Da – da – da – daby Sean O'Toole / 11.12.2009
Music opened the book. It didn’t happen immediately, but when it did… the book, that book, in particular the noises it attempted to contain, exploded my suburban consciousness. I’m talking about Lipstick Traces.
You don’t have to know/remember/worship/despise the Sex Pistols in order to read rock journo and cultural critic Greil Marcus’ roaming piece of cultural history. Sure, a fair bit of Lipstick Traces is about Johnny Rotten, that pungent odour in front of a microphone, but at heart Marcus’ book is about something else. Tracing the contours of a smile that is now only gums. Remembering a tattoo before it became an inkblot smudge on aging skin. Yup, Lipstick Traces is a story about dissidence. While being a history of rebellion, it doesn’t catalogue any gunfire.
Hannah Höch, Strong-armed Men, 1931, collage, 24.5 x 13.5 cm
Copyright: VG Bild-Kunst
Photographer: Liedtke & Michel
Amongst the rebel moments recouped in this book – “about movements in culture that raised no monuments, about movements that barely left a trace” – is Dada. Notionally, Dada is art. At least this is how is it routinely discussed, eulogised, and eventually constrained. Not that the members of the “six-piece band” that originally constituted Dada intended this when they burped their idea into being in wartime Europe, in wintertime Zurich, in February 1916.
“Dada has been mixed up with an art movement,” said Richard Huelsenbeck, one of Dada’s originators, in 1971, “though it has nothing to present as an art movement if you think of Cubism, of Impressionism or whatever, these are all problems of form, of colour, of something that is shown or devised or has to the aim of being a work of art; now this we didn’t have at all. We had practically nothing except what we were.”
What Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara did have in 1916 was a sense for the jol. “Total pandemonium,” as Arp described the early Dada performance at the now legendary Cabaret Voltaire. “The people around us are shouting, laughing and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos…” and so on. During the 1970s and 1980s, Cabaret Voltaire was also the name of an electronic band from Sheffield. Like I said, music opened the book on Dada for me.
Candice Brietz, Babel Series, 1999, DVD Installation: 7 Looping DVDs
Installation View: O.K Center for Contemporary Art, Linz
Photograph: Jason Mandella
Books about Dada come in all shapes and sizes. I paid R4 at a second-hand bookseller for the smallest one in my collection. It measures 15 x 10.5cm. Published in 1969, before the authors of Idiot’s and Dummies guides explained everything, weird arcane cultural phenomena included, this slender pocketbook contains 15 plates. Kendell Geers’ hero, Marcel Duchamp, is illustrated, so too Kurt Schwitters, at whose altar Zander Blom worshipped and took notes. George Grosz, one of Robert Hodgins’ ancestors is there too. The opening sentence of the book reads: “Dada is revolt, even.”
Dada is revolt, but it has also become something of an orthodox religion. “For seventy years dada has been tended like a holy flame,” wrote Marcus in 1989, when Lipstick Traces was first published. In the supervening years, religious minders have continued to tend the flame. In 2006, publisher Phaidon released a 304 page, 30 x 26cm hardcover book simply titled Dada. It updated and complemented New York Dada, the 31 x 24cm 256 page tome published by Harry Abrahams in 1994, which followed on Swiss publisher Skira’s 230 page 35 x 31cm opus, The Dada Movement, from 1990. This is just a small sampling of what’s available on the subject. Tzara, the poet amongst the original Dada raconteurs, was well aware of the fate awaiting his dissident dream: “Up to October 15, 8590 articles on dadaism.” That was 1919. Google lists “about 41,100,000” entries on dada.
Why does Dada arouse so much intrigue? Why so many books? Partly, I suspect, because at its core, never mind the hard product recording its brief existence, Dada was about a momentary way of being in the world that dissolved constraints and made everything possible. As a theorem, it might read like this: Mood + Moment = Outcome. Words, however, can’t contain everything there is to know about dada and the long shadow it cast over twentieth century creativity. Sometimes it is necessary to close the books that music opened and go out.
Opening tomorrow evening at Cape Town’s National Gallery is the exhibition Dada South? Alongside original works by Dada artists Marcel Janco, Sophie Täuber-Arp, Hans Arp, Hans Richter, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Hannah Höch, the exhibition includes work by a range local pranksters and shit stirrers active from the 1960s onwards. Some of the names included will doubtlessly be familiar, like Walter Battiss, Jane Alexander and Kendell Geers. Others, like Wopko Jensma, Lucas Seage and Neil Goedhals, are probably lesser known.
Curated by Roger van Wyk and Kathryn Smith, the exhibition is squarely about the “question of ancestry in culture,” as Marcus put it in his book. Poet Lesego Rampolokeng will kick off the night’s festivities and throwback reminiscing by the grizzled silver hairs amongst the audience. As a warm-up, consider spending a part of your Friday night at Woodstock’s Blank Projects, who is showing Candice Breitz’s Babel Series, a dada-inspired video installation from 1999. One of the monitors includes Madonna intoning “Pa – pa – pa – pa …” which is almost like “Da – da – da – da …”