“Dada is a virgin microbe.” —Tristan Tzara
Dada: It was the mother of all revolutionary art movements, shocking in the almost mystical nihilism and concomitant absurdity that it expounded. Anti-aesthetic, anti-rational, anti-idealistic, anti-establishment, anti-literary … anti-everything it seemed! Born almost 100 years ago in Zurich in the immediate aftermath of World War One, it cemented that city’s role as a hub for artistic innovation.
This past Saturday, the Whitebox Art Center kicked off the New York segment of an exciting “Dada Pocket World Tour,” which celebrates a century of Dada irreverence and ironic fun. The Dadaist presentations are part of the ambitious two-week “Zürich Meets New York: A Festival of Swiss Ingenuity,” which includes Swiss tech start-up presentations, urban design displays, music concerts, and art shows in different locations such as Times Square and the Kitchen — and thankfully there isn’t a cuckoo clock or yodeling Heidi in sight.
The inaugural event included skewered miniature apples and cornichons coming out of walls and home fried potatoes stuck on plastic syringes which squirted out a cream topping when bitten. Musicians in lederhosen played the drums. A smiling Lady Screen Face waxed philosophic about the death of privacy and sang a Schubert Lied with operatic gusto while wearing an iPad mask over her face — Alpine milk maiden meets Orwell meets The Matrix.
Next stop: the trendy night spot The Box, as guests were led to this Lower East Side location on foot. Chrystie Street may not be particularly reminiscent of the Old Town Spielgasse where Cabaret Voltaire was born in 1916, but the club provided a suitably smoky atmosphere for riffs on original Dada acts — reincarnations more than reproductions per se. David Prum appeared with his head sticking through a cardboard house (“Little Head Room”) and philosophized about what? I am not sure — home décor renovations and relativity perhaps?
There was also magic — appropriately silly, of course — via George Sobelle and some throaty Dietrich-inspired cabaret thanks to Justin Vivian Bond, while a charming Anthony R. Constanzo stripped as he falsettoed his heart off to La Vie en Rose. Doug Fitch delivered the only true “recreation” of a historical Dada work when he read Hugo Ball’s gibberish poem Gadji Beri Biba while dressed like what looked like a Tin Man of sorts.
It’s easy now to forget how revolutionary it was at the time for Tzara, Ball, and colleagues such as Jean Arp, Andre Breton, and Marcel Duchamp to base a movement on the absence or negation of (traditional) meaning, aesthetics or form. Performance art, readymades, Pop Art, Surrealism, Futurism, Cubism, and even Seinfeld for all we know might not have been the same without Dada’s completely novel take on reality. In 1916, Dada was reacting against the the carnage of WWI, created by supposedly “civilized” Europeans. The present recreation/reincarnation addresses issues such as the loss of privacy and the perils of technological change.
The world is 100 years older now, but it seems just as absurd as when Dada was born in the land of luxury watches, fine chocolate, and weaponry, thanks to the creative genius of a few exiled artists. Closer to home, even a pop band such as the Talking Heads exhorted listeners to be dada and stop making sense! Or as Tzara once noted “Thought is made in the mouth.”
“Dada on Tour” is at the Whitebox Art Center (389 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) and other locations in NYC, May 18–22. Be sure to catch artist Catrina Bezzola’s eye-caching creations at the White Box Art Center through May 22. Complete Zurich Meets New York Festival event listings at: www.zurichmeetsnewyork.org. Giants Are Small (Doug Fitch and Edouard Getaz) was responsible for organizing the entire evening of Dada Bomb.