. Zeus begrudgingly agreed and presently took the form of a lightning bolt, which, resulted in her fiery death. Their son, the god Dionysus, was saved from his dying mother and it is from this moment that the Bacchae begins, as the new god returns to his homeland of Thebes. Semele’s transgression and curiosity is then replayed in the Bacchae in the form of the young king of Thebes, Pentheus, who is persuaded to spy on the secret rites of Dionysus by the god himself, disguised as a stranger. Pentheus is then ripped apart by his own mother, Agave, entranced by the god, believing her son to be a mountain lion. In addition to Semele and Pentheus, another tale of Theban curiosity is constantly evoked in the play in the form of Actaeon, who was turned into a stag and hunted down and killed by his own dogs, for seeing the virgin-huntress goddess Artemis naked. Hundley’s insertion of With Hidden Noise into the lightning bride seems, therefore, to restage these repeated tales of mythic transgression and curiosity in terms of an anecdote in the history of Modern Art. Just as Actaeon, Semele and Pentheus want to see what is hidden, so do we who look at Duchamp’s work, peering out of Hundley’s.
In Pinplay, her brilliant rewriting of Euripides’ Bacchae inspired by Hundley’s work for the exhibition catalogue, the poet and Classicist Anne Carson makes the connection between human curiosity and transgression when faced with the divine and the materials employed in Hundley’s work explicit, especially in the final choral ode:
the gods had sound board,
found oil paintings on canvas,
and soft pastel.
We had pins.
The events of Euripides’ play and the materials of Hundley’s work are both wedged between the stuff of the gods and the fastenings of the chorus, with us, the artwork and theatre audience, left gazing at the horrific results.
But this is not the end of the story. Hundley’s the lightning bride is not the only work in the exhibition to specifically recall the Semele myth. The first piece as you walk into the Hundley exhibition is called her house smouldering (2011) after a line in the opening speech in the play, delivered by the god Dionysus, referring to the burnt our ruins of his mother house after the lightning of Zeus struck. Instead of a reproduction (which is, curiously, unavailable online), here, once again, is the list of materials:
Polyurethane foam, bamboo, plastic, pins, wood, glass, ceramic, extruded
polystyrene, paper, wire, metal, string, glue, shell, silicone, rope, foam
adhesive, floral foam, spray paint, soap stone, coral, leather, photographs.
Yet missing from this list is a small metal music box which, and this I overheard from one of the Wexner curators, the playful artist set playing when he walked past the piece at the show opening. Hundley’s hidden noise is, therefore, is not only part of his retelling of the Classical myth, but, as with Duchamp’s work, bound up with issues of curiosity and transgression for those involved in the art gallery context itself.
Please do not touch, shake, play or even look at the art. Thank you.
For more information on Elliott Hundley and the Wexner exhibition, go to: http://www.wexarts.org/ex/?eventid=5809