Étant Donnés

11 November 2007 | ,

I had always dreamed of my encounter with Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, from where it has not been moved since its installation in 1969, was worth the 30 year wait. I could write all sorts of interpretations about my experience and what I saw. Psychoanalysis lends itself particularly well, due to its dada and surrealism connections, its relationship to gaze and its portrayal of the body. I am going to restrict myself, however, to a phenomenological account of the event into which, no doubt, psychoanalysis will creep in, as this is the intellectual territory most of my work occupies.

Étant Donnés is in room 183, a dark space confined to the far end of the museum and, from its location, joins Duchamp other masterpieces: The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) with the corresponding Green Box notes and the infamous Richard Mutt signed original urinary, entitled Fountain.

The first things that leaves me begging, as I sit in the adjacent room 182, anticipating , is its title: Étant Donnés: 1. La chute d’eau 2 Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The illuminating gas). Given… what is given? Is there anything that is going to be given to me? Perhaps the Green Box writings can come in useful here:

Given: 1st the waterfall
[in the dark]
If, given 2nd the illuminating gas,

in the dark, we shall determine (the conditions for) the extra rapid exposition (=allegorical appearance) of several conditions seeming strictly to succeed each other according to certain laws, in order to isolate the Sign of the accordance between this extra rapid exposition (capable of all excentricities) on the one hand and the choice of the possibilities aithorised by these laws on the other.

There is more to this title, though, in the same way that there is more to L.H.O.O.Q. than 5 letters. I can’t help but see Thanatos, in the form of an epitaph: Is Duchamp giving us his body of works? Is the body in Given dead or about to die?

Duchamp worked on Étant Donnés for 20 years, during which most of the world thought he had completely abandoned art to play chess. Like the latter game, Étant Donnés represents an individual encounter with the artwork; a group of people, small as it may be, would be pressed to see it exactly at the same time. With this thought, and prepared for a punning game of chess –as I know something of Duchamp’s work), I leave the ready-mades and paintings of room 182 to venture yonder. And like in any great adventure, there are a number of obstacles I have to address. The first one, often forgotten, is one I had overcome: to see Étant Donnés one has to go all the way to Philadelphia to see the work. In a late capitalist world, where art tours like rockstars or freaks, blockbuster shows are traded and permanent collections are dessemated by loans, pilgrimages (instead of visits to tourist attractions) to the comfortable and specially designed home of a piece is unheard of.

spanish doorThe second obstacle is a constitutive part of the piece. In the darkness of room 183, one is first encountered by a wooden door, which Duchamp had sent from Spain. This is mounted on to the wall, with handsome bricks forming an arch at its upper part. The door is not any door, however. This is a door without handle, a door that is visibly not for opening and closing. This may be one of the reasons, why visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that make it all the way to the end of the Modern and Contemporary Art galleries turns around barely after entering room 183. I took great pleasure in observing this. My mind, however, thought of another possible reason. With Priere de Toucher, Fountain, Comb, Paris Air, With Hidden Noise and Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? amongst others in the adjacent room, a keen but uninformed visitor cannot be blamed for thinking that Étant Donnés is also a ready-made. Either that, or doors just put people off, which could also be.

The third obstacle Étant Donnés presents is only applicable to people like me. This is not highlight a gender issue –which is also present but much more delicately than what has often be discussed as we will see later– an economic, or a racial one. No. As a 4ft 10″ human being, I am talking of height. After having travelled half way across the world and learned, for over 15 years, about the Avant Garde, and in particular Duchamp, there I was, helpless, unable to reach the holes on the door. Indeed, Étant Donnés does hot have a handle, but, upon careful inspection, one observes that it is metaphorically hinged upon two little holes, around which the wood has changed colour, no doubt due to the brea(d)th (this time literal and also figurative) of visitors. I couldn’t believe it. I jumped: I saw a leg. I jumped again: oh, how light and colourful. This wasn’t working. I took out my digital camera (the museum allows photographs without flash in most of its rooms) and extended my arms up, clicking through the holes. Did I come here to see an image, a second rate, shaky, representation?

holesTired and jet-lagged, I was ready to give up. I stomped back into light and airy 182, where a bored gallery assistant was sitting. No, she giggled, she did not have anything I could stand on –even though we were sitting a particularly apt bench, but my pleas, travel dramas, life-long dreams only added to her boredom. I was not even worthy of a glinting eye, a keeping of that moment in the memory to later relate to friends how museums are magnets for weirdos. Nothing. Who cared about art, anyway? I stamped back to 183, decided to perfect my jumping technique with a full Jane Fonda routine, if needed. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was even prepared to ask somebody to lift me (body contact with strangers is the ultimate resort) when I had an idea.

As a tiny person, I tend to wear respectable heels, and, although not respectable enough for this occasion, doubling their height would suffice. So I took off one shoe and stood on one leg and two shoes. Just in case, I also propped myself with my bag. Who cared if my 46 kilos smashed my mobile telephone, iPod and laptop? I was a step closer, and that’s what mattered. I could reach now, with holding by one legged body with the help of the Spanish door, with the help of art. The irritating third obstacle was conquered.

The last obstacle is the most disconcerting. This piece is viewed from a single and specific point of view, through holes. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that Étant Donnés is clearly a work about gaze and looking. My complete bafflement at something so evident (what else could I have been expecting?) might have been because I had never really seen the piece before. There is a reproduction of The Large Glass in London’s Tate Modern, which I regularly visited and knew so well. Étant Donnés was completely new. Whereas The Large Glass is a transparent, free-standing structure that can be viewed from any point, Étant Donnés limits the view. Moreover, the viewer is completely excluded from the scene, only partly seeing it from the outside, although even that last word is contentious. Where are we in relation to the Spanish door? In or out? Enclosed or excluded? Or both?


What one can see through the holes has been well documented, but the strong experiential content of the piece requires I do it again, if only for my own sanity. After the holes is thick darkness –a darkness I learn in books is velvet lined. Then bricks; bricks arranged so that there they form a casual but meticulously arranged gap though which I peep at the scene. The [primal?] scene is brightly lit, which immediately challenges the shadow accustomed eyes. A bucolic landscape, apparently painted and reminiscent of the backdrop of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, with a waterfall giving the illusion of running gives way, in the front, to a bed of [real] twigs which support a naked body, only partially visible, which holds the illuminating gas, which does just that, illuminate. I know this scene so well, yet it feels so strange. Nothing goes with anything, yet, it has some sort of unity.

Apart from being a piece about gaze and looking, it is also about what we cannot see.
I found myself more preoccupied with what I couldn’t see, than with what was given to me. I wanted to see the head of the woman, even though I knew that, no matter how much or how I moved, I would not be able to. (Is there one, anyway?)

So why is this piece not about the gendered body? After all, are we not looking at a naked lady? Or are we? I was only too aware of the theories around the bulging genitalia of the naked body, the question of hermaphroditism, and the feelings of throbbing fleshiness felt by some intellectual and critical viewers in relation to the unreal landscape in the background. I must say, my impression is that this body, instead of referring us to a body, points towards a history of representation.

Of course, the references to dioramas, and peep shows, and the teasing of vision within these is literally present in Étant Donnés but apart from presenting us with our gaze, and converting us into objects in the same way those contraptions and entertainment venues do, this is an installation about a particular kind of looking: looking at art. Evidencing this is its discussion, in visual form, of the two main subjects of the history of art –particularly painting–: the nude and the landscape; and its exploration of different media:sculpture, painting, chiaroscuro, photography, assemblage, time-based media, conceptual art –remember the title–. Funny enough, though, Étant Donnés cannot be represented, either in words or images, as in and out cannot be viewed at the same time. It cannot be photographed as a whole. It is an experience in sequence, a little like a film, but one in which the viewer acts on, or lives). Even the shop’s clever idea for the unavoidable postcard –a telling of the experience through lenticular photography– misses a point.

Given continues to baffle Duchamp scholars some of whom find it difficult to place within his work. There have been theories around Given being a three dimensional representation of The Large Glass (see, for example, Paz, 2003), as some of the themes are re-worked in the piece (not least the bride, stripped bare) and they both share elements articulated in The Green Box. Perhaps. I am sure there is a thread there although I see it more like a beginning of a critical position than an end in itself: of course Given could be articulated in the context of The Large Glass, but it also references a number of other Duchamp works. For some critics, Given means a come back to (some would say a step back) representation. But, as Judovitz (1995) points out, this is not a negation of ready-mades and conceptualism; rather, Given takes Duchamp’s groundbreaking ideas to their extreme: is Philadelphia Museum of Art not a ready-made, when looked at through the holes of the Spanish door?

Ades, D; Cox, N & Hopkins, D. (1999) Marcel Duchamp. London: Thames and Hudson

Duchamp, M; Sanouillet, M & Peterson, E eds. (1989) The writings of Marcel Duchamp. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press

Joselit, D (1998) Modern Machines: From the Virgin to the Widow. In Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941. Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press

Judovitz, D (1995) Rendez-vous with Marcel Duchamp: Given. In Unpacking Duchamp. Art in Transit. Berkeley, CA ; London: University of California Press

Paz, O. (2003) Apariencia Desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.

12 thoughts on “Étant Donnés

  1. Thank you very much for a very interesting article, and full of suspense! There is something unsettling about having to be a peeping-tom to view the innards of the piece. Ironic that shoes helped you to do it. Are Spanish doors all like that?:)

    I think people do make art pilgrimages. To visit museums, certainly, Bilbao is a good example.

  2. Thank you, the experience really required me to write about it! You are right about the shoes. Hadn’t even thought about it, it was just pure instinct.

    The door itself is extraordinary! I believe Duchamp fell in love with that door, which he found near Cadaqués (Dali’s home) and had it shipped to the US.

    I think people do pilgrimages, and Bilbao is a good example of that. They are not about art, though, but architecture, which has become one of the primary aesthetic expressions of society. Every city wants their flagship building and people travel to see them (there’s no way around it!). But the art? Believe me, not very good in Bilbao… There is something magical about pieces that are displayed in optimum conditions, like Van Gogh’s sunflowers at the National Gallery in London, or, to a certain extent, the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. With Duchamp, though, I was lucky enough to be alone…

  3. You’re probably right, and I was disappointed with the contents of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but I wouldn’t have gone all that way to see a firestation, for example – I thought the form and content were both modern art.

    if I may venture to say so, it was not only luck. You say you took pleasure in watching people leaving after failing to find it – I wondered why you had not helped them…

  4. But isn’t marketing, tourism, advertising and the fact that it is a fashionable destination working wonders for the Guggenheim? The Artium down the road in Vitoria does not get that publicity and the architecture and art and miles better! I must be a pilgrim, though, I have gone out of my way to see someone’s front door. It was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, though.

    Yes. I did think about helping them, about showing them what wonderful things lay behind a closed door. But I am a teacher, and I know that, when I enthusiastically tell my students to look at so and so, they don’t do it or think “what’s the fuss about”. Of course, there are one or two exceptions but it’s generally the rule. I now tend to ask them to tell me what fascinates them and it works better for their learning.

    I feared that, if I showed them, I would take away from Duchamp’s piece, from the encounter (mine as much as theirs). And it was difficult. I smiled to a couple of people as if I was going to start speaking, and then didn’t. They must have thought I was a right weirdo.

  5. Dear Laura –

    I enjoyed reading about your adventure and take on Etant Donnes. One thing that caught my attention was the question of where the viewer “is” when looking through the door peepholes. There are many examples in Duchamp’s work that relate in one way or another to architecture: doors, and windows in particular. Its as if he had constructed a sort of mental “house”. I have always been surprised not to have found any mention in the multitude of books on the artist that the Large Glass resembles a double-hung window. If one wants some fresh air one “cracks a window”.

    The souped up window of The Brawl at Austerlitz seems to place the viewer on the “outside” of a building. THe window knobs of Fresh Widow seem to indicate that the viewer is “inside”. The door of Etant Donnes was imported from Spain, as you mention (Duchamp lived part of the year there). It reminds me of doors of Mexican haciendas that open onto a court yard that is surrounded by the home. If this is the a similar situation the viewer is on the “outside” – on the sidewalk/street looking onto another exterior within. Of course, in reality, this ‘outside” is within a museum. This is not to far removed from looking at at a diorama of some scene/event in a history museum. The suspension of disbelief, etc. And their is no hacienda as perhaps the “house” does reside in the mind.

    Last week I had the chance to see Etant Donnes for the third time. Of course there is nothing that can equal the impact of one’s first viewing.
    I have to admit that I was dismayed to see the nude falling into bad condition. Since seeing it four years ago a vertical crack on the thigh of the left out stretched leg is very plain to see. A smaller crack on the stomach is distracting as well. Needless to say, this can only lead to breaking the spell of the incredible illusion that Duchamp developed. In any case it is a given the multitude of interpretations of Etant Donnes will not abate anytime soon. My own take is that it is in the broadest sense is that it is about, or for, Freedom. The lantern held high refutes whatever events, violent or not, led the nude to recline so in that tangle of brush. Freedom is something that Duchampp embraced all his life in one form or another.

    Thank you for plodding through this rambling.

    Best wishes –

    Kurt Godwin

  6. About representation — i enjoyed that idea and th epossibility that duchamp is encompassing th ewhole museum at the very least in his subject in The given, but also a curious transition is happening.

    perhaps it means simply in allegorical terms that having acquired or consummated ‘opposites’ the life spirit continues on through a new cycle eternally in Nature.

    If duchamp is seen as a kind of platonist things start to make sense it seems.

  7. Interesting, Shane. the idea of Duchamp as a platonist never crossed my mind but his relationship to Nature in Étant Donnés could make an interesting link… although I am not sure that Duchamp, like Joyce, will ever make full sense…

  8. Research any negative or positive externalities the industry produces. Does the transaction of a buyer and seller directly affect a third party? Is the effect a negative or positive externality? How does the externality impact the economy?. Research whether the industry produces public goods or private goods, or is a natural monopoly. Are the goods or resources rival, excludable, or neither? Explain..

  9. I rarely leave comments, however I browsed some of the responses on Étant Donnés. I do have some questions for you if it’s allright. Could it be simply me or does it appear like some of these responses look like they are coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are posting at other social sites, I’d like to keep up with anything new you have to post. Could you post a list of the complete urls of your social community pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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