“dada will get you if you don’t watch out”

“Mona Lisa has a moustache now?” our cab driver laughed as we pulled under the banner at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.

Yes indeed, she does. Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” is the main advertising used for the Dada exhibit. It’s a print of the Mona Lisa, with a scribbled moustache. A whimsical image now, once highly subversive, but easy on the masses used to Warhol. This worried me somewhat at first – though I love the eccentricities of Dada, I like it more when it’s going for the jugular. But there’s nothing light-hearted about beginning of the exhibit, which starts off with a submersion into the horrors of World War I. The first blood red room has no art, only a looped film of the carnage surrounded by striking photographs. It forces the viewers to get into the mindset of the Dadaists, to understand what they were rebelling against, and to see that Dada itself was born out of chaos.

This post appeared in its original form at DC Metblogs
The rest of the exhibit is divided conventionally enough into the main cities of the movement – Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris. For me, the Berlin room was the most evocative, due to my fascination with the Great War. I love Otto Dix and George Grosz (well, if you can use a word like “love” about images of brutal satire like “Card-Playing War Cripples” or “A Victim of Society”) and spent a long time in front of those ghastly images. Later I was happy to see another of my favorites, Max Ernst, and everywhere the bitingly absurdist words of Tristan Tzara are on display, even on the stairs. Short films and cabaret programs are interspersed throughout to reinforce that Dada was a multimedia movement – watching brilliantly surreal films by Man Ray and others new to me was a highlight of the exhibit. There are even two audio rooms, though I was disappointed to see how tentative people were about entering, sitting down, and listening for a few minutes. Really, go in – it’s fascinating to hear sound poems that were performed at the Cabaret Voltaire, like “The Admiral is Looking for a House to Rent,” and in another room actual recordings of Raoul Hausmann’s eerie phonetic poetry.

Ah, sound. That brings me to a little “audience as theater” critique. This exhibit has been deemed a “Washington Status Exhibit” (like Cezanne), meaning everyone wants to see it regardless of actual interest. We were assaulted by cell-phones ringing several times in every room, loud conversations about anything but the art, matrons giggling over references to “merde”, unaccompanied children running around, and some of the rudest behavior I’ve ever encountered at an exhibit- actual shoving at some points, moving to stand right in front of people, no waiting, etc. It was insanely crowded, but as we went last weekend (only its second weekend) it’s our own fault. Unfortunately many times instead of being confronted by the art, we were confronted by the audience itself, in sort of a weird reverse performance art. But please, people need to exercise some basic politeness when exhibits are that crowded – and turn your phones to silent or vibrate. If you just have to answer the phone while you’re looking at an image of a mangled war victim then there is something PROFOUNDLY wrong with you.

Despite these status-hungry freaks who just wanted something to say over dinner in their Georgetown salon, there were also many people there with a sincere interest in absorbing and learning. I think Dada has a lot to teach us about our own current state of affairs – we exist in another time of industrial over-stimulation, automata life, distrust in language, government betrayals. The exhibit is a great introduction to these powerful themes and I plan to return a few times before it closes to experience more.

It runs until May 14th so you have plenty of time. Go on an off-day. Look, listen, repeat.

(the title quote is by Margery Rex)

This post appeared in its original form at DC Metblogs

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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