Étant Donnés

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.