“Dada Africa”: Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and Berlinische Galerie, Berlin (12/16)

Three ambitious exhibitions and their equally ambitious catalogues (all published by Scheidegger & Spiess) appeared in Europe and New York in this centenary year of Dada—along with a little companion publication from just before. One stood out because it brought the usual sprawling cast of characters into sharp focus and unexpected conversations: “Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other” at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, and the Berlinische Galerie. Not that that cast isn’t all over the rest: “Dadaglobe Reconstructed” (at the Kunsthaus Zürich and the Museum of Modern Art, New York), “Genesis Dada: 100 Years of Dada Zurich” (at the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck in Remagen, Germany), and Dada Hand Book, which was based on the exhibition “Dada in Nuce” at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich. All over, and today scattered in pieces. As I write, the New York Times reports on tours of the Berlin apartment of the singular Dada poet Walter Serner, murdered with his wife by the Nazis in Latvia in 1942.

In 1924, the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre, then in his early twenties, published his first piece, which he called “a portrait of dada.” “It brought me a lasting friendship with Tristan Tzara,” he recalled in 1975, speaking of the man who, along with Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco, and Richard Huelsenbeck, had launched a proof, in the Cabaret Voltaire in the first months of 1916, that delight and rage could be the same thing. Trumpeting the word dada as both the offer of and the answer to all questions, Tzara had arrived in Paris in 1920 to spread the word all over the world. “I had written, ‘Dada smashes the world, but the pieces are fine,’” Lefebvre went on. “Each time I ran into Tristan Tzara, he’d say to me: ‘So? You’re picking up the pieces! Do you plan to put them back together?’ I always answered: ‘No—I’m going to finish smashing them.’”But Tzara was already picking up the pieces. In 1921, following Huelsenbeck’s Dada Almanach (1920)—a blazing international anthology that kicked off with Tzara’s own “Chronique Zurichoise, 1915–1919”—Tzara conceived Dadaglobe. He invited contributions—poetry, manifestos, drawings, comic dialogues, self-portraits, artworks of every sort, anything that could go on a page or three—including Arp and Max Ernst’s prophetic Physiomythologisches Diluvialbild (FATAGAGA), a cut-up that pictured a bird, a man with a bird for a head flexing his right bicep, and a woman with her right arm raised to the frame. Apparently because of an intervention by Huelsenbeck, who was feuding with Tzara over the discovery of the magic word dada, Francis Picabia withdrew his backing and the book was never published. Tzara died in 1963 at sixty-seven.

Now his Dadaglobe has been reconstructed as an exhibition and a 160-page scrapbook (edited by Adrian Sudhalter, Cathérine Hug, Martina Pfister, and Franziska Lentzsch), with contributions in their original languages and 143 poorly designed and crowded sans-serif pages of scholarly apparatus and commentary. It’s hard to imagine it landing in 1921 with less of a thud than it does now. Unlike Huelsenbeck, who searched for the best stuff he could find to the point that a reader could barely encounter a dull entry, Tzara opened a field of self-promotion, of art-world name making, and people from Louis Aragon to Fried-Hardy Worm (as the alphabetical opening page would have it) came up with cutely elaborate jokes, collages, photographs, drawings, and puerile shouts that sit flatly on the page. There’s an air of desperation to the whole show—a sense of be-there-or-be-square combined with a sense that most of those who showed up had spent ten minutes rummaging around for something to send in. The notion of Dada as a force, a spirit, a haunt that Huelsenbeck declared in 1920 “stood head and shoulders above all present”—even if, as he put it, “no one had yet found out exactly what Dada was”—is altogether missing. Dada, Huelsenbeck said after the cabaret was shuttered and the more genteel, professional Zurich Galerie Dada had opened and closed, “could no longer be arranged with the precision demanded by a businesslike conduct of the Dadaist movement in art.” But that was precisely what Dadaglobe would have been: a big book of oversize business cards.As if taking their cue from Huelsenbeck’s happy failure to say what Dada was, many of the essays in Genesis Dada (edited by Astrid von Asten, Sylvie Kyeck, and Adrian Notz) sing with a heady affirmation of Dada’s own incomprehensibility: a desire less to answer questions than to dramatize them (often with diagrams by Notz, the head of the present-day Cabaret Voltaire, that are so strict they are, no doubt on purpose, almost impossible to follow). There is Hayat Erdogan’s “Critique of Impractical Reason” (“Kant—he is the archenemy,” Ball wrote), with a startling line about European intellectuals from the Austrian critic Rudolf Kassner that Ball took as a testament to the necessity of Dada: “As if they thought because they did not love.” There is Astrid von Asten’s determinedly sober essay on Arp, with an openness to anything signaled by its title: “Arp and Dada—A ‘Win-Win Situation.’” There is the tunnel back to paganism in Jutta Mattern’s “Arcadia—The Longing That Stays: Monte Verità and the Life Reform Movement,” about a utopian cult, beginning in the late nineteenth century, that the Dadaists saw as a mirror of their own obsessions, and ending with an excavation of the dance theorist Rudolf Laban’s 1917 Song to the Sun, in which the artist and Cabaret Voltaire performer Sophie Taeuber-Arp took part while Ball, Arp, and Janco watched: a twelve-hour torchlight dance that began at sunset, finished at dawn, and covered miles, with the dancers in body masks made by Janco out of grass and twigs. There is the philosopher-curator Stefan Zweifel’s bumper-car disquisition, “Nefer-Kheperu-Wa-En-Re: The Solar Sail of Black Madness,” in which, after dating the origins of Dada sound poetry to Pharaoh Akhenaten in 1350 BCE, he catches the essence of Dadaist ambitions in a gloss on Nietzsche—“Joy should not last for an eternity but rather be so intense for a moment that for its own sake one wishes the return of all of life’s moments,” a thought that really should not be separated from the speed with which Zweifel plays with it:

Nietzsche’s eternal return heralds: all joy wants eternity. But this was not a sentence intended to decorate the sugar sachets of Sprüngli, whose chocolate he critically compared to that of Van Houten; it was an impertinence. Joy should not last for an eternity but rather be so intense for a moment that for its own sake one wishes the return of all of life’s moments, up to the eternal return of the anti-Semitic goose Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, for him the worst possible argument against the principle of return, because, as he realised in his final moments before his mental breakdown or break out: “I am just now having all anti-Semites shot.”
Oops, the anti-Semite Hugo Ball barely missed getting hit by one of Nietzsche’s bullets and read his work in Zurich, along with the writings of the Marquis de Sade, in June 1916 in order to psych himself up for his performance as a sound poet.

Like the other essayists in Genesis Dada, Zweifel can take a deep breath, calm down, and make the oldest Dada commentary sound fresh. If the masks Janco made for performances in the Cabaret Voltaire ultimately led the Dadaists to question their own identities, in its most frenzied moments the “dialectic of this negation led to self-dissolution. They had reported for duty in the name of the Enlightenment and in the name of Voltaire to protest against the madness of the war. But the ‘yes’ directed at Voltaire and the Enlightenment is reversed mirror-imaged in three steps to a great ‘no’ to the whole of Western civilisation.”Dada throws down the baton; Dada picks it up. “Dada Africa: Dialogue with the Other” in Zurich at the Museum Rietberg was a serpentine show, stunningly re-created in its gorgeous catalogue, where you could get lost navigating between an African sculpture and a Hannah Höch collage. It was less a travelogue of originals and appropriations, inspirations and results, than a dance of auras, where what came across most of all was a delirium of creativity—a play of transformation, disguise, imposture, the living and the named speaking to the dead and the unknown, who weren’t listening. Nothing held still. Faces in artworks looked, at each other. As a visitor, one looked too, and then the faces smiled, as if in acknowledgment, as the visitor tried to keep up with the game.

The numerous strong essays in the catalogue don’t miss this sense of adventure. They are modest in attitude and persistent in trying to get inside both the motives and the cross-cultural fantasies of the Dada artists—especially Höch, Taeuber-Arp, and, to a lesser extent, Janco—and the art they threw themselves into (and that, you feel, threw itself into them). There is so much here that few will know: Roger van Wyk and Kathryn Smith’s “Dada South? Experimentation, Radicalism and Resistance: The Anatomy of an Exhibition in South Africa” is only one surprise. The illustrations glow.

It’s too bad that, presumably for trademark reasons, the nicely sketchy, effectively instructional, and happily noisy Dada Hand Book, compiled by Adrian Notz and Yael Wicki and published by Cabaret Voltaire in 2015, can’t call itself what it is: “Dada for Beginners.” Then it could have ended with one of Dada’s best slogans: “With Dada, we are all beginners.” No one knows who said it first.

Artforum, December 2016

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