Duchamp’s Last Riddle

Serkan Ozkaya, We Will Wait, 2017, installation view. Photo: Jillian Steinhauer

By now, the story has become a legend: in 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, signed it with a pseudonym, and submitted it for an exhibition put on by the Society of Independent Artists—who rejected it. Fountain, as he winkingly titled the urinal, was one of his ready-mades: a manufactured object that he deemed artworks in an effort to throw off the yoke of what he called “retinal art” in favor of a more conceptual and cerebral one.

Duchamp was good at gestures. Just six years after the Fountain controversy, he announced he was quitting the art world and would devote the rest of his life to his other passion, chess. Most people believed he had. But when he died in 1968, at the age of eighty-one, his grandest gesture was revealed: Duchamp had been constructing an artwork in secret for twenty years. He left it behind in his studio on Manhattan’s East Eleventh Street—a mysterious, life-size tableau. It featured a realist sculpture of a naked woman lying on a bed of twigs and leaves with her legs spread open. She could have been dead or unconscious, except that her left arm held aloft a gas lamp, behind which glowed a landscape of colorful trees and a waterfall. The uncanny scene was visible through a cutout in what seemed to be a brick wall, which itself was fronted by an old wooden door with two peepholes in it. Looking through the peepholes was—and still is—the only way to see the tableau.

Duchamp left detailed instructions for how to transport the work out of his studio, and the next year the piece was put on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It immediately inspired—and continues to inspire—much consternation. The artist Jasper Johns, a Duchamp devotee, called it “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Questions abound: Is it the scene of a sex crime or some kind of psychological projection? Is it a perverse study in artistic perspective? Did the man who invented ready-mades give up on them in old age and return to retinal art? The air of mystery is further thickened by the artwork’s title—Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage … (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas …)—which reads like a logic puzzle without an answer.

Duchamp died on October 2, 1968. Exactly forty-nine years later, on October 2 of this year, his East Eleventh Street studio was reopened for two weeks to a select group of invited guests. Inside, visitors discovered a full-scale replica of Étant donnés, accompanied by another, newer riddle.

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“Nobody can convince me that he didn’t look at it this way,” says the artist Serkan Ozkaya. “I find it insulting to think that a master of shadows didn’t look at it in the dark.” Ozkaya is talking about Duchamp and Étant donnés, and, indirectly, about his own replica, which is titled We Will Wait. We’re sitting in Duchamp’s former studio, alongside a wall of black plastic sheeting that covers the reconstructed tableau. The industrial material gives the space a gritty, worked-in feel. It makes for a jarring contrast with the glowing, untouchable vision that lies just on the other side.

Étant donnés is not Ozkaya’s first copy. In 2012, he built a gold replica of Michelangelo’s “David” at almost double the scale of the original and drove it through the streets of New York. He often uses (or proposes) reproductions in his work, casually casting off the presumed value of originality. But in the case of Étant donnés, Ozkaya remade the work because he has a theory: he thinks that, in addition to compelling visitors to look in, the artwork is meant to double as a machine that projects out. Given that its form is an enclosed room with two small holes in the door, Étant donnés is a natural camera obscura—an optical device wherein a scene on one side of a wall is projected, upside-down, onto the other side of the wall through a tiny hole. All you’d have to do to see the image it projects is enshroud the space outside of it in darkness.

Serkan Ozkaya at work on We Will Wait. Photo: Jillian Steinhauer

So that’s what Ozkaya did, about two and half years ago. “I hadn’t even seen the work until I had the idea of it operating as a camera obscura,” he admits. But he was excited by the idea of a camera obscura that uses two holes rather than one—it would be truer to the way we see, with two eyes. He began researching Étant donnés and built a small-scale model of it to test his theory. When he turned off the lights, amid the resulting, overlapping projections, he saw a face. His first thought was that the ghostly visage belonged to the woman’s killer, but a friend saw someone else entirely: Rrose Sélavy, Duchamp’s female alter ego. “Once he said it, I couldn’t see it any other way,” Ozkaya explains. It didn’t seem so far-fetched that Duchamp had hidden a self-portrait inside his final, cryptic work—he’d kept secrets about the contents of his art before.

“We have no way of knowing his intentions anymore,” Ozkaya says. “We can only speculate. That’s the fun part. I don’t think these answers need to be correct.”

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Left alone with Ozkaya’s reproduction, I struggled in the darkness. My eyes quickly adjusted, and the shadowy white shapes on the wall grew brighter. I searched for images. The largest mass seemed to be a dragon flying through the air; below it, a wide mouth stuck out its tongue. I could not see a face. Instead, I confronted the ghost of Étant donnés’s woman. The longer I stood there, and the harder I tried to find another form, the more prominent she became. Where were the eyes to anchor the artist’s face? All I could see were his protagonist’s naked legs extending toward me, her afterimage burned into my brain.

A small clump of panic rose in my throat. Why couldn’t I find the face? What kind of art critic can only visualize the image of something they’ve already seen? “Projection is a way of perception,” Ozkaya would say to me a few minutes later. He knocked on the door and entered. At my request, he easily outlined the face, which took the place of the mouth I’d seen earlier. More than a full face, it was mostly eyes and nose, but I was struck by how there it was—how seemingly tangible, after fifteen minutes of nothing. Once Ozkaya had showed it to me, I couldn’t see it any other way.

And yet, when the room lights came back on, I found myself struggling to recall the face and doubting its existence. Would I be able to find it again if I were plunged back into darkness? Whose vision was I seeing—Duchamp’s, Ozkaya’s, or my own?

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Duchamp studied mathematics, physics, and alchemy and spent much of his life thinking about perception. He built machines and painted and printed disks that could be spun to create optical illusions; he left behind notes filled with theories about the difference between the appearance of an object and what he called its apparition. “From childhood the young Marcel was intrigued by how things are perceived, which is the domain of scientific optics and physics and not of aesthetics,” Barbara Rose wrote in The Brooklyn Rail. “How we see—a mental process—interested him at least as much if not more than what we see.”

On this point, the copy diverges from the original: We Will Wait is more bound up with the what than the how. In the process, it sets its sights on art history: Is this face a clue in an unsolvable mystery? But the question isn’t simply what we see; it’s also what we allow ourselves to see in the darkness. After Ozkaya first saw the projected face, he reached out to the Philadelphia Museum in the hopes that it would let him test his theory with the real Étant donnés. There was initial interest, but someone in the higher echelons of the museum turned down the proposal. “Somebody didn’t like the possibility of the work changing meaning,” Ozkaya speculates.

But of course, the brilliance of Étant donnés is that it was conceived as a puzzle. It will never have a fixed meaning, only an ever-evolving body of interpretations. In one, the work is a deconstructed painting. In another, it’s a riff on the Black Dahlia murder. In yet another, it’s a camera obscura that projects a self-portrait of the artist as Rrose Sélavy. Duchamp himself might note that there’s no single truth to be found, just as there’s no artwork outside of them. We were given the waterfall and the illuminating gas, the naked body and the arm aloft. Without our attempts at making meaning, we’re left only with our projections in the darkness.

Jillian Steinhauer is a Brooklyn-based writer and a former senior editor of Hyperallergic.

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