Autumn 2006

The materiality of Dada

Dada
Museum of Modern Art, New York

18 June–11 September 2006

The seductive power of Dada is such that even the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York could not entirely resist dabbling in chaos, giving the exhibition two entrances. Radical! Although the initial, much larger, exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris by all accounts took a less conventional approach to the exhibition design, their American counterparts, first at the National Gallery and then MOMA, decided to play it safer and let the work speak for itself.

So much has been said and written about Dada that seeing the actual work is a revelation. Layers of the newsprint and paste collages, such as those by Hannah Höch, are beginning to separate and crumble, yet their fragility allows the viewer to imagine the artist with scissors and newspaper in hand, making exquisitely subversive compositions while Europe burned around her.

Although collage is featured prominently, curator Anne Umland makes sure the breadth of the movement is represented. More than 400 works of art are rendered in almost every conceivable medium: puppets, sound recordings, painting, sculptures, films, posters and readymades, including a reproduction of Duchamp’s infamous urinal.

Works by more than 50 artists are grouped by the cities in which they were created: Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, New York, Paris and Zurich. While this means of organisation provides some insight into the conditions under which the work was made, Dada was, as the introductory text states, ‘defiantly international’.

The exhibition goes a long way towards dispelling the art-school myths that surround Dada: the work gathered here represents not some series of hysterical pranks but carefully considered and painstakingly rendered meditations on materiality and form.

The most horrific war the world had ever known remains an unspoken prime mover in the exhibition. Apart from a brief documentary loop showing on a screen outside the exhibit, war is alluded to but not explored. If anything is missing from the exhibition, it is this context. The first world war made Dada something more than important art. As the world went berserk, these artists chose to engage deeply and directly with the materials around them. Although the imagery is often mechanical, the work itself is defiantly human.

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