Summer Road Trip with Duchamp on My Mind

July 12, 2011, 07:22 am  Posted by Lark

Road Trip! This Summer’s trip had an unplanned theme centered around Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Our road trip was planned for various points North, and Duchamp’s surreal masterpiece left a lasting psychological afterimage everywhere I went…

The assemblage is a surreal work of art secretly constructed over two decades in Duchamp’s NYC studio. After his death, the work was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My experience of the piece will long be cherished—and I found out about it only a few days before my trip thanks to my Lark colleague Nicole McConville.

There’s an unassuming opening along the museum wall into an unassuming white room. To the left are two worn, bulky wood doors. Upon closer inspection, two peepholes in the doors invite a view.

Then the assemblage hit me with a visual pop: a confining broken brick opening to an unreal reclining nude female figure holding up an oil lamp in front of a sparkling waterfall nestled in an idyllic forested background. The experience was a rush of couplings. The view seemed constricted and vast all at once. Not only did I feel voyeuristic, it felt as if I was viewing a hidden murder scene, and when I could finally pull myself away, the plain white side room seemed more surreal than the image now burned into my memory.

Obviously, seeing Duchamp’s Étant donnés was going to stay with me. The day before, on the drive up to Philadelphia from North Carolina, we had visited Luray Caverns, and emerging from that subterranean world into a the bustle of Philadelphia was quite a visual shift.

After our lingering stay in PMA’s Duchamp room, we visited The Mutter Museum. The multitude of preserved human medical oddities only amplified the recent memory of Duchamp’s trompe-l’oeil mannequin. We skipped dinner.

Driving up to Connecticut I enjoyed the distant view of the New York City skyline and wondered about Duchamp’s studio that housed a small wonder for so long in such a big metropolis. My friends and I enjoyed taking pictures through another Duchamp piece, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, at MoMA, especially since the title of this piece described my trip so well. Even the natural beauty of Shelving Rock Falls in the Adirondacks couldn’t replace the Étant donnés waterfall still sparkling in my memory. And seeking to continue the theme, we went to visit Watch Hill Lighthouse in Rhode Island, but it couldn’t outdo the “the illuminating gas” either.

However, while in Watch Hill a local told us we might enjoy an abandoned fort if we could stand the hike. Indeed we could, and Fort Mansfield proved to be as voyeuristic an experience as Duchamp’s surreal masterpiece—with graffiti instead of body parts.

(A)  Hollywood style advertisement along the mountains ridges of the Shenandoah Valley along Interstate 81; (B) an underground lake reflecting the stalactites above at Luray Caverns; (C) a colorful side street in Philadelphia and a sweet bicycle shop; (D) the New York city skyline off in the distance; (E) Shelving Rock Falls in the Adirondacks; (F and G) lighthouse hunting in Rhode Island; and (F) the ruins of Fort Mansfield.


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