On the way back from our family duties, I asked J. if she minded terribly if we stopped off in Philadelphia. No, it wasn't the desire to have an authentic Philly Cheese Steak (although they're quite good. There's an interesting south Philly variation that includes onions and a tomato-based sauce that's also pretty wonderful) I wanted to visit the Philadelpha Museum of Art in order to fulfill a long-standing wish-visit their Marcel Duchamp collection and see what are, for me, Duchamp's two greatest works: the Large Glass and Etants Donnes: 1. La Chute D'eau 2. Le Gaz D'eclairage....If you're an audio person rather than a museum geek, then the best way to explain this might be to compare the urge to go and actually hear The Well-Tuned Piano with the act of acquiring a documentation of it. Happily, this was just a side trip rather than a major world-spanning pilgrimage, and J. was her usual generous self, so we went.
Of course, I'd seen the pictures for years, and even gone to see Richard Hamilton's (unbroken) copy of the Large Glass at the Tate Modern in London. But it's not the same.
I hate to dig up that hoary old Walter Benjamin essay on Art in the Age of Reproduction, but having the world mediated to you by images or recordings rather than experiences does make things problematic: some works of art, in real life, seem like obscene jokes about scale, while some works seem to positively ache to be larger than their physical selves.
The Duchamp pieces had a kind of fragility about them as physical objects that surprised me as I stood before them. And they were silent. Yeah, I know-that sounds stupid, doesn't it?
The Large glass is a thing made of delicate materials (glass, dust, thread) that show their age. Something shattered into a zillion pieces and then painstakingly reassembled in a big metal frame. The painted studies for portions of the piece that surrounded it in the gallery seemed infinitely more substantial than their final definitively unfinished product. Add to that the idea that its iconography is supposed to be about some kind of Mystery Play about desire viewed through a fanciful set of physical technologies, and you've sort of got a picture of how it looked to me. I found myself thinking of the ways in which all the new media tools patiently awaiting us on our laptops might create things that would, in their own ways, be similarly ephemeral (and similarly frozen by the conventions of their own time). I kept looking at the wiggly handpainted Rube Goldberg diagrams and imagining how they sounded then, and how they would sound now, with the mechanisms gone all rusty and finicky.
Etants Donnes was a different kind of surprise: a big door in a semidarkened room with two little eyeholes. This link sort of describes what you actually see looking through the peephole. It's a singularly eerie thing, staring through those two eyeholes at what looked to me like a dead body holding a flickering gas lamp aloft in a department store diorama. I think that the age of the materials and their state probably reminded me more of something out of a crime scene investigation than I expected. Since Duchamp worked on the thing in secret for years, you've really got nothing to go on except for what you see. But I found myself thinking about sound while staring through the peepholes. There simply isn't any way to see any more of the work (the nude woman's face, for example)--it's the closest visual experience I can think of to the absolute tyranny of audio placement for a listener (the couple in front of me in line spent several minutes stooping and straining to catch a glimpse of her face). Of course, it was silent, too-but I kept imagining what it should sound like. The sound of insects and faraway water? The sounds of traffic or ambient noise from my side of the door?
Of course, the world's got plenty of noise, Duchampwise--music by and about him, and some words from Marcel himself. This should give me me a little space in which to contemplate my personal hidden noise for myself.
While that's all I wanted to say about stuff I saw on my vacation, I'd be seriously remiss if I didn't mention to any brave soul willing to read this far the absolute coolest link in this whole article: If you click here you'll find a complete animated webset of Duchamp's rotoreliefs--his foray into mass-produced kinetic art.