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Dada Didn’t Happen

Dada was nothing. Dada didn’t happen. Dada never really happened – it was a non-event. Marcel Duchamp’s original Bicycle Wheel was left behind in Paris when he moved to the US and his “Fountain”, the most famous of the Dada anti-art, was never exhibited – it was hidden behind a screen. The Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich closed due to small audience numbers. So much of Dada was abandoned, thrown away, lost, the original artwork replaced with replicas created for museums decades after the event.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Black Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Of course, this is just outrageous; Dada is there in the art history books. There are all those magazines, books and autobiographies that the Dadaists wrote. There is even a plaque on the side of 1 Spiegelgasse in Zurich commemorating the location of the Cabaret Voltaire. There are relics of Dada art works lodged in museums around the world. So what I am writing cannot be true.

I am not accusing the Dadaists, art historians, curators and collectors of a conspiracy inventing Dada (although the existence of Julian Torma is debatable). What I am saying is that Dada was not ‘a happening thing’, not in the way that Warhol’s Factory was happening in late 1960s New York. Dada was only happened for a very small number of people, just as the Situationist International was only happened for a very small number of people, whereas WWI and the 1968 riots in Paris happened for a very large number of people. Art history has over emphasised both the Dada and the Situationist International due to their subsequent influence.

The non-existence of Dada suggests an error theory of history, that history is not what people think is history, or that there are different levels reality in the ontology of history. Much of history is based on what people say and write: the continent of Australia being declared part of the British Empire was done with some words and a performance involving a flag and some hats. The actual occupation of Australia was evidence of the British fidelity to the spoken words. Like Australia, Dada exists because what people said and wrote (as well as, a performance with extravagant costumes).

That much of history is something done with words means that we should consider the British philosopher J. L. Austin’s seminal paper “How to do Things with Words”. Austin notes that you have to be the right person to say these things like declaring the existence of a new country, a marriage or war. Were the Dadaists were the right people to declare the existence of a new art movement? They were university students, teenagers, refugees, artists, lumpen literati and free thinkers. What they said was nonsense but that was the point in saying it.

The activities of Dada were an anti-history. If history had lead Europe into a war then history could not be progressive or optimistic. Dada was the anti-history opposed to the official history was the Great War. One of the causes of the war was people believing in the declaration war as something more than words. And the Dadaists wanted to attack the idea that words could do things but making their new word do everything. The Dadaists were a limited company for the exploitation of a limited vocabulary. The Dadaists used the declaration of things as a way to attack logic, history and the war.

The classic claim is that word Dada was chosen at random. Exactly when this miraculous discovery happened and who it happened to be there is a matter of claim and counter-claim in the biographies of various Dadaists. “Dada” was the equivalent of writing “Jedi” under religion on your census form. Does this mean that Dada was just a parody? The demands of the Dadaist revolutionary council, Berlin group, certainly read like a parody of conventional politics. Or does the point where parody expands to include the whole of life, when there is no off-stage acknowledgement of the comedy, when the exception becomes the rule – does this transform parody into something else – an open rebellion?

Dada only really happened for about a couple of people, in the way that small bands and small artist-run-spaces happen (or don’t happen). Dada in Zurich was just a bunch of young refugees having fun in a bar and setting up a small upstairs art gallery that folded just as quickly as the cabaret. There was another group of anti-war artists in Zurich at the same time as Dada who regarded the Dadaists as silly; Richard Huelsenbeck was a member of both groups. If Dada didn’t happen I still find it very likeable.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Dada Didn’t Happen

  • Tsvia Aran-Shapir

    lots of things that actually happened it is as if nothing happened (denial , the emperor new clothes ) and lots of things that didn’t happen it is as if it happened (“vital lies – simple truths” or: the elephant in the room )…
    of course i am not necessarily referring to Art but to…Life and to human nature….and yes, we do need the ones who will point it out…hopefully others will wake up.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Yes, putting it into words (or not saying it) makes a lot of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in life. Spelling it out seems to both casting a spell to create an illusion and the way to destroy illusions.

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