The Inevitable Return to Dada? Might Delete Later at Essex Flowers

April 6, 2020

“It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by de nition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo-breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously. On the other hand, the accidental production of novel objects results occasionally from the practice of Dada. During times of crisis like wars and plagues, some of these objects can be truly novel because they sabotage prevailing sentiments.” - Andrei Codrescu from The Post Human Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess

Like many others, I am trying to imagine the curatorial responses to Covid that will begin to shape the art world through the gallery system in the coming year. I’m sure we are in for a steeper trajectory of safer exhibition schedules - blue chip artists connected to reliable collectors, large group shows, and even less risk-taking than before.

But namely, from the galleries that are still engaged with an idea of art that transcends the market, I am wondering if a timely return to Dada is completely inescapable.

Dada has often proven itself through its progressive absurdism as a regressive and reactionary language towards political upheaval and existential dread. It is a wobbly, contrarian structure that eludes definition. Tzara defined it as an “anti-art” that is the abolition of “memory”, “archaeology”, and of the “future;” and poetically, it has managed to time hop its way through to the present. Jed Perl has asserted that Robert Gober is “Our Dadaist” in his book Magicians and Charlatans - pointing to his sculpture’s addressal of the tragic political hospital during the AIDS crisis.

It is possible to even consider much of Mike Kelley’s work through a lineage of Dada. Certainly, memes and “weird Twitter” have kept its practice alive outside of the institution for some time (I can’t be the first to acknowledge that @Dril has potentially exchanged the Ball cabaret or Tzara theater for tweets).

Might Delete Later Exhibition View at Essex Flowers
Might Delete Later Exhibition View at Essex Flowers

Might Delete Later

Take the show Might Delete Later, a show currently under quarantine at Essex Flowers that is poetic in its timing and in its capsule-like entombment.

It was/is a show about humor (or at least that is the press release announcement) but it seems to explore the fracturing and non-hierarchical Dada aesthetic as its chief language for this humor, beyond the circumstantial irony of it (a show that adopts the language and rhizomatic image structures of the internet to be landed IRL, only to be sequestered and viewed entirely through the internet again).

The humor itself is playful but also referential. I am reminded of Gober’s humor in the clever Untitled (Marker) by Roula Pertheniou. Jordan Strafer’s Pa is an update on Lynch’s "The Amputee" - one of his earliest and perhaps most essential early films for understanding his interest in the cul-de-sac abject. Instead of the interiority of a woman writing a trivial letter, her amputated legs being cared for by a nurse, Strafer shifts it into absurd, play-acted violence- a group of clownish physicians saw away at a woman resting in a patch of grass, her psychic thoughts transformed into a shout over a loudspeaker.

There is the tragicomic bricolage video of Claudia Bitran’s FML. In the claymation video, Bitran depicts a drunk body in a way that examines its unnatural figuration-the unheimlich explicitly expressed in vomiting and the strained contortions associated with being black out drunk which ultimately ends in end-of-party marker drawings of moustaches and penises.

There is the pastiche in Willie Wayne Smith’s What Eve Gnaws along with the internet cat-ification in DDesign’s (Lads and Gentlewomen). Perhaps a direct reference to Dada in Jacques Louis Vidal’s Competing Acts, that represents both a machine (of worms) and a unicycle in the spirit of Duchamp (but also That Boi memes). The worms become a series of circuits or a kind of coat rack standing in a boat, a warped window shows a building and courtyard revealing a personified face.

Roula Partheniou - Untitled (Magic Marker), 2020
Roula Partheniou - Untitled (Magic Marker), 2020. Acrylic paint on wood, Marker: 3/4 x 5 inches, Marker cap: 3/4 x 1-1/8 inches

Humor in the Times of Covid

Humor is a search for community. Humor within art, is as much about the inclusion of those who makes as it is about the exclusion of those who don’t. The jokes in the room are winks and nods that require the shibboleth, the password, of an understanding of western art history and its visual languages to appreciate- “if you know, you know.” Do you speak the babble too?

Dada has traditionally been understood as a texture of nihilism. Has anything been proven in the last few months, other than the ludicrous uncertainty of the present? It is hard to imagine anyone able to make a serious or didactic take in the months post-covid, when we must balance a reality show presidency and Joe Exotic with the staggering loss of human life and worth.

Words, like the promises of shipped ventilators and tests, bend towards the “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.” of Dada, described by Picabia. Once again, the babble of Dada presents itself- dismantling and annihilating the language that was used to create the insane politics, climate collapse, and stage for this brutal, global tragedy.

Is Dada inescapable? And will anything else even be appropriate?

Might Delete Later is being shown online at Essex Flowers through April 19, 2020.

Written by Andrew Woolbright.