It should be said from the start that tributes to a great artist are not easy. Indeed, organizing a homage to Marcel Duchamp must be even more complicated than cooking a meal for Alain Ducasse. 'retinal.optical.visual.conceptual.' was a collaboration between theorist Sarat Maharaj, artist Richard Hamilton and researcher/typographer Ecke Bonk, each of whom has devoted much thought to what it means to 'translate' Duchamp's work.
This exhibition of about 20 objects in a single large gallery included not only works by Duchamp and Hamilton but also a telescope, a full-length mirror, optical instruments and a slide show. It was initiated as both a comment on the museum's collection and as a tribute to Duchamp. The combination is hardly arbitrary: even as Duchamp was ensuring that his work would be in included in major art museums, he rejected painting's frequent visual appeal (the 'retinal' as he liked to call it) and museums' obsession with the original.
Fittingly, Duchamp's La Mariée mise à nue par ses célibataires, même (The Large Glass, or The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23) - the piece around which he spun so many ideas on painting, reproduction, optics, language, the visual, and the conceptual - was physically absent and everywhere evoked in the show. The artist's edition of 93 precise copies of scribbled and torn notes, sketches and images relating to The Large Glass (and named after it in 1934) was spread across two long display cases. Rarely seen in such a way, they emerged as objects as sensual as they are textual. A later set of facsimile notes (A l'infinitif, To Infinity, 1966) was displayed more compactly, but served nevertheless as a reminder that the note form remained important to Duchamp throughout his life. Contemporary editions and typographically rendered translations of these and other notes by Duchamp were available on a table at the centre of the gallery. Of course, reading (apart from wall text) doesn't usually happen in exhibitions. In such bastions of the visual, the textual is typically relegated to the margins of the exhibition - hallway, exit area, bookshop. But for Duchamp and for this show the attention particular to reading is central.
A modern digital copy of a photograph of The Large Glass on the occasion of its first public exhibition in Brooklyn in 1926 (from which it returned broken) was framed and positioned near an edition of Duchamp's Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase), one of 300 miniature museums filled with lilliputian reproductions of his work. In another section Hamilton's studies from 1965 of elements of The Large Glass and glass reconstructions of its Oculist Witnesses (1968) and Sieves (1971) are, with their mix of precision and delicacy, silver and dust, captivating. His Diptych Map (2000) entangles you in the frustrated erotics of the bride and her bachelors. Echoing the multiples of three that are omnipresent in The Large Glass, a triple-projection slide show of a random selection of the Boijmans collection was interspersed with slogans and images of the museum's classifying system (inventory cards, policy notices, etc.). Looking at these two-dimensional illuminated reproductions of works in the very institution where they are housed provoked a sense of unease. Visually arresting, all the slides spoke of the auratic object, systems of categorization and, invariably, the museum in which their doubling was reflected.
Sadly, however, the curators at times took with one hand what they offered with the other. Texts were everywhere, but the dim lighting made reading difficult. The show's title suggested movement from the retinal to the conceptual, but an 'authentic' case designed by the museum's architect and filled with lens, stereoscopes and optical devices offered them a curiously literal home. Many of the pieces seemed to make the museum's logic vulnerable or fragile, but the exhibition's hand-outs distinguished 'real' and 'authentic' objects from the rest, and, as if in apology, admitted that there are no 'real' works by Duchamp in the permanent collection (even if the museum owns a Boîte-en-valise and several of the artist's multiples). And perhaps most frustrating was the fact that while many of the pieces were remarkable for their speculative hesitancy, blurring of lines and questioning of classificatory structures, the curators segregated works into what they called 'islands'. Works were landlocked into orderly containment: Duchamp had an island, Hamilton had an island and the optical instruments had an island.
I've always felt that great exhibitions touch one as much for the work they show as the questions they raise. 'retinal. optical. ...' left me with questions, but not the ones I had assumed I would be asking. I found myself wondering how in the 21st century one might productively challenge the museum, and how best to pay homage to a figure such as Duchamp, and most insistently, how an exhibition full of works swelling with potential, could, in the end, fail to invent a model adequate to the questions it was asking.