PRINT December 2012

Daniel Birnbaum

View of “The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata,” Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. Foreground: Multiples of Marcel Duchamp’s Roue de Bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), 1913/1964. Photo: Attilio Maranzano.

1 “The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata” (Fondazione Prada, Venice; curated by Germano Celant) This exceptionally rich exploration of the art of multiplication—from Sonia Delaunay to Marcel Duchamp to Yoko Ono, and with more than six hundred works—held my attention and that of my easily bored friends for hours. The disappearance of the auratic original does not make fetishistic obsession obsolete. On the contrary: Some of these multiples are to kill for!

2 Herbert Molderings, Die Nackte Wahrheit: Zum Spätwerk von Marcel Duchamp (The Naked Truth: The Late Works of Marcel Duchamp; Carl Hanser Verlag) In case you thought there was nothing more to say about the late works of Duchamp, well, you’re totally wrong. Because you knew nothing about the significance of the color green, let alone that mysterious cosmic-light phenomenon known as the green ray and its central role in the artist’s work and love life.

3 Pierre Huyghe, Untilled (Documenta 13, Kassel) This enigmatic installation in the composting area of a park involved a naked female acéphale protected by an actual dog with a pink fluorescent leg. I will never be able to prove it, but this seems as close as we will get to a novel version of Duchamp’s esoteric scene behind that wooden door in Philadelphia. Perhaps with a few drops of coyote blood à la Joseph Beuys.

4 Quentin Meillassoux, The Number and the Siren (Urbanomic) Stéphane Mallarmé is not a hermetic author, he is a difficult author, says Jacques Rancière, echoing many others on the French Symbolist. What they imply is that we should once and for all renounce the idea of a secret key that can unveil the ultimate meaning of his most legendary and intensely studied book-length poem, Un Coup de dés (A Throw of the Dice; i.e., casting out order for chance). And yet Meillassoux’s recent study tries to provide exactly this cipher in numerological terms. The secret number is 707; there are 707 or so words in the poem, and the two units, 7 and 0, are the symbolic poles of the throw of the dice. It sounds absurd, but I think Meillassoux is right, and that he has added a crucial dimension nobody ever noticed despite innumerable “close readings.” Rumor has it he is now working on Duchamp.

5 Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, En Atendant (RuhrTriennale 2012–2014, Bochum, Germany, August 24–26) Not since I encountered Pina Bausch as a teenager has a dance performance made such an impression on me. De Keersmaeker’s exercises in formal logic are full of absurd joy in spite of their dark themes. This recent performance took us back to fourteenth-century France, when Europe was stricken with the plague, and composers in Provence developed a new polyrhythmic form of music known as ars subtilior that still feels new, like sounds arriving from an era yet to come. With just four musicians, and eight dancers rising and falling in the twilight of an otherwise bare stage, De Keersmaeker and her company, Rosas, give us that rare experience of a total work of art.

6 Jimmie Durham, The History of Europe (Documenta 13, Kassel) This is sabotage: In a little pavilion at the very center of Europe we find a ridiculous version of our continent’s innermost soul—its mission, its spiritual contours, its destiny. Actually, it’s not even a continent, says our nomadic guest, but more like an awkward protrusion. A kind of embarrassing hump.

Victor Hugo, The Blessing Hand of the Abbess, n.d., pen, India ink on vellum, 5 3/8 x 4 1/2". From “Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst.”

7 “Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst” (Städel Museum, Frankfurt; curated by Felix Krämer) Brilliantly curated, this vast exhibition makes the notion of Romanticism so elastic that early Scandinavian cinema and Surrealism can meet William Blake in the unfathomable night of irrationalism. There were plenty of historical icons, but what stays most vividly in my memory is the terrifying hand of an abbess by Victor Hugo. Pure evil.

8 Heiner Goebbels, Eislermaterial (Philharmonie Cologne, October 13, 2012) I thought I was invited to a farewell party for Kasper König, legendary director of the Museum Ludwig, but suddenly found myself inside one of the greatest musical events: Goebbels’s Eislermaterial, 1998, performed here by Ensemble Moderne in front of a seated audience of two thousand. The songs, by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, were interpreted by actor Josef Bierbichler in subtle and humorous fashion. “Don’t illustrate your feelings but comment on them musically. Be objective,” Eisler once said. This may sound dry, but in Goebbels’s case this means the most grandiose form of speculation on the future of music. Only German culture can be so serious and yet so full of honesty and melancholia.

9 Sankai Juku This Japanese dance company mixes the most reduced and Zen-like stillness with surreal corporeality. When I saw them this past year at Kulturhuset i Ytterjärna, Sweden, profound archaic silence met sudden moments of weirdly lascivious dance.

10 Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Astronaut (“To the Moon via the Beach,” Luma Foundation, Arles Amphitheater, France) A lonesome astronaut plays the harmonica in an empty Roman amphitheater. It’s late, and almost no one is there. He seems to walk on our planet as a stranger. How strange: In the dusk, there are only me, my wife, and the wanderer from outer space.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, for which he cocurated “Picasso/Duchamp ‘He Was Wrong,’” on view through March 3, 2013.