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Behind the Door

Some Gentle Readers will be aware of the very disturbing Marcel Duchamp piece behind wooden doors in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others, presumably, not so much. Even some of y’all who have been in that museum (running up the stairs and singing “Gonna Fly Now!” recommended but not required) may not have found the piece, or not have found the peepholes. You have to go around a corner, sort of, and M. Duchamp being M. Duchamp, it would be understandable to assume that the big doors were the entirety of the art. They are not. There is something on the other side of the doors.

I’m not prepared, at the moment, to talk about what is on the other side of the doors, or what I think about the piece (which M. Duchamp gave the title Étant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau, 2. le gaz d’eclairage… ) as a work. The thing I’ll mention is that the power of the work, to me, came from the peepholes. The way that the artist controlled the view made the work what it is; the dominant parts of the experience, for me, were (1) my inability to see any more of what was behind the door than the set-up allowed, no matter how I rolled my eyes and wiggled my head, and (B) my inability to share the experience of viewing it with my companions, as only one at a time can approach it.

Oh, we could talk about it, afterward, and we compare our experiences, but we couldn’t see it together. That distance, and that control, without that alienating experience, I don’t know that I would remember the thing at all. And, of course, part of that is that I could choose not to share my experience, to remain alienated, or perhaps to hug the thing to myself. Or to deny it altogether.

M. Duchamp evidently kept the existence of the piece secret for a while, and when the Museum acquired it, they refused for years to let the inside be photographed. When I first saw the thing, and when I second saw it, and when I saw it third as well, I was under the impression that it was still under an interdict, so when I eventually saw a photograph of the inside, I was distressed. In fact, I had an emotional response to that photograph that was probably wildly inappropriate. It was, as it happened, in a scholarly journal of art history, accompanying a scholarly article on the piece. But still, it seemed as if there shouldn’t be photographs, that the photographs were an exploitation at the least, and a betrayal in spirit. A betrayal of who? An exploitation of who? I don’t know. But that’s how it tasted to YHB.

Now, in this internetty age, you can Google yourself images of the inside all you like, and they will have no power whatsoever. I hope you don’t. I hope, if you haven’t walked up to those doors, that you will reserve for yourself the possibility of someday walking up to them and having the experience of looking through them alone and without control. Not that you will enjoy the experience, necessarily. Or that you will ever actually do it. Just that I want you to keep that possibility for yourself, even if you never intend to do anything about it.

And, of course, at all costs avoid the Exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this Autumn.

If, on the other hand, you already have had that experience, have tasted the frustration and isolation, and want to go around the other side, as it were, to read the instruction manual and look at the record, to walk around backstage and under work lights. Of course, it’ll be a tour; it won’t be special. I don’t know if I’d go, myself, but then, alas, it looks like I won’t be in Greater Philly this Autumn, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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