Dada’s Boys is the enigmatic title of a new show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, which aims to reveal the influence of the early 20th century movement on contemporary art in Britain. Its curator is David Hopkins, who believes Dada still has something to say to 21st century sensibilities. He sat down with the artist Keith Farquhar—whose work is included in the show—and two other enthusiasts, to discuss masculinity, Man Ray, mis-spelling and mating rituals …
PERSONNEL: DH David Hopkins, curator of Dada’s Boys, professor
Glasgow UniversityDL Debbie Lewer, lecturer, Glasgow UniversityDP Dominic Paterson, lecturer, Glasgow UniversityKF Keith Farquhar, artist
DP: It seems obvious that the Dada’s Boys title refers to a patrilinear model and yet what you present in this show is a historical relationship that doesn’t have the kind of anxieties and tensions of an Oedipal notion of this relationship.
DH: Yes, in that sense the title is a little ironic. The exhibition deals with male identity —let’s say male subjectivity—as it is expressed in the work of Duchamp and other people working with him in 1917 to the early 1920s in New York, Man Ray and Picabia. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to argue that the show is narrowly about a Duchampian trajectory. Some of the more recent work departs from it in important ways. So although in the catalogue I say the title points to a lineage, I wouldn’t like the show to be thought of strictly in those terms. Duchamp’s male progeny—particularly since the 1980s—often had a fairly relaxed relationship with Duchamp as a historical figure. He was not a patriarch.
DP: Right, as it sort of condenses all these … masculinity is a theme, Dada’s historical moment and the relationship to it that because it is ‘boyish’ it’s not kind of anxious or under the anxiety of influence.
DH: I wanted to get away from that anxiety.
KF: So what’s the original anxiety that you’re trying to get away from?
DH: If you look at male artists’ relationship to Duchamp, it’s often quite a fond one. It’s often non-Oedipal.
DL: But then you have to remember Joseph Beuys saying the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated. There’s a certain kind of anxiety about the Duchampian tradition itself. You do find artists who display signs of wanting to release themselves from the bounds of the legacy.
DH: I take that point but the historical parameters of this show miss out the period you’re referring to, so rather than talking about the ’60s and ’70s I made a jump to the ’80s. If you look at the respondents to Duchamp—and Dada as well—in the ’60s and ’70s, there is more of a desire to escape the legacy. Recently artists seem to have been able to respond to him in a more relaxed way. As one of them.
DH: Not necessarily nostalgic. I think that’s completely the wrong word. I think there’s been an identification with Duchamp and Dada in the 80s and 90s which is closer than was the case in the 60s and 70s.
DL: One of the reasons for this is that a lot of the reception—especially through conceptualism in America—was that it was predicated on understanding Duchamp through the readymade. Obviously the works that you are interested in here are related to that but are somewhat different, and the notion of pushing anti-art to a conclusion or a concluding moment is obviously not something that is true of the more recent work.
DH: Yes, that’s absolutely true. If you looked at the 50s, 60s and 70s Duchampian trajectory, it reached a kind of conclusion by the later 70s. I make the argument that Koons, coming at the turn of the 80s, is historically significant. From my point of view as a historian this is one of the riskiest things in the show. People wouldn’t normally see Koons as such a marker but it seemed to me that Koons was really very significant …
DL: How would you see Gilbert and George in relation to this period?
DH: I suppose this leads onto another aspect of this show. I made a decision that I wanted to look at heterosexual male identity. This was a very pragmatic decision; the show would have been much too big if I considered gay sensibilities as well. It made greater sense to focus on one strand of male identity. And male heterosexuality is almost a taboo subject. It’s about time somebody looked at it head-on. This is not to say that I’m trying to push the likes of Gilbert and George out of the picture …
DL: Well, there is the point that you have included Sarah Lucas, for example, in your exhibition, and on those conceptual grounds as it were there might be a case for including, dare I say, a token homosexual.
DH: I don’t personally see that heterosexual male subjectivity is that limited. Heterosexual male subjectivity can easily lead onto a sense of what it might be to be a woman, and it can easily lead onto what it might be to be a gay man. Listen, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the men in this show isn’t bisexual. It’s not really meant to be so hard and fast.
DP: In the catalogue essay you’re maybe downplaying a bit the polemical way in which you are attempting to consider art that is made in a heterosexual milieu and register that it is not necessarily fully comprehended by existing models. In order to
try and unpack those things, I wonder if it would be useful to go back to that moment of New York Dada which the show starts out on and just talk about that milieu and the relationships between these three main protagonists and particularly their friendship which is one of the aspects of male subjectivity that you’ve brought attention to in this exhibition.
DH: Well … yes! But in a sentence or two?
KF: It seems like some sort of fraternal relationship was there, some sort of bastardised fraternal relationship.
DH: I think some of this comes from the fact that they were Europeans in an American social scene, which gave them a strong sense of difference from the prevalent culture. I think some of their humour was to do with that. So the closeness, the camaraderie partly derives from social otherness. There’s a clubbish sensibility involved. The Dada’s Boys title is meant to evoke that as well.
DL: Well, I think there’s a tradition of that within Dada because, of course, shortly after Picabia and Duchamp found themselves in New York the Club Dada was founded in Berlin. Dada in general, on both sides of the Atlantic, has that clubbishness, that private aspect, to it that goes hand in hand with the public nature of their demonstrations and provocations. In fact, what you’re asking us to do, conceptually as it were, is to reconsider Dada in very private intimate terms and to consider that level of humour that is perhaps not to do with satirising the status quo, structures of power, in a very public way, but is more to do with a boyish love of dirty jokes, puns and so on.
DH: Absolutely. Trying to understand the character of those interactions is difficult, but important because so much follows from it historically.
DP: Speaking of which maybe you could give some examples. Like the ‘Rongwrong’.
DH: ‘Rongwrong’ is the title of a single edition magazine. On the front cover the title was placed above the image of two dogs sniffing each other’s backsides. It should have had a capital ‘W’ at the start but the printer missed the ‘W’ off. Duchamp liked it that way and preserved it. So ‘Rongwrong’ itself has multiple puns. It also refers to the fact that there are two animals who are doubly wrong because they are doing something naughty. All of that would encapsulate the nature of the interaction between Duchamp and Picabia that I’m trying to get at. There couldn’t be a better example, actually.
DL: Thinking about masculinity in relation to Dada I’m just wondering whether it’s possible to open it up a bit more in terms of rather subversive performings out of masculinity as having a wider political significance, because the reading that you’re making of these kinds of gestures is one that is fairly inter-personal and subjective.
DH: In the first place, yes.
DL: I think that we can see these subversive masculine stances as being a rejection of dominant masculinity in the specific context of the First World War. What I’m thinking about is obviously the imperialist mentality—it’s particularly strong in Germany, in Prussian culture. It’s one that values a kind of masculinity that is aggressive, that is orderly, obedient, that respects authority but is also authoritarian, and that is conformist and so on. There were few options available to young men who rejected the imperialist ideal, for want of a better word; the options available were increasingly to become a revolutionary, to embrace anarchism and later communism. You could become a deserter or some kind of conscientious objector or a pacifist or you could go into exile, which is what increasingly many of the Dadaists did, either to Switzerland or to the States. The condition of exile is very important, and I would class the stance of the dandy as being one of exile, to a certain extent.
DH: I agree entirely with what you’ve said and I think that certainly these modes of male behaviour and interaction were counter to the dominant modes. You also have to think about the context of the First World War as important for an understanding of the initial stirrings of this tradition; the way in which men were being slaughtered in their millions, and the way in which their social roles were being eradicated. Women were taking men’s jobs. This is not meant to sound defensive or mysogynistic. It was simply the case that women had to take over the roles men had previously occupied.
DP: In a way we are talking about a kind of crisis of masculinity that has been ongoing for 100 years or more. So then to finish on New York Dada and shift on to the artists working on the contemporary scene, how successful do you think the triumvirate in New York that you focus on were in negotiating these issues of exile and masculinity?
DH: From my point of view, it’s not as though they’re going out onto the streets and ‘enacting their masculinities’ in some programmatic, theoretically-informed way. It’s much more subtle than that. This work is often quite subtle and delicate. Its playfulness is achieved through the complex interactions …
DP: I think the Roddy Buchanan piece, which shows footballers swapping shirts at the end of the game, underlines these ideas. It becomes a very tender moment that is not what you expect from a kind of arena of sport. It shows a physical proximity that isn’t highly sexualised, and in Keith’s work there is attention to costume and a sense of male proximity …
KF: Well, you’re talking about objectifying the body. That definitely comes out in my work in the sense of how I see people just as clothes.
DH: Actually, quite deliberately, there is little nakedness in Dada’s Boys . No naked women’s bodies, and only a few men’s. But you fetishise clothing and you’re interested in the way clothing expresses sexuality …
KF: Well, just practically as an artist, when I set out to make these forms, it’s difficult to make female figures, because of the unisex clothes that we have. The only female figure I managed to make was with a GoreTex jacket which I managed to turn
round, called ‘Young Mum’. It becomes a kind of comedy thing. The figures turn out male whether you like it or not.
DH: I think Keith’s work is a very positive affirmation of some of the things that we’ve been talking about. It’s never apologetic, or an expression of male failure. Maybe you think it’s more vulnerable, Keith?
KF: I think it goes back to the idea of living to fight another day. Go to war and then run!
DH: Even ‘V-Necks versus Roundnecks’: you might see that as a work that is about aggression but what I have said in the essay is that you are concerned with the clothing, and arranging it, which is more ‘feminine’.
KF: Yes, but it’s becoming much drier and more precise—kind of less expressionistic, in a way. Much less to do with narrative. A more sculptural rather than pictorial thing.
DH: But you enjoy the clothing, don’t you?
KF: There’s a certain tactileness in handling it.
DH: And the way that window-dressers arrange things … I’m not saying that this is ‘feminine’ in any stereotypical way … or perhaps I am! Do you think that’s feminine?
KF: I think as you [David] say in your catalogue essay, the female is on the ascendant. The ‘female’, not necessarily the feminist. Maybe I’m trying to feminise these masculine figures. That definitely makes sense. People see Sarah Lucas as invading male territory and taking stuff for herself and being amazingly great at it, so I think there is a real position to be found for the heterosexual male—a very difficult one—that involves feminising heterosexual masculinity. It’s about hanging out with the girls. I think a pure, essential maleness is dead on its feet. This goes for art as well—I just don’t think there’s a place in art to show it.
DH: One thing I really like about this show is that someone like Sarah Lucas turns out to be very male, whereas someone like Keith turns out to be very … his work looks quite feminine. So in certain respects, a show which is supposed to be about masculinity is actually about a range of positions which are shifting around.
KF: They are, totally fluid.
DP: I had a question that was to do with shifting the early part of discussion to what we’ve been talking about more recently in relationship to masculinity, and that’s to do with the character of references. It’s another question for Keith about how the example of somebody like Duchamp becomes important to the work that you will install in this exhibition.
KF: David was my tutor in art college. We had a very early dialogue about Duchamp and obviously I was affected by David’s obsession with Dada! It does go right back to that. Duchamp’s always been at the back of my mind, ever since I’ve been making art.
DP: And what about ‘The Large Glass’ for example? Was that a punning aspect of your own work in the show?
KF: Well … we’ll see what happens! I’m not even 100 per cent sure how my work is going to look, exactly what form it’s going to take. I just know that I’m going to make these big trompe l’oeil glasses of white wine and there’s going to be white cotton underwear. There’s a few other elements, but it’s taking shape so all I want to say about it now is that I’m trying to make a model for contemporary good or bad mating rituals.
DP: And obviously in an art context it has the connotations of the art opening. But in terms of Duchamp again, the idea of ‘The Large Glass’ split between the bachelor’s realm and the bride’s realm and so on—is that something you though about? If it is there it is there: it’s a very subtle, quiet kind of nod. The idea of the bachelor’s costumes; male props.
KF: Again, I think that’s a lot to do with staying on your toes and not really settling down. Living to fight another day, not showing your hand, it’s this constant retreat. Duchamp uses the word ‘delay’.
DP: Yes, ‘Large Glass’ is a delay in glass …
KF: I always liked that: you know, this kind of ‘let’s not define yourself until it’s really necessary’. I see this new work as somehow figurative—I see it as homosocial.
DP: I was interested to talk about the last artist in the catalogue—Matthew Barney— in relation to these issues. At the level of its narrative, if you could say it has a narrative, it’s about the pathos of male failure, the struggles towards some kind of self-realisation on primo-genesis, and yet again, at the level of form, it very comfortably fits within a traditionally male artistic paradigm. There’s a potential disparity between those two things—what it’s doing thematically and then his actual status within the art world.
KF: But remember this was the first film he made and his position in the art world was very different to what it is now … I think when you look at the Cremasters [Barney’s series of films] one of the important things is that he goes from the self-budgeted art piece right up to the Hollywood blockbuster—$6 million, I think, for the last one cost.
DP: Well, I think in the Drawing Restraint series[of films] it’s even more marked because it started off with art school practice, using gym equipment in the studio to make simple … The first one is most clearly related to an existing body of male artistic work and you reference …
KF: The body artists …
DP: … Bruce Nauman for example: the claustrophobic struggle through space and the signature material is very important again—the Vaseline used in various ways in the film.
DH: I think that’s a wonderful thing—I find it amusing. It does seem to draw an ironic line under a whole tradition.
DP: We ask how critical is this work in relationship to the Duchamp tradition. It seems that the issues we end up talking about again in relation to Barney’s work are the ones about masculine identity that we’ve been dealing with rather than—to come back to the original term—the ‘anxiety’ of the historical relationship.
DH: I guess in the end I imagine Dada’s boys playing—as young boys play—with their own position in a lineage. The irony and humour is all important. Perhaps they are just playing at being boys. Who knows what it is to be male?
Conversation recorded by Alexander Kennedy