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Marcel Duchamp does not exist

By Cioran McGrath.


In 1918 Marcel Duchamp left New York for Buenos Aires. When friends asked him why he’d chosen such a remote destination, he spoke vaguely of some distant acquaintance who ran a brothel there. The joke, or whatever it was, clearly masked more candid hopes. As strange as it may seem for an artist so apparently committed to a certain degree of cynicism, Argentina does appear to have offered some brief fantasy of renewal and escape. In a sketch made before his departure titled ‘Adieu à Florine’ he annotates his journey south, placing a grandiose question mark over Buenos Aires. Judging from his correspondence, Duchamp was growing increasingly uncomfortable in the United States amid the growing reach of the First World War. In a letter to his friend Jean Crotti, he wrote of wanting to “really make a clean break with this part of the world.” Two months after his arrival though, he came to describe the Argentine capital as “just a big provincial town full of rich people with absolutely no taste, and everything bought in Europe,” finally declaring that “Buenos Aires does not exist.”

Duchamp’s time in Argentina has largely been glossed over by those who have sought to chronicle his prodigious myth. His biographer, Calvin Tomkins, broadly characterises the period as an awkward interlude, lacking the mystique of his 1912 visit to Munich. In Duchamp: Appearances Stripped Bare, Octavio Paz claims he merely spent his Argentine days sleeping and his nights playing chess, usually against himself. More recently though the narrative has been rewritten. Graciela Speranza’s Fuera de campo shifts the emphasis, using the episode to focus specifically on the development of Argentine art instead of Duchamp. This is an interesting reversal because it turns the unassailable European artist into a critical device, rather than a further cause for hagiography. Central to this is Duchamp’s search for a “clean break”, though Speranza argues that this wasn’t just from European politics, but from the ‘Great Tradition’ of its culture. Perhaps this is why he was left so disappointed by Buenos Aires: his hopes were too high. Duchamp came to find there was simply no escape from the particular brand of modernity Europe had been exporting so rapaciously since 1492.

If Duchamp’s rejection of Buenos Aires was essentially an early reaction to what we would now recognise as globalisation, then maybe this anecdote suggests something far beyond a merely ignorant dismissal of provincialism. By 1918 Duchamp had already signed his more famous readymades. If it is safe to assume he was well accustomed to the dubious nature of authenticity in the age of mass production before his trip to Buenos Aires, then his Argentine fantasy of escape seems all the more incoherent. That Duchamp would succumb to the shallow mirage of exoticism ultimately undermines the allure of his official persona, so carefully poised on an inscrutable form of skepticism. Even at this relatively late stage in his cultivation of indifference, it seems he was still prone to an idealism that can only be described as romantic. Perhaps Duchamp’s Latin American gap year was not so different to that of a naive backpacker, heading south in search of revolution and alternative lifestyles, only to return with a Che Guevara t-shirt and lesser dreams.

It is easy to imagine this gaunt man stranded in Buenos Aires, suffering the tedious melancholy of a reality he couldn’t make a break from. Boredom and solitude ultimately suited Duchamp though. As an icon of the avant-garde, he is celebrated for exactly the kind of detachment that such a withdrawal enables. This is manifested in the strange austerity of his art, no matter how intricate its design. Speranza describes this quality as allowing his work to function like a void, while Paz approaches a similar idea when he discusses its perpetual suspension of meaning’s disclosure. Duchamp himself called the effect a “delay”. This drawing of meaning towards a position of liminality is most tangible in his systematic collapsing of the exotic with the mundane. In his ‘stripping bare’ of the art object and of more explicit themes, the objectifying gaze is always humbled in Duchamp’s work. If Buenos Aires seemed simultaneously incomprehensible and familiar, then maybe it was there that he realised a delay, whether between meaning and incoherence, or between fantasy and reality, can feel a lot like the discreet horror of boredom.

Regardless of his apathy though, Duchamp was always way ahead of the trend. His trip to Buenos Aires prefigured Andre Breton’s voyage to Mexico by two decades. It is interesting how radically different his experience of Latin America was. Breton famously called Mexico “the most surrealist place on Earth,” though of course it is uncertain what this meant for the Mexicans living there. In some way Duchamp’s dismissal and Breton’s approval are different sides of the same foreign coin. Duchamp, on finding Buenos Aires lacking, eliminated it, while Breton simply rebuilt all of Mexico entirely in his own image. Both were the flippant acts of tourists, but in each case, countries and cities disappear with all the people in them.

If we reverse the equation, placing a Latin American in Europe, then we can clearly talk of exile, rather than tourism. What would César Vallejo make of Duchamp’s boredom? Forced to flee Peru after being caught up in a police officer’s death at a protest, the poet fled to Paris in 1923. There he lived in abject poverty, simply trying to keep from disappearing. In the vast mythologies of Paris that guild this illustrious era, Vallejo rarely appears. Stephen M. Hart’s biography of the poet is punctuated with letters chronicling his homesickness and the desperate attempts to clear his name. If Duchamp made Buenos Aires disappear only in writing, then Paris subjected Vallejo to a similar fate in the same medium. Trilce, his magnum opus, was published in 1922 shortly before he left Peru, but he’d never publish another book of poetry in his lifetime. Stranded in Paris, writing in a peripheral language, the vast scale of his poetry was doomed to suffer the dubious dignity of the posthumous. Vallejo simply never had the luxury of ignoring the city he found himself in, and as such he was condemned to suffer the kind of boredom that Duchamp could simply ponder. The contrast here between a French artist on holiday and a Peruvian poet in exile might reveal something lacking in our conventional understanding of the modernist avant-garde. Luxury is rarely a term attributed to the surrealists or their more bullish contemporaries from the United States, but from Vallejo’s perspective they would have seemed intolerably auspicious.

But perhaps this is to underestimate Duchamp’s time in Buenos Aires, making exactly the same mistake he did. In his impassive alliance with Breton, it seems he was always skeptical of the surrealists and their parlor games. His dashed hopes for the New World must have taught him something about the exotic that would make surrealism’s later courting of it through chance seem entirely parochial. If Duchamp’s impulsive journey south was in some way parallel to the reckless abandon that would leave Arthur Cravan missing off the coast of Mexico that same year, then maybe Duchamp’s Argentine experience was far more traumatic than it first seems. What Cravan found at the end of his hopeful journey to stranger lands was almost certainly a violent death. Although Duchamp’s confrontation with his own illusions was far from fatal, he ultimately had to reckon with the cold indifference of modernity. All the graces of New York and Paris must have then seemed perversely superfluous after this. If the real had revealed itself as an inescapable abyss in Argentina, then this must have rendered the surreal a merely quaint distraction too.

It is rightly left to an Argentine to accurately discern the traumatic nature of this split with idealism. In Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela we find the direction of Duchamp’s journey reversed. His protagonist, Horacio Oliveira, a late surrealist from Buenos Aires, abandons himself to chance encounters on the streets of Paris, only to find madness and possibly suicide waiting for him at home. In Cortázar’s novel, the possibilities and methods of surrealism amount to far more than a simple move towards liberation. The deliverance becomes both sinister and profound. If, as Duchamp came to find, fantasy is coterminous with the abhorrent, then maybe surrealism simply leads to a far more extreme state of boredom. While Duchamp was spending his time in Argentina simply staring into space, then maybe this boredom — one of romanticism’s subtler tonics — allowed him to see that any city is really just a place where lots of people live, regardless of however it is dreamed of in other countries, and that chance is ultimately only another word for unrelenting chaos. In his rented apartment on Calle Alsina, moving from one silent room to the next, or setting up the chess set for another solitary game, maybe Duchamp actually felt himself beginning to disappear, just as Buenos Aires already had.


Cioran McGrath lives and writes in London. His articles have been published by Bright Lights Film Journal and The Latin American Bureau. Read more at Calle Nine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 17th, 2015.