Tagged: Modernism

And an Axe to Destroy the Piece

Dadaist Lessons for Modern Creatives

Thought is subversive and revolutionary…
thought is great and swift and free.
     — Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight, 1917

As a movement, Dada made such a tremendous impact on our modern culture that we are still feeling the aftershocks almost one-hundred years after its inception. Some refer to this as collateral damage, since Dada’s most obvious traits are its most incendiary. It is easy to view the Dadaists as rabble-rousing anarchists who spent their time babbling, banging, and dropping paper on the floor. On the road from Cubism’s innovation to Surrealism’s intellectualism, many critics liken Dada to a mere rest stop. But this is a surface critique, and Dada was not about surface.¹ The movement’s founders — Ball, Tzara, and the rest — were imbued with a purpose deeper than nonsensical revelry.² The Dadaists’ cunning framework of practice, perception, and politics permanently ingrained their revolutionary ideals in the minds of the creative world.

Dada’s methodology is one of its more difficult aspects to encapsulate.³ The fields of art and design are quick to latch on to the visual artifacts and use them as an anarchic taxonomy — to be implemented whenever chaos or subversion is called for. Shallow comparisons of style or composition can certainly be made, but to pursue this route of interpolating Dada’s value into today’s creative practice is a fool’s errand.

Francis Picabia, “L’oeil Caodylate” (detail), 192 1 (Dadart.com)

Francis Picabia, “L’oeil Caodylate,” 192 1 (Dadart.com)

Michael Joseph, “Cover photograph for the record album Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones,” 1968 (RollingStones.com)

Michael Joseph, “Cover photograph for the record album Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones,” 1968 (RollingStones.com)

In Zurich, Dada’s birth saw literature and drama fulfilling the parental roles. These progenitors were seeking outlets through which they could funnel their angst and disillusionment caused by the Great War. Early gatherings at the Cabaret Voltaire were full of lively performances, including Hugo Ball’s sound poetry, Sophie Taeuber’s marionettes, and Marcel Janco’s primitive masks.⁴ However, the group’s experimental repertoire quickly expanded to include such techniques as painting, sculpture, and collage, albeit executed with “anti-artistic” flair.

Hugo Ball wearing a paper costume, and performing his sound poem ‘Karawene’ at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 (Typophile.com)

Hugo Ball wearing a paper costume, and performing his sound poem ‘Karawene’ at the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916 (Typophile.com)

Marionettes created by Sophie Taeuber, 1918 (NYTimes.com)

Marionettes created by Sophie Taeuber, 1918 (NYTimes.com)

This was partially due to the strategic influence of Tristan Tzara, who became Dada’s first outspoken leader after a squabble with Hugo Ball.⁵ Tzara wanted to promote the Dadaist philosophy to a wider audience, and art would become the conduit. Will Gompertz, in his book What Are You Looking At?, describes the Dadaists’ peculiar relationship with the art world as such:

They denied and despised the Modernist movements, like Futurism, from which they had emerged. But for all their bombast and belligerence, the Dadaists would not have gained the notoriety and influence they did without ensconcing themselves within the very art establishment they were railing against.…Dada needed to be in the art world for its message to have any impact. Those rebellious Dadaists knew how to play by the rules.⁶

A primary method for overturning the traditional outlook on art was the incorporation of any and all materials into the work itself.⁷ Initiated by Hans Arp’s randomized paper “droppings” and progressing to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbilder  —  assemblages constructed from refuse as well as other “low” materials  —  the use of objects previously thought to be too “common” for use in fine art inspired a seemingly endless set of possibilities for future creatives.⁸ As a direct result of Dada’s inclusion, artists and designers today will more willingly change the medium in which they work to find the solution that best suits the job. James Victore, an artist and designer who dabbles in everything from corporate identity and poster design to consumer materials such as watches and plates, works today with the same material freedom (and distaste for the status quo) as the Dadaists did in 1920.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild, "Rossfett," 1919 (All-Art.org)

Kurt Schwitters, “Merzbild Rossfett,” 1919 (All-Art.org)

James Victore, “Racism” poster, 1993 (JamesVictore.com)

James Victore, “Racism” poster, 1993 (JamesVictore.com)

Another deviation brought on by Dada is what Dorothée Brill calls “a shift of attention from the object of art itself to the experience of perceiving it”.⁹ Marcel Duchamp helped establish the notion of art being defined primarily by the artist’s intentions with his provocative readymades. This new paradigm —“art as idea”— represents a shift in the viewer’s role from admirer to interpreter, and allows the creator to attach a slew of subversive and outlandish ideas to what were previously regarded as everyday objects.¹⁰

The 2013 show, Subversive Design, at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery showcased the Dadaist ethos. In the same way that the Dadaists commented on their sociopolitical landscape with their work, Subversive Design presents “objects that challenge perceived ideas, contain hidden messages and address social [and political  ] issues…”.¹¹ Reminiscent of Schwitters’ Merz assemblages, designers such as Tapio Wirkkala and Rebecca Joselyn elevate the concept of trash. Other entries include undergarments that awkwardly change the shape of a woman’s body, and designer chairs that comment on “uncomfortable political issues.”

Rebecca Joselyn, “Crushed Can Jug,” 2009 (Culture24.org.uk)

Rebecca Joselyn, “Crushed Can Jug,” 2009 (Culture24.org.uk)

Michael Sanders, “Sitting Comfortably,” 1987 (thelatest.co.uk)

Michael Sanders, “Sitting Comfortably,” 1987 (thelatest.co.uk)

Sebastian Brajkovic, “Lathe v Red,” 2008 (Brighton-hove-rmpl.org.uk)

Sebastian Brajkovic, “Lathe v Red,” 2008 (Brighton-hove-rmpl.org.uk)

Walter Benjamin observes that once “the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on [ … ] politics”.¹² Dada was a political movement focused on shock, surprise, and societal change. Richard Hülsenbeck left the Dada agenda completely unambiguous when he said, “We want to radically demolish the sophistries of kindness, beauty, value, we want to destroy everything”.¹³ Although the current geopolitical balance is quite different from the Dadaists’ world, politically-motivated work continues to be an important endeavor for artists and designers today. Some recent examples include Copper Greene’s 2004 parody of Apple’s iPod campaign that focused on torture practices in Abu Ghraib, and Matt Kenyon’s Notepad project created for the 2011 Talk to Me exhibition at MoMA.

 “Notepad” project by Matt Kenyon of SWAMP, 2007. Each line on the yellow legal pads is microprinted with the names of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the first three years of the Iraqi War.

“Notepad” project by Matt Kenyon of SWAMP, 2007. Each line on the yellow legal pads is microprinted with the names of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the first three years of the Iraqi War.

Enlargd view of the microprinted text. The notepads were sent to members of the United States Congress as a way of subversively distributing the data. (SWAMP.nu)

Enlargd view of the microprinted text. The notepads were sent to members of the United States Congress as a way of subversively distributing the data. (SWAMP.nu)

For all its ambiguity, the dogma of Dada is alive and well in the twenty-first century. The creative community has embraced the freedom of methods and materials, subversive work has a prominent platform to preach its social critique, and art and design continue to engender political acuity by stating what, if left to words alone, could be too bitter a taste to swallow whole.

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Notes
1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 237. Print.
2. Gompertz, Will. What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. New York: Dutton, 2012. 226. Print.
3. “World War I and Dada.” MoMA Learning. MoMA.org, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
4. Dickerman, Leah, and Brigid Doherty. Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. Washington: National Gallery of Art in Association with D.A.P./Distributed Art, New York, 2005. 27–32. Print.
5. Dickerman, Leah. 35.
6. Gompertz, Will. 224.
7. Brill, Dorothée. Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2010. 61. Print.
8. Dickerman, Leah. 37, 163.
9. Brill, Dorothée. 61.
10. Grambo, Isaac. “Art, Meaning, and Language Part 2.” Contemporary Critique, 24 June, 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
11. “Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.” Latest 7. thelatest.co.uk, 8 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
12. Benjamin, Walter. 224.
13. Brill, Dorothée. 62.

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.

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A Fair to Remember

The Impact of the Trylon and Perisphere
on the Modern American Dream

Soon we will plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our too-short summers!
     — Charles Baudelaire, Chant d’Automne, 1861

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rapid spread of industrialization throughout the United States instilled a forward-looking mindset in its population — one looking towards a better tomorrow.¹ Although life on the assembly line remained harsh, technology eventually afforded abundance, mobility and hope.² This optimism — which hindsight would quickly label naïve — would not easily be squelched. The brutality of the Great War certainly caused the lights to dim on America’s new day dawning, but it could not prevent a fascination with the future from reclaiming a starring role in the theatre of modern life.³

fig. 1 – Official promotional poster art for the 1939 New York World’s Fair (New York Public Library archive)

Official promotional poster art for the 1939 New York World’s Fair (New York Public Library archive)

An iconic symbol of this cultural buoyancy stood at the heart of the 1939 –  40 New York World’s Fair — the Trylon 
and Perisphere. These two distinctly modern structures formed a commanding focal point for all who visited the fair. Rising to a height of seven hundred feet, the Trylon ( short for “triangular pylon”) stood poised beside the Perisphere globe, which had a diameter of two hundred feet.⁴ The white gypsum-clad structures were designed by Wallace Anderson and J. Andre Fouilhoux, and evoked a new sense of what the modern “World of Tomorrow” could be.⁵ Images of the Trylon and Perisphere were reproduced on every type of product — from lunch boxes to postage stamps⁶— and the buildings became a symbol of the modernist dream that far outlasted the World’s Fair, even though 
they were dismantled in 1940.

A tour guide points to the Theme Center of the 1939 New York World’s Fair  shortly after the scaffolding had been removed (AP Photo)

A tour guide points to the Theme Center of the 1939 New York World’s Fair shortly after the scaffolding had been removed (AP Photo)

United States postage stamp depicting the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 New York World’s Fair

United States postage stamp depicting the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 New York World’s Fair

The 1939 New York World’s Fair was the first international exhibition to focus explicitly on the future. With exhibits named “Futurama,” “The Road of Tomorrow,” and “Democracity,” it was not difficult for fairgoers to read between the lines : “Forget where we’ve been — look where we’re going!” A patron interviewed for a documentary about the fair summed it up this way : “There are moments where you can see the world turning from what it is into what it will be. For me, [ this ] fair is such a moment. It is a compass-rose pointing in all directions”.⁷ Yet, history shows us the short half -life of the fair’s dream-state. Rising tensions in Europe and the absence of Germany from the exposition signaled to everyone that another world conflict was on its way.⁸ The visionary dreams of this World’s Fair may have met interruption, but contextually, set as they were in the midst of modernism’s heavy influence, the Trylon and Perisphere stood as paragons of hopeful innovation. One of the primary means used to achieve this status was their visual appearance.

General view of the World’s Fair at night, September 15, 1939 (Library of Congress)

General view of the World’s Fair at night, September 15, 1939 (Library of Congress)

The Trylon and Perisphere’s simple geometric forms and gleaming white appearance drew in fairgoers like moths to a flame. Simply put : nothing else at the fair looked like these structures. Organizers mandated that no other building could be as tall, nor were any of the other structures colored pure white.⁹ The Perisphere appeared to float in mid-air — thanks to strategically placed fountains — and both it and the Trylon lacked any outside markings. With these techniques, Anderson and Fouilhoux managed to reference both the Miesian concept of “less is more,” and Le Corbusier’s floating boxes.¹⁰ Their clean abstraction of form turned amazed attendees into blank canvases onto which the fair’s exhibitors could apply their own agendas.¹¹

Lagoon view of the Trylon and Perisphere, featuring the George Washington statue, July 7, 1939 (AP Photo)

Lagoon view of the Trylon and Perisphere, featuring the George Washington statue, July 7, 1939 (AP Photo)

The Perisphere contained one such exhibit —“Democracity”—designed by Henry Dreyfuss. Once inside, visitors could view from a circular walkway a miniature “world of mega-cities connected by advanced transportation networks”.¹² Quixotic films depicting the “brotherhood of man” were projected onto the interior walls of the domed building.¹³ There was no mention of another world war to be found, only idyllic vision-casting for an improved quality of life.

Cutaway view of the Perisphere and the “Democracity” exhibit designed by Henry Dreyfuss (LIFE)

Cutaway view of the Perisphere and the “Democracity” exhibit designed by Henry Dreyfuss (LIFE)

Interior view of the Perisphere with visitors gazing upon the “World  of Tomorrow” (AP Photo)

Interior view of the Perisphere with visitors gazing upon the “World of Tomorrow” (AP Photo)

This worldview, however positive, contained a subversive thread that became plain when compared alongside other World’s Fair marketing materials. The modern fairgoer was being conditioned to buy certain goods and to expect certain things from their life. Norman Bel Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit and the Westinghouse promotional films depicting the Middletons — an “average” American family — were two examples of this subtle brainwashing.¹⁴ Critics of the fair described its visitors as “students who were to imbibe the corporate doctrine and carry it out with their dollars”.¹⁵ Conscious of it or not, visitors left the World’s Fair with the notion that being a modern person meant owning modern things.

1939 New York World’s Fair souvenir plate featuring Art Deco Trylon and Perisphere (rubylane.com)

1939 New York World’s Fair souvenir plate featuring Art Deco Trylon and Perisphere (rubylane.com)

Still, for all of its shortcomings, the modernized dream set forth by the 1939 –  40 New York World’s Fair maintained its stronghold in the people’s minds, hibernating, as it were, through the tumult of World War II, and springing forth once again in the mid-century realization of Bel Geddes’ and Dreyfuss’ suburban forecasts. The fair’s iconography has embedded itself into pop culture, seen everywhere from television shows like The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, to Hollywood films such as the Iron Man series. The symbols of the fair — the Trylon and Perisphere — were dismantled in late 1940 to be used for war-effort scrap metal, and yet they continue to resonate in the collective consciousness as symbols of what American ingenuity can and will continue to achieve.

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Notes
1. Meggs, Philip B., and Alston W. Purvis. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2006. 134. Print.
2. Kalaidjian, Walter B. Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 5. Print.
3. King, John. “Writing and Rewriting the First World War: Ernst Jünger and the Crisis of the conservative Imagination, 1914–1925.” Criticism. Ernst Jünger in Cyberspace, 1999. 94. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.
4. Yu, James. “Trylon and Perisphere.” A Treasury of World’s Fair Art & Architecture. University of Maryland Libraries, 17 Jan. 2006. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.
5. Sparke, Penny. The Genius of Design. London: Quadrille, 2009. 112. Print.
6. Innes, Christopher. Designing Modern America: Broadway to Main Street. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005. 121. Print.
7. Innes, Christopher. 120.
8. Kalan, Elliott. “The Original Futurama: The Legacy of the 1939 World’s Fair.” Architecture. Popular Mechanics, 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.
9. Barans, John C. “Welcome to Tomorrow.” America in the 1930s. University of Virginia, 1 May 1998. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.
10. Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2008. 298,307. Print.
11. Innes, Christopher. 121.
12. Garn, Andrew, et al. Exit to Tomorrow: World’s Fair Architecture, Design, Fashion 1933–2005. New York, NY: Universe, 2007. 62. Print.
13. Innes, Christopher. 123.
14. Innes, Christopher. 122.
15. Barans, John C.

About the Author

Patrick Gosnell is a graduate student and teacher at Texas State University San-Marcos. He has a background in fine art photography, and currently focuses on international typographic practices. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog, TYPEATX.