Dada is usually credited with spawning the clutter of Pop Art. But I view it as the parent of Conceptual Art, a movement searching for release from the object. It uses the Dada penchant for performance in hopes of creating an experience that can’t be bought or sold, that can’t be judged by worn standards. A lucid search for release, for purity – which is now being bought by big art collectors and evaluated by Art News critics.
Conceptual art leads to “Nihilworks,” destroying themselves to remain “free from any historical or monetary values” (1) – which clearly follows from the Dada I have outlined. It also leads to Body Art, the total confusion of art and reality, a complete interjection of physicality – which has been traced directly to Marcel Duchamp, who shaved his hair into a star in 1921. (2)
Again, the confusion of intention and effect. Was the intellectual chess player father of the body-mutilation school? In 1969, Barry Le Va first performed Velocity Piece. (3) While people watched, he “ran back and forth crashing into two opposite walls fifty feet apart for as long as he could go on. With the help of stereo equipment his movements in that particular space were precisely recorded while visual recordings of his activity were left on the blood spattered walls.” (4)
The perpetrators of Dada and Body Art have much in common. These movements are confrontations. They are cries in the wilderness, pictures of what we have done to ourselves. After Le Va’s performance “upon hearing the playback recording of his bruised, bloody body plowing into the wall he could not believe it was he who was actually suffering.” (5) Using methods wildly beyond traditional concepts of art, they have created danger signs, they are showing us what it will be fatal to ignore, and they are showing us how amazing our capacity for ignorance remains as we turn away. They are screaming. And nobody stopped the artist from beating himself against the wall. We have lost the value of human life, individual worth wanders beyond reach and communal life drifts away. Where can we turn to restore a sense of belief?
Hugo Ball, one of the original Dadaists, has written: “The dadaist trusts the sincerity of events more than the brilliance of people. He feels that people are dirt cheap, including himself. He no longer believes in comprehending things from one single vantage point, and yet he is so convinced of the over-all connection between all entities and beings, so convinced of totality, that he suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration.” (6) And in spite of its humor, its liveliness, it is this sense of dissonance and disintegration that so often prevails over my study of Dada.
(1) David L. Shirey, “Impossible Art – What It Is,” Art in America, vol. 57, No. 3, May-June 1969, page 39.
(2) Cindy Nemser, “Subject – Object: Body Art”, Arts Magazine, vol. 46, September-October 1971, page 39.
(3) Now referred to as Impact Run – Energy Drain.
– Barry Le Va’s 2005 retrospective, www.icaphila.org
– Interview by Saul Ostrow (circa 1997) http://bombsite.com/issues/60/articles/2064
– Video of meat cleavers in the wall, at Mary Boone Gallery, April 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1_VCt2MXHo
(4) Cindy Nemser, “Subject – Object,” page 41.
(5) Cindy Nemser, “Subject – Object,”, page 42.
(6) Richard Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, Viking Press, New York, 1974, page 30, quoting from Flight Out of Time.