Raphanus sativus

November 4, 2009

Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany


Höch was unique in her role as one of Dada’s only leading female figures. She also was an early pioneer of photomontage, of which this piece is a great example. In it, she cuts of found newsprint, advertisments, maps, and photos, to create a piece which addresses many aspects of her modern world. Particularly, she touches upon the role of women in society, and brings up questions of where women might be heading. In a way, she predicts the women’s movement by asserting herself as an artist, a thinker, and an agent of social transformation.

This piece has a lot going on: lots of descriptions of women and society; references to men’s domination and the mechanisms of society, as well as self-references to Dada and its “anti-” perspective. One thing that I read on a site was that the lower right-hand corner is a map of countries in Europe which, by 1920, had extended the right to vote to women. I thought that was very interesting.


Petroselinum Crispum

November 3, 2009

Zach Houston is a very interesting figure.

The first time I met him he was on LSD and explaining to a group of people his plans to take down SF MOMA with an organized May-day art protest. He was convinced that they would cave to his demands (mostly based on removing art elitism from art institutions) if he had throngs of young impressionable art students occupying their space. It never worked out that way, and instead he ended up getting permission to pass out a survey about the usefulness of art at the front entrance.


click on the image below to see a better reproduction of this poem Zach wrote for me:"Weed"

Now, I most often see Zach mixing art and life in his regular practice that he calls “the Poem Store”. In this act, somewhere between a form of performance and a job, he sits somewhere public with a typewriter, and composes original poetry for passersby in exchange for an open-ended donation. He makes a fair amount of his rent this way, and has been featured in various media (ABC news, the East Bay Express) for this work.  But for Zach, his art and his living are one and the same: he does the poems for money, sure. But he also does it to reflect his ideas into the world. For this reason, I think Zach is an artist in the Dada tradition. He is deliberately irrational, mocks hierarchy, and seems to hold a sense of humor as a value above all else.

Smallanthus sonchifolius

February 14, 2009

This post covers a play by the self-proclaimed founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara. The play was called “The Gas Heart”, or sometimes, “The Gas-Powered Heart”, and it debuted in Paris in 1921.

This play is fascinating not so much for its own artistic merit [though do note the costumes made of blocks of cardboard], but its place in the history of the Dada movement. Sadly, its performance marked the end of the Dada era due to infighting and power struggles over who was truly to represent Dada and what Dada was.  Tzara, like many of the other original Dadaists, was a strong-headed man who insisted on the primacy of his ideas and the importance of the Dada movement.  André Breton, who once was a friend and ally of Tzara, became his enemy by the time of the Gas Heart, and they both spent much time ridiculing one another and their artisitic/philosophical efforts.

The play itself was a parody of the 3-act convention, and though it was written in three acts, it lasted as long as a typical one-act play. A quote from Tzara’s own introduction shows how seriously he took the play:

The gas heart walks slowly around, circulating widely; it is the only and greatest three-act hoax of the century; it will satisfy only industrialized imbeciles who believe in the existence of men of genius. Actors are requested to give this play the attention due a masterpiece such as Macbeth or Chantecler, but to treat the author-who is not a genius-with no respect and to note the levity of the script which brings no technical innovation to the theatre.

The script, which is available in English here, is completely absurd, and was (I imagine) made only worse in its original performances by the heckling of audience members (who were bored and/or offended by the play’s nonsensical direction), and (in its second performance in 1923) the near-riot that broke out when Breton rushed the stage and attacked the actors. I don’t think this play would be appreciated in modern times. It really doesn’t seem to have that much to offer, but I think it reflects something sad and true about any movement which exclaims its own importance: eventually, the various alpha personalities (especially males) will butt heads and tear any organized groupings apart with drama, gossip, backstabbing, and the lack of a united goal. Of course, Dada was never expressly intended to be organized and hierarchical. But its de facto “leaders” definitely tried to maintain a hierarchy (with themselves in charge), which ultimately led to Dada’s downfall.

Brassica oleracaea

February 2, 2009

George Grosz’ Daum Marries Her Pedantic Automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It


A great example of Grosz’ connection to Dada: the use of found materials and “base” materiality; the sexuality and confusion; even the language he uses in the title and some of the imagery (his internal clockwork and the view at the top of the painting) suggest an elaboration on (and likely a critique of) the oppressive mechanization of life. Grosz’ other works are also known for their mockery of the bourgeois and the architects/barons of industrialization, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he put some of this same feeling in to this painting. Although he is now taking himself on as the subject, Grosz still addresses the issues on his mind, but in his own Dada-influenced way.

This image is also a great example of the Photomontage technique that Dadaists pioneered.

Helianthus maximilliani

January 17, 2009

This is the cover of a Dada journal. Dada was more than just paintings, of course. There were many efforts made to integrate art with life. One of those ways was to publish newspapers which manifested the various views and non-views of Dada practitioners. It was a common format, used uncommonly. The pages were not laid out in typical left-to-right, up-to-down format, and images (like this cover) might decorations made of words, not pictures.

The Dada journals, unfortunately for me, are in languages I don’t understand. But I believe they reflect very simply that Dada moved beyond a simple artists’ movement into the realm of social movement, literary critique, political philosophy, and absurdist humor.

Daucus Carota

December 19, 2008

List monitors arrive with petition
iron-fisted philosophy
is your life worth a painting?
is this girl vs. boy with different symbols?
being born is power
scout leader nazi tagged as big sin
your risk chains me hostage
me i’m fighting with my head, am not ambiguous
i must look like a dork
me naked with textbook poems
spout fountain against the nazis
with weird kinds of sex symbols
in speeches that are big dance thumps
if we heard mortar shells
we’d cuss more in our songs and cut down the guitar solos (guitar solo)
so dig this big crux
organizing the boy scouts for murder is wrong
ten years beyond the big sweat point
man it was still there, ever without you coming back around, look! coming together, for just a second, a peek, a guess at the wholeness that’s way too big

Weird poetry shit that is vaguely political, coming from a man who was a jazz-loving guitarist in a scene of punk rockers. To me, Minutemen guitarist, songwriter, and singer D. Boon’s Dada influence is clear: he rejects conventions, even those of the supposedly “non-conformist” subculture he was a part of. Also, this song illustrates how he uses seeming randomness plus humor to create an appealing yet disturtbing account of modern life.

Paranoid Time

D. Boon was also an artist, making cover art for many of his band’s records. This one, from their very first album, also shows Dada influence. The simple drawing represents an absurd situation, but not one that is surreal. It is just so awkward and off-putting (with elements of sexual harassment, voyeurism and war), and combined with the title “Paranoid Time”, it encourages the viewer to see something as being “called out” and criticized. This criticism might not be super clear, but it is apparent.

Apium Graveolens

December 3, 2008

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

A Situationist detournement. “Detournement” is a concept invented by the Situationist International, a group of artists, poets, and thinkers who, from 1957 to 1972, promoted radical critique of capitalist society through propaganda, art, and student organizing. Detournement was one of their promoted artistic critiques: using previously existing (often mainstream) cultural items, and “derailing” it, the Situationists created new “texts” to be interpreted through their Marxist/Anarchist/Anti-establishment lens.

One great example of this process is René Viénet’s film “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?”. In this film, he takes a cheesy kung-fu movie and overdubs (in his native French) a Situationist plot line, pitting the proletariat workers against their demeaning and evil bureaucrat masters.  With this basis, the movie is a fast paced, hit after hit of satirical, wry social commentary. I think it is one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

The movie reflects the Dada movement quite clearly. First off, the Situationist were a direct evolutionary line from Dada, as part of Europe’s 20th century avant-garde. In between was the Letterist International, Fluxis, and other self-proclaimed art movements. Second, it uses the Dada forms of humor and anti-tradition tradition. No one had ever done something like this before, so it was truly new and counter to conventions.  Due to their political views, the Situationists were inherently against hierarchy, and so is this film. It mocks hierarchy in the most blunt way possible; my favorite line in the film is “Quick, hide, the Bureaucrats are coming!”.

you can also view the whole movie here:

Crambe maritima

May 1, 2008


Otto Dix made this painting Memory of the Mirrored Halls of Brussels in 1920. In this era, WW1 provided a subject matter that proved to be unavoidable for artists like Dix. Dix himself served in the war, and witnessed the horrors firsthand. Therefore, his mocking treatment of a high officer in this painting is not surprising, and it goes along well with the emerging Dada sensibility of addressing real modern issues. Dada may be grotesque (as this piece is), sexual (also), and unreal, but the ideas come across easily, and are not obfuscated by pretension. Dix knows what he thinks, and his painting shows it. War is hell, and men in war are devils incarnate. Women, no matter how pure and innocent, are corrupted as well.

I thought it would be nice to include some quotes from the Dada masters themselves. They tend to explain their views better than any critic or academic would!


‘Freedom: Dada, Dada, Dada, crying open the constricted pains, swallowing the contrasts and all the contradictions, the grotesqueries and the illogicalities of life.’

–Tristan Tzara

“In those days we were all Dadaists. If the word meant anything at all, it meant seething discontent, dissatisfaction and cynicism. Defeat and political ferment always give rise to that sort of movement.

We held Dadaist meetings, charged a few marks admission and did nothing but tell people the truth, that is, abuse them. The news spread quickly and soon our meetings were sold out, crammed with people wanting to be scandalized or just after fun.

Between insults we performed ‘art,’ but the performances were as a rule interrupted. Thus hardly would Walter Mehring begin to rattle away at his typewriter while reciting some piece or other of his own composition, when Heartfield or Hausmann would come out from behind the stage and yell: ‘Stop! You’re not trying to bamboozle that feeble-minded lot down there, are you?’ ”

–George Grosz, The Autobiography of George Grosz [1955]

It’s not Dada that is nonsense–but the essence of our age that is nonsense.

‘Those postpunk years from 1978 to 1984 saw the systematic ransacking of twentieth-century modernist art and literature. The entire postpunk period looks like an attempt to replay virtually every major modernist theme and technique via the medium of pop music. Cabaret Voltaire borrowed their name from Dada. Pere Ubu took theirs from Alfred Jarry. Talking Heads turned a Hugo Ball sound poem into a tribal-disco dance track. Gang of Four, inspired by Brecht and Godard’s alienation effects, tried to deconstruct rock even as they rocked hard. Lyricists absorbed the radical science fiction of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick, and techniques of collage and cut-up were transplanted into the music.’

–Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, 2005

“For us, art is not an end in itself . . . but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”

Hugo Ball