Asked whether he cared what his contemporaries thought of him, Marcel Duchamp once said, “I would rather wait for a public that will come fifty years — a hundred years — after my death.”
Those words will soon take on an eerily prophetic ring — and before schedule. Forty-nine years to the day after Duchamp died, New York artist Serkan Ozkaya will unveil a full-scale model of Duchamp’s farewell artwork, “Étant Donnés,” in the Greenwich Village studio that the father of conceptual art once occupied. Ozkaya’s re-creation is an oddity in the history of responses to Duchamp: not an homage or reinterpretation so much as a vessel for what he suggests is a mind-bending discovery.
That discovery? Under the right conditions, Ozkaya maintains, “Étant Donnés,” a graphic peepshow-like diorama viewed through eyeholes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, transforms into a projector that beams an image of Duchamp himself — as his cross-dressing alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, no less.
A previously unknown self-portrait lurking unnoticed for five decades within a supremely enigmatic work? To devotees of Duchamp, among the 20th century’s most influential artists, it’s a Dead Sea Scrolls moment. The only problem is that Ozkaya’s find may be nothing more than a figment of his perception.
Curious art lovers will soon have a chance to decide for themselves. Ozkaya’s replica will go on public display Oct. 21 at the Postmasters Gallery, after a brief, invitation-only opening at Duchamp’s East 11th Street studio. That Ozkaya’s installation, titled “We Will Wait” (or, in French, “En attendons,” an anagram of “Étant donnés”), projects an image is beyond doubt. But whether viewers see a gender-fluid likeness of Duchamp in the ethereal Rorschach blot — or just a mirage — may depend on their taste for a good ghost story.
Ozkaya’s work raises broader questions about our cultural moment. In an age of rampant appropriation, what are the rights of contemporary artists to repurpose canonical works for their own career-advancing explorations? Does Ozkaya’s piece constitute an act of research, a creative re-imagining or an art-historical hijacking?
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Debates around the inviolability of iconic works were never far from the minds of the surrealists and dadaists of Duchamp’s day, too, and flared up with the renegades of the Pictures Generation — Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince among those taking up the banner of appropriation. Ozkaya is yet another challenger to the notion of art as sacred relic: His copy is a direct descendant of the heady mischief — some might say charlatanry — Duchamp opened the door to when he scribbled a signature on a urinal and pronounced it art.
If nothing else, Ozkaya’s installation looks poised to add mystique to “Étant Donnés,” a piece that Jasper Johns has referred to as “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Its twin peepholes look onto a famously cryptic tableau with a naked, partly visible woman sprawled in the foreground. A moment of post-coital bliss or the grisly aftermath of a sex crime?
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Duchamp worked on “Étant Donnés” in absolute secrecy for 20 years while maintaining the fiction that he’d abandoned art to concentrate on chess. Unveiled a year after his death in 1968, and unaccompanied by text on its conceptual underpinnings, his diorama has posed a stubborn if seductive riddle to generations of artists and scholars. As Julian Jason Haladyn, an art theorist who wrote “Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés,” put it, “It was the ultimate gesture of giving to the history of his work something that would perpetually be a question.”
Ozkaya’s own reckoning with that question began as a niggling what-if: Could “Étant Donnés” work as a type of projector known as a camera obscura — and if so, what kind of image might it produce? Others, from the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard to the architect Penelope Haralambidou, had similar speculations.
A camera obscura is typically a dark box with a hole that focuses incoming light onto the box’s inner wall, creating a single sharp image. By contrast, Ozkaya’s facsimile funnels light originating within the box — the installation itself — out through the two peepholes and into the spectator space. When the twin light streams strike the screen Ozkaya has placed in front of the openings, the two projected images (both inverted snapshots of the installation’s interior) partly superimpose. The geometric color field they form can, with a little imagination, be read as a face.
But is it Marcel Duchamp’s?
Ozkaya prefers to let viewers reach their own conclusions, though he has his own opinion: “Once you see it, you can’t unsee.”
The Turkish-born artist, who has made a career of learned but lighthearted provocation, based his copy on the detailed instruction manual that Duchamp drafted for the assembly of “Étant Donnés,” as well as exhaustive research. Three years in the making, Ozkaya’s 3-D printed reproduction hews to the original’s dimensions and compositional features, but the peepholes have been enlarged to cast a bigger image.
A year before he embarked on his facsimile, the artist approached the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a proposal to test his hypothesis by hanging a sheet of vellum a few inches from the peepholes of “Étant Donnés.”
He presented photographs produced by his smaller, 10-to-1 scale mock-up. According to Matthew Affron, the Philadelphia Museum’s curator of modern art, that evidence was judged too ambiguous to justify an experiment apparently at odds with Duchamp’s original intentions.
“There’s a lot of evidence in the construction of the piece that the whole scenario of one person looking through the eyeholes is really how the thing was conceived by the artist,” Affron said. “Tampering with the optics of ‘Étant Donnés’ falls outside of what we’re here to do.”
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Affron’s predecessor at the museum, Michael Taylor, echoed that skepticism. In 2009, Taylor curated a comprehensive exhibit on “Étant Donnés” amassing a trove of photographs and letters that shed light on Duchamp’s obsessive construction of the assemblage. There’s nothing in this material, he claimed in a recent interview, to suggest a hidden, outward-pointing optical effect in the blueprints for “Étant Donnés.”
Taylor, now the chief curator and deputy director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, said the likeness of Duchamp projected by Ozkaya’s replica is “actually a fluke” — although he stressed that he’s keeping an open mind until he sees the full-scale model in action.
To Ozkaya, such reactions are understandable. “It does look like an unpolite attempt from my side to turn everything upside down,” he said. “Like, you idiots, look here, not there — it’s right behind you.”
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Other Duchamp experts are not so quick to rule out the possibility that “Étant Donnés<em>”</em> was rigged to work both as a peepshow <em>and</em> a projector. Haladyn acknowledged that he sees a face in long-exposure photographs of the projection but stopped short of identifying it as Duchamp’s. He pointed out that “light and shadow and projection — all of these things fit with the vocabulary of Duchamp.”
Further, Duchamp had a lifelong fascination with self-portraiture and artworks that doubled as fanciful apparatuses. A notorious jester, he also reveled in staging elaborate pranks. “His response to overwrought criticism was to release a new box of notes to mess with people’s interpretations,” Haladyn said.
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And then there’s the full title of the installation, “Étant Donnés: 1. La Chute d’Eau, 2. Le Gaz d’Éclairage...” which translates to “Given: 1. the Waterfall, 2. the Illuminating Gas ... “ Many have mused that the title evokes a logic puzzle, as if the key to deciphering the work might lie within the two visible light sources shining out from the assemblage — the gas lamp held by the nude, and a shimmering waterfall in the background.
Face or no face, for many the more compelling issue is how to characterize Ozkaya’s copy: an impartial device mediating communication between a dead artist and his posthumous spectators? Or a haunted Xerox machine ghostwriting a message on Duchamp’s behalf?
Ozkaya sees his installation as furthering the sly, in-the-eye-of-the-beholder game Duchamp played throughout his career. Just as Duchamp invited viewers to complete “Étant Donnés” by imposing a meaning on it — and just as he left it to his audience to imagine mass-produced objects as artworks — Ozkaya enlists his viewers to make an interpretive leap of their own. “The portrait exists thanks to a collaboration between the reader, the author and the work,” he said. “It isn’t there by itself — you have to activate it.”
As to whether Duchamp deliberately concealed a self-portrait in his valedictory artwork, Ozkaya said, “Who cares? We see it, we decide. That’s art, that’s the game: it’s not about the facts.” After a contemplative pause, he added, “It’s a great story.”
In the post-Duchamp, post-truth age, that may be the only aim to which art can aspire.