Nic Aluf, Portrait of Sophie Taeuber with Dada Head, 1920, gelatin silver print, 8 1/4 × 6 1/2". From “Dadaglobe Reconstructed.”

Nic Aluf, Portrait of Sophie Taeuber with Dada Head, 1920, gelatin silver print, 8 1/4 × 6 1/2". From “Dadaglobe Reconstructed.”

“Dadaglobe Reconstructed”

Nic Aluf, Portrait of Sophie Taeuber with Dada Head, 1920, gelatin silver print, 8 1/4 × 6 1/2". From “Dadaglobe Reconstructed.”

This small exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich, where curator Adrian Sudhalter presented a meticulous reconstruction of Tristan Tzara’s book project Dadaglobe, uncovered two urgent desires on Tzara’s part: He aimed at an artistic production that could circulate, not only with mercurial ease, incorporating diverse forms and materials, but also—as the title suggests—on a truly planetary scale. Tzara planned to publish the anthology in 1921, conceiving it in close collaboration with Francis Picabia, but it was never realized. Both Tzara and Picabia were prolific editors of magazines, a privileged forum for Dada’s ephemeral and situational works. It seems that in order to transcend the usually national character of magazines, Tzara had to turn to the more stable and canonical form of the book. Richard Huelsenbeck had attempted a similar project in Germany under the name Dadaco. John Heartfield had already started to elaborate a graphic layout and had conceptualized iconic photographic portraits of George Grosz and Raoul Hausmann, among others. When Huelsenbeck abandoned the project in 1920, Tzara saw his chance to take it up. Several of Heartfield’s portraits reappear in Tzara’s project. More than fifty artists (only six of them women) from twelve countries answered his and Picabia’s invitation to send photographs of works, portraits of themselves, and texts.

While Sudhalter’s Dadaglobe publication aspires to completeness, the accompanying exhibition, unsurprisingly, focused on the more or less pictorial contents. But exhibiting the original images has meant framing them as cryptic, fragile-looking figures on aged paper, thereby completely reversing Tzara’s original attempts to devalue the original in the name of distribution. As Sudhalter points out, Max Ernst’s collage The Chinese Nightingale, 1920, should be considered one of the most important contributions to the project. In it, he presents a sculpture that never existed except on paper. Man Ray did something similar by documenting mere readymades—including built structures—as if they were artworks. But why show these in an exhibition, a format for which they were never intended?

And then a second question presents itself: What does this exhibition (which travels to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, this summer) want to say about such works on paper right now? This question, at least, Sudhalter answers in the catalogue. She wants to reconstitute a “magnum opus” that never appeared, making it readable as a declaration of “international collaboration.” She understands language and visual representation as means of communication, trumpeting peace after World War I. Yet it is enough to just read Tzara’s public announcement of the project, published in New York Dada in 1921 and possibly translated by Marcel Duchamp, to see that he thought otherwise. The text is shot through with the language of cosmetics advertising. The “anti ‘nuance’ cream” of Dada is to cover the face, the eyes, and every pore of life. In doing so, it destroys the subject as a communicable thing. On their letterhead used for the invitations to participate in Dadaglobe, Tzara and Picabia used the French word mouvement, with the m, the u, both e’s and the t capitalized—a deliberate misspelling of muet: silent. The work of art has to go through a complete mimicry of the atrophied forms of commercial tautologies.

And so we return to our first question. Back in the little cabinet at the kunsthaus, not even the most elaborate wall label could disperse the persistent obscurity of the always too small, too weak, too insignificant-looking bits of paper. Organizing them geographically, or adding a few “real” works of art, like a relief by Hans Arp and a small sculpture by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, could hardly change this impression. The exhibition robbed the works shown of their now-empty promise of global circulation. Dada’s war on communication was lost on this front, to be sure. Yet stuck in the logic of the museum, the works still appeared able to resist its relentless will to capitalize everything as visual information.

Simon Baier