reflections on reperforming Sélavy / Duchamp’s “Small Glass” (UPDATED)

the first thing that became clear as i shut my left eye and began was the deep difference between looking at the Small Glass and looking through it.  the wall text posted at MoMA says something about how following the artist’s instructions for how to look at the piece would be a ‘hallucinatory’ experience.  it’s clear that whoever wrote it never tried: looking through the Small Glass for an hour might be hallucinatory, but looking at it is certainly not.

the most striking thing, the first time, was the three-dimensionality of the cracks in the back glass plate.  they’re subtly twisting mobius-ribbons of texture and light, arcing and sliding through space.  they have divots and bulges and catspaw ripples that stand out at different angles and catch light differently depending on where you look from.  this eruption of depth was a surprise, standing out from the experience of looking with one eye.

i could instantly see why marcel / rrose was so thrilled when the glass shattered.  it would still, i think, be satisfying to perform if it were unbroken, but much less interesting.  it’d be more like a formal garden than a patch of woods – harder to wander off into.

the different reflectivenesses of the different elements also startled me.  some of the tape or paint that makes the geometric patterns on the “front” of the piece is mirrored where it sticks onto the glass; the glass itself at some angles reflects what’s behind it, and behind me as i look into it – the pink of my face, the yellow of a painting on the wall behind.  and the angled and curved parts of the glass – the inset lens, the fracturing around the screw-holes in the upper corners – catch light from the opposite side of the room, and the circling projection on the wall to the side, reversing its spin or turning it from a loop into a spreading waterspout.

what is “close to”?  i began about three inches from the glass, but had to move back because my myopic eye wouldn’t focus on the glass from any closer than 5 or six inches.  i flirted with that edge for the first fifteen or twenty minutes.  then the MoMA guard came over and told me i was too close.  to be fair, i had been leaning over the edge of the narrow pedestal that holds the Small Glass.  i shifted back a bit, to perhaps 9 or 10 inches away, which also felt “close to”, but near the middle of the range of distance where i couldn’t yet see the piece as a whole.  that’s about where i stayed for the rest of the time, and for the second reperformance as well.

the second time, at midday, the light seemed very different.  which is decidedly odd, for a windowless room in the middle of a large building.  but the cracks seemed less like ribbons of blue-white light, and more like the branches of a pale-teal-green succulent, or a branching cousin of a horsetail or some other silica-heavy plant.  more solid, blockier, less fluid.

i also looked from more acute angles, and was able to see the wiping marks from the last time the glass was washed, and the smudges where it had been touched since.

the second time, i used my left eye.  i didn’t have to hold my right eye closed with a finger as much as i had the previous time with the other eye.  and/but i found that i couldn’t come in as close.  the differences in my myopia and astigmatism, i assume.  on friday, for the third reperformance, i’ll use only my natural eyes, without the glasses that make me able to bring the world into the sharp focus that our society expects.  i’m interested to see what differences that makes.


the third reperformance, like the first, was during the hectic hours of friday’s pay-what-you-can period.

incidentally, these hours at the city’s private museums are corporate-funded remnants of fights for fully free admission led by artists and Black and Puerto Rican radicals (overlapping categories, obviously) in the 1960s and 70s, and are major steps back from the free days that were instituted to defuse those demands.  these museums get more city/state/national arts funding than most public school systems do – they should be free all the time, to everyone, or give up that tax-funded support.

that meant that the guard was a bit hypervigilant – as had happened the first time, but not the second, i was told i was “too close” when my forehead strayed over the edge of the pedestal.  but most of the guard’s ire was actually directed at folks drawn in to look more closely at the Small Glass by my reperformance.

it’s a commonplace in my world of spectacle-theater-makers that the best way to get an audience to look at something is to have the folks on stage look at it.  this turns out to be true in art museums too, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but kinda was for me.  every time i looked at the Small Glass, but especially the third time, people joined me.  some just for a second, some for a while.  some on my (“l’autre côté du verre”) side, some on the side with the title written on it. some with one eye, some with both, some with a camera.  some kids, some not. some seemingly accidentally (“o, is that what to do here?”), some very deliberately.  almost all, as far as i could tell, with some degree of excitement or satisfaction.

that was, for me, one of the most exciting things about the piece.  voyeurism not just as participation (a line i’ve adopted from Stephen Kent Jusick, formerly of the MIX Festival), but as an encouragement to participation.  one of the things that’s been interesting through this whole series of reperformances has been the question of how to relate to the audience (if any).  with the Small Glass, i chose to talk a little bit to other lookers now and then – mainly to encourage folks to look at the piece the way duchamp / sélavy tells us to; once to remark on the difference that using only one eye makes; twice to reassure the guards that i was backing off…  i kept my tone conversational and relaxed, but none of the folks i addressed turned it into a conversation.  but the main relationship with other museumgoers definitely turned out to be through simply modeling a thing that can be done in that space (and usually isn’t); a particular way of looking.  and folks’ interest in following suit was reassuring, and a bit of a surprise.

the third time, i used my natural eyes, which focus pretty well at closer distances, but give a somewhat different experience of the world, especially of color and light (generally, light is more material and three-dimensional, and i can distinguish more subtle variations in color without the lenses i use most of the time).  it added a layer to my navigation of being “close” – i couldn’t look at sharper angles, because the difference of 8 or 10 inches meant i wasn’t able to focus properly on the more distant side of the glass, for instance.  but it also meant that i was both more tempted and less able to look through the glass: more tempted because it took more effort to hold my focus; less able because i can’t see things as having clear edges past about 9″ from my eyes.

i was more able to see the reflected light in the hairline cracks, which meant that some portions of the glass became far more complex and engaging.  the main network of larger cracks, however, seemed more mantis-like than plant-like this time.  and for whatever reason, some of the pieces of glass bounded by cracks emerged as objects in themselves – ice-floes waiting only for the right combination of current and wind to float away from the main mass.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *