Art
Duchamp’s Last Work May Hold One Final Secret
By Abigail Cain
Nov 14, 2017 3:18 pm
Marcel Duchamp,Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ), 1946-1966. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Marcel Duchamp,Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . . (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas . . . ), 1946-1966. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Twice in its history, this simple room has served as a gateway to another world. You wouldn’t guess it, strolling through the fourth floor of the commercial building at 80 East 11th Street in New York. The door is painted a sensible, dark teal; the hallway carpet is thin, bureaucratic, and decidedly unromantic.

But between 1966 and 1968, room 403 served as the home of artist Marcel Duchamp’s final work: Étant Donnés: 1. La Chute d’Eau, 2. Le Gaz d’Éclairage (or, in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). Visitors—if the artist had ever invited any—conceivably would have walked into the office space, only to be confronted with another set of doors. These were old and wooden, hailing originally from Spain, and featured two peepholes set at eye level. Through them, one could catch a glimpse of a surreal, haunting diorama: A naked woman lies prone in a field of bare twigs, her legs spread wide, holding an antique lantern aloft. Behind her, a painted backdrop shows a forest in the first throes of autumn and a twinkling waterfall that actually appears to be flowing.

The work was constructed entirely in secret over a period of some 20 years, following Duchamp’s public announcement in 1923 that he was giving up artmaking for competitive chess-playing. It wasn’t until the artist’s death in 1968 that the enigmatic installation was revealed to the public and, almost immediately, transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Meanwhile, room 403 on East 11th Street was relinquished to a string of other tenants.

But the windowless office had a touch of déjà vu last month, when New York-based artist Serkan Özkaya assembled his own painstaking replica of Étant Donnés in the space. Özkaya’s three-year-long project was intended to test an audacious hypothesis—that Duchamp’s final work, which has consistently puzzled scholars since it came to light almost 60 years ago, may contain one last secret.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Özkaya believes that the installation also acts as a sort of camera obscura, an early photographic tool in which an image is projected through a tiny hole onto the opposite wall of a darkened space (which could range in size from a small box to an entire room). “Étant Donnés,” Ozkaya explained, “could actually be a machine for projection.”

At this point, he’d never actually seen the work in person, although he’d long been a fan of Duchamp’s oeuvre writ large. Growing up in Turkey in the 1980s and ’90s, the artist said, there were “no real museums around. So Duchamp’s work was very inspiring to us because you would see a picture or a Xerox copy or even hear about it and understand the work fully. You didn’t have to be there in the room with the so-called original.”

But Étant Donnés, he noted, “is totally different. With this you really have to be there and look at it.” So he made the trek to Philadelphia, pressing his face against the antique wooden doors to see Duchamp’s handiwork firsthand. That initial visit, he said, seemed promising—the lighting inside was bright, and the peepholes were small enough to potentially function as a camera obscura.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

So he made a 10-to-1 scale model of the work in his Lower East Side studio and switched off the lights. “I was expecting only a picture of what’s inside, just upside down,” Özkaya said, describing the typical result of a camera obscura. “But that’s Duchamp’s genius, that he put two peepholes so you have two pictures superimposed. That creates a whole different composition and, basically, there was a face”—a face, he believed, that bore a striking resemblance to Man Ray’s famous portrait of Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s female alter ego. (Sélavy, a riddle in her own right, is an artistic creation that first appeared in photographs in the 1920s and was later designated as the author of several of Duchamp’s artworks.)  

Özkaya wanted to test out his theory with the real thing. But after six months of negotiation with the Philadelphia Museum, the curators eventually declined his request. “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,” Matthew Affron, the museum’s curator of modern art, told the New York Times. “Tampering with the optics of Étant Donnés falls outside of what we’re here to do.”

Rather than throwing in the towel, Özkaya decided he would simply construct a full-scale model himself. He referenced a 35-page handbook left behind by Duchamp, who wanted to ensure that the work would be properly re-assembled once he’d died. The manual, which also includes 116 black-and-white Polaroids, reveals a surprisingly ramshackle behind-the-scenes construction. Duchamp’s fluorescent lighting was assembled using  some 30 extension cords, while the drapery was often secured with clothespins. The “flowing” waterfall in the background was powered by a motor stored in a biscuit tin.  

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Courtesy of the artist and Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Duchamp’s instructions, Özkaya notes, are “super precise. There’s the wattage of the spotlights, where the screw should be—measurements not only inches, but in millimeters.” But Özkaya updated some materials for the 21st century. Although he initially tried to create a version of the female figure by taking a mold of a actual woman, the artist quickly realized that it’s more of a “surreal object” than a facsimile of an actual person. In the end, Özkaya 3D-printed the figure rather than construct it from wax and parchment as Duchamp had done. The lighting setup is controlled via an app. The lantern was the hardest thing to recreate—Özkaya eventually contacted a non-electrical lighting museum in Paris who agreed to lend him a similar, authentic lamp from their collection.

How accurate was his copy? The founder of Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Duchamp, Özkaya noted, deemed the work “amazing” in its verisimilitude. “And then I showed him the inside, and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve done everything in a different way. But the effect is the same.’ So nobody knows, actually.” Even the curators at the Philadelphia Museum can’t go inside Duchamp’s original work, he said. There’s only one technician allowed behind the scenes to clean or make repairs, meaning that the rest of the world can observe the work solely through the peepholes.

Although the work was originally set up in room 403, where it was viewable by appointment for several weeks, it’s now moved to Postmasters Gallery, where it is on display through Dec. 2nd. The response from Duchamp experts was mixed—many were skeptical, others less so. But, as Özkaya told the Times, it doesn’t matter to him if they believe. “Who cares? We see it, we decide,” he said. “That’s art, that’s the game: It’s not about the facts.”

Correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Serkan Özkaya's studio is in Brooklyn. It is located in the Lower East Side.