Duchamp’s Last Riddle

Posted by

He began researching Étant donnés   and built a small-scale model of it to test his theory. “I hadn’t even seen the work until I had the idea of it operating as a camera obscura,” he admits. But in the case of Étant donnés, Ozkaya remade the work because he has a theory: he thinks that, in addition to compelling visitors to look in, the artwork is meant to double as a machine that projects out. I don’t think these answers need to be correct.”
Left alone with Ozkaya’s reproduction, I struggled in the darkness. My eyes quickly adjusted, and the shadowy white shapes on the wall grew brighter. “We have no way of knowing his intentions anymore,” Ozkaya says. Most people believed he had. *
“Nobody can convince me that he didn’t look at it this way,” says the artist Serkan Ozkaya. In the process, it sets its sights on art history: Is this face a clue in an unsolvable mystery? Would I be able to find it again if I were plunged back into darkness? In one, the work is a deconstructed painting. After Ozkaya first saw the projected face, he reached out to the Philadelphia Museum in the hopes that it would let him test his theory with the real Étant donnés. All I could see were his protagonist’s naked legs extending toward me, her afterimage burned into my brain. “From childhood the young Marcel was intrigued by how things are perceived, which is the domain of scientific optics and physics and not of aesthetics,” Barbara Rose wrote in The Brooklyn Rail. Serkan Ozkaya,   We Will Wait, 2017, installation view. More than a full face, it was mostly eyes and nose, but I was struck by how there it was—how seemingly tangible, after fifteen   minutes of nothing. The longer I stood there, and the harder I tried to find another form, the more prominent she became. It makes for a jarring contrast with the glowing, untouchable vision that lies just on the other side. “Somebody didn’t like the possibility of the work changing meaning,” Ozkaya speculates. It didn’t seem so far-fetched that Duchamp had hidden a self-portrait inside his final, cryptic work—he’d kept secrets about the contents of his art before. We were given the waterfall and the illuminating gas, the naked body and the arm aloft. Étant donnés   is not Ozkaya’s first copy. Looking through the peepholes was—and still is—the only way to see the tableau. That’s the fun part. “Once he said it, I couldn’t see it any other way,” Ozkaya explains. I searched for images. Without our attempts at making meaning, we’re left only with our projections in the darkness. We’re sitting in Duchamp’s former studio, alongside a wall of black plastic sheeting that covers the reconstructed tableau. At my request, he easily outlined the face, which took the place of the mouth I’d seen earlier. The air of mystery is further thickened by the artwork’s title—Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage … (Given: 1. It will never have a fixed meaning, only an ever-evolving body of interpretations. He left it behind in his studio on Manhattan’s East Eleventh Street—a mysterious, life-size tableau. Serkan Ozkaya at work on We Will Wait. But of course, the brilliance of Étant donnés   is that it was conceived as a puzzle. Photo: Jillian Steinhauer
So that’s what Ozkaya did, about two and half years ago. The artist Jasper Johns, a Duchamp devotee, called it “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Questions abound: Is it the scene of a sex crime or some kind of psychological projection? Just six years after the Fountain controversy, he announced he was quitting the art world and would devote the rest of his life to his other passion, chess. “We can only speculate. “How we see—a mental process—interested him at least as much if not more than what we see.”
On this point, the copy diverges from the original: We Will Wait   is more bound up with the what than the how. Given that its form is an enclosed room with two small holes in the door, Étant donnés   is a natural camera obscura—an optical device wherein a scene on one side of a wall is projected, upside-down, onto the other side of the wall through a tiny hole. He knocked on the door and entered. There was initial interest, but someone in the higher echelons of the museum turned down the proposal. Duchamp died on October 2, 1968. And yet, when the room lights came back on, I found myself struggling to recall the face and doubting its existence. When he turned off the lights, amid the resulting, overlapping projections, he saw a face. Is it a perverse study in artistic perspective? *
Duchamp studied mathematics, physics, and alchemy and spent much of his life thinking about perception. All you’d have to do to see the image it projects is enshroud the space outside of it in darkness. Duchamp left detailed instructions for how to transport the work out of his studio, and the next year the piece was put on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A small clump of panic rose in my throat. Duchamp himself might note that there’s no single truth to be found, just as there’s no artwork outside of them. “Projection is a way of perception,” Ozkaya would say to me a few minutes later. Once Ozkaya had showed it to me, I couldn’t see it any other way. But the question isn’t simply what we see; it’s also what we allow ourselves to see in the darkness. Inside, visitors discovered a full-scale replica of Étant donnés, accompanied by another, newer riddle. In 2012, he built a gold replica of Michelangelo’s “David” at almost double the scale of the original and drove it through the streets of New York. She could have been dead or unconscious, except that her left arm held aloft a gas lamp, behind which glowed a landscape of colorful trees and a waterfall. Whose vision was I seeing—Duchamp’s, Ozkaya’s, or my own? His first thought was that the ghostly visage belonged to the woman’s killer, but a friend saw someone else entirely: Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s female alter ego. Duchamp was good at gestures. It featured a realist sculpture of a naked woman lying on a bed of twigs and leaves with her legs spread open. The largest mass seemed to be a dragon flying through the air; below it, a wide mouth stuck out its tongue. Instead, I confronted the ghost of Étant donnés’s woman. Fountain, as he winkingly titled the urinal, was one of his ready-mades: a manufactured object that he deemed artworks in an effort to throw off the yoke of what he called “retinal art” in favor of a more conceptual and cerebral one. He built machines and painted and printed disks that could be spun to create optical illusions; he left behind notes filled with theories about the difference between the appearance of an object and what he called its apparition. In yet another, it’s a camera obscura that projects a self-portrait of the artist as Rrose Sélavy. What kind of art critic can only visualize the image of something they’ve already seen? The Illuminating Gas …)—which reads like a logic puzzle without an answer. Where were the eyes to anchor the artist’s face? Exactly forty-nine years later, on October 2 of this year, his East Eleventh Street studio was reopened for two weeks to a select group of invited guests. “I find it insulting to think that a master of shadows didn’t look at it in the dark.” Ozkaya is talking about Duchamp and Étant donnés, and, indirectly, about his own replica, which is titled We Will Wait. Photo: Jillian Steinhauer
By now, the story has become a legend: in 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, signed it with a pseudonym, and submitted it for an exhibition put on by the Society of Independent Artists—who rejected it. The industrial material gives the space a gritty, worked-in feel. The uncanny scene was visible through a cutout in what seemed to be a brick wall, which itself was fronted by an old wooden door with two peepholes in it. The Waterfall, 2. It immediately inspired—and continues to inspire—much consternation. But when he died in 1968, at the age of eighty-one, his grandest gesture was revealed: Duchamp had been constructing an artwork in secret for twenty years. Did the man who invented ready-mades give up on them in old age and return to retinal art? Why couldn’t I find the face?  
Jillian Steinhauer is a Brooklyn-based writer and   a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. I could not see a face. In another, it’s a riff on the Black Dahlia murder. He often uses (or proposes) reproductions in his work, casually casting off the presumed value of originality. But he was excited by the idea of a camera obscura that uses two holes rather than one—it would be truer to the way we see, with two eyes.