in Frieze | 01 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 109

The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp

T.J. Demos (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007)

in Frieze | 01 SEP 07

Despite the enthralling nature of the lives of some more dramatically disposed artists, accounts of what they ate every day for lunch, for example, are likely to be received with a response of timeworn tedium. There remains a prevailing insistence among art criticism that tying art work to artist by the umbilical cord of authorship can only be reductive, ensuring that the commodity status of the object remains undisturbed. Yet T.J. Demos’ The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp refuses to perpetuate this foreclosure of the personal and, instead, mobilizes biography as a critical tool. Demos takes a chapter from Duchamp’s life – his experience of exile – as a lens through which to examine works he produced at these moments of dislocation in order to define ‘a spirit of expatriation’. He convincingly contends this spirit is Duchamp’s socio-politically motivated response to the specific historical conditions of the early-20th-century rise of nationalism and fascism in Europe and the US.

The first chapter’s point of departure is La boîte-en-valise (Box in a suitcase, 1935–46), a suitcase containing 69 reproductions of Duchamp’s life’s work, which he continued to work on while living in collaborationist Vichy France, posing as a cheese merchant at Nazi checkpoints and awaiting an American visa in the spring of 1941. Cultivating a correspondence between Duchamp’s flight from France and that attempted by Walter Benjamin, who also left Paris in May 1940 carrying a suitcase containing a manuscript, Demos does not conflate these two accounts but looks to where they intersect: ‘the peripatetic conditions of exile’. Unpacking their respective baggages shows Duchamp’s body of work as literally a body, albeit a dispersed one that resists any secure sense of self. Chapter two tracks this sense of dislocation back to Sculpture for Travelling, which Duchamp made just prior to a trip, and then took with him, to Argentina in July 1918. A ready-made of sorts, Duchamp’s transformation of a bathing cap into a continually degrading, amorphous, strung-up sculpture is here shown to enact a repetitive ‘process of becoming’ that surpasses previous ready-mades and their formal rigidity. Sculpture for Travelling is posited as a mode of repetition that engenders difference rather than sameness and therefore refuses not only the conditions of capitalist production but also the opposition to difference underlying the nationalism of World War I. The last two chapters of the book argue that Duchamp used his exhibition designs of the 1930s and 1940s as a means to counter the Surrealism’s retreat from politics, first by hanging 1,200 coal sacks from the ceiling of the 1938 ‘Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme’ – as a way of both exposing and pressurizing the order of capitalist production on which Surrealism depended – and secondly by enmeshing the 1942 New York exhibition ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ in thousands of metres of string, literally alienating the audience from the escapist mysticism of the paintings on view.

By pinpointing these four specific instances in Duchamp’s oeuvre Demos poses them as portals through which we can find a route back into Duchamp’s practice, placing us in a new position from which to approach familiar works. Looking at Duchamp’s literal moments of dislocation dislocates his identity as well as that of the idea of the artist as a stable entity. Furthermore, by using biography as the means for this critique Demos adopts a methodology somewhat akin to what he describes as Duchamp’s ‘homeopathic’ way of working: it is the personal that provides the apparatus for this depersonalization. Yet by using biography as a tool against itself Demos provides a way to critique, not only more conventional accounts of individuals, but also those that reject it completely. As a result, a retreat from the personal becomes analogous to the retreat from the political that Duchamp himself sought to counter.