David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Art Revue: Dada, Subway

Finally saw the MOMA’s Dada exhibit this weekend, which was fantastic as expected, though I thought the differences between the best and the rest were salutary: Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, and George Grosz speak to me much more regularly than any of the others, and only Ernst could be considered as even close to the center of the group.

The problem with interdisciplinary movements is that a retrospective of the disparate media is difficult, and MOMA didn’t even try to bring up the influence of Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara, whose writings are fairly crucial to the dada gestalt. I did appreciate their use of some of Tzara, Hausmann, and Schwitters’ sound poems, but I was mostly taken aback to see this print by Raoul Hausmann:

That text happens to be one of the main refrains of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate! (See also here and here for background and sound samples.)

Fümms bö wä tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwiiee. 

What I didn’t know was that Hausmann’s text was apparently the product of asking the printer to choose letters at random in the order that they turned up in the tray. And so the Ursonate uses chance operations; not shocking, but something I’d never given any thought to. (Does anyone know if dadaists had any particular opinion towards chance?)

On a side note, I recommend taking the Q or N lines over the bridge from DeKalb into Manhattan. In the midst of the BMT/IND hairball prior to the bridge, they pass by an illuminated empty area to the right (north) of the train, covered in graffiti and masked by a series of pillars between the train tunnel and it. Passing by the pillars quickly gives a kinescopic effect of the graffiti in constant metamorphosis, akin to some of Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted film shorts. It only lasts a couple seconds, but it’s beautiful.

See Brakhage’s Mothlight on Youtube for an example, although it’s in monochrome.


  1. Is the lit-up graffiti bit of the Q/N track new? The Q is my train, when I’m in town; I hate to think I never noticed it.

    I liked the sound pieces at the dada show, and thought of Mr. Waggish when I saw them there.

    Chance, like readymades, is supposed to be part of the anti art impulse in dada. But the chancy stuff–like arp’s dropped-paper collages– is really aesthetic; more so than some of the stuff that was made by a more traditional process (like grosz). It’s obvious that there’s editing going on–which would not be the case in a systematic investigation of chance (like dropping a set number of pieces of paper, and showing all of the resulting permutations– if the dadaists lived in the 70s)–rather, they use chance operations the same way they use automatic writing and exquisite corpse, as a way to get around reason and tap into the subconscious.

  2. The lighting is new as of a week ago. Not sure why it’s lit now or for how long it’ll be there.

    Yeah, the Dada people didn’t seem polemicist about chance…thanks for the info.

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