20.11.08 - Duchamp - Press kit

Duchamp Exhibition- Interview to Elena Filipovic, curator

Elena Filipovic is an art historian and independent curator. She is currently completing a doctorate in art history at Princeton University about Marcel Duchamp and is guest tutor of theory/exhibition history at De Appel postgraduate curatorial training program in Amsterdam. She was co-curator, with Adam Szymczyk, of the 5th Berlin Biennial of contemporary art She was co-editor of The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe (Roomade and MIT Press, 2005), and curated, most recently, Let Everything Be Temporary, or When is the Exhibition? for Apex Art in New York and Anachronism at Argos Center for Art and Media in Brussels.



When did you start working on the project of the first major Marcel Duchamp exhibition in Latin America begin?

ELENA FILIPOVIC: When Fundación Proa came on board as the organizing institution and they involved Jorge Helft as a kind of godfather of the project, the task of seeking out a curator for the exhibition began. That’s the point in which I came in. Helft learned of my writing and curatorial work on Duchamp while speaking to Duchamp’s stepdaughter, Jacqueline Matisse Monnier. I am honored that she thought that I might be a good candidate to conceive of such an exhibition and that subsequently Proa did as well.

As part of process that followed, I first met with Jorge Helft in Brussels, where I was living at the time, and then some months later, I flew to Buenos Aires to meet Adriana Rosenberg and present some preliminary ideas for what that exhibition could be. There began our partnership in this exciting project. It was clear to us all from the start that this exhibition should demark itself by being quite focused and special, so it was understood that it would not be a simple retrospective per se, even if it might involve borrowing works from a wide expanse of Duchamp’s life. But what the ‘story’ or argument of the exhibition should be was not at all evident or given. So my task in this was to conceptualize an exhibition that could reveal some very particular aspects of Duchamp’s life and work in a way that would make it interesting and informative both for people coming to Duchamp for the first time and for others who might have the luck to know his work very well. In that task, both Jorge Helft and Adriana Rosenberg have been incredibly supportive of my ideas for this exhibition, not to mention the incredibly crucial encouragement and support that Jackie Matisse Monnier has had for this project from the start and every step of the way.

What does it mean for a curator to do research on Duchamp?

E.F.: I think that with an artist like Marcel Duchamp, it is difficult to ever feel like one is a specialist or “expert” since that implies infinite knowledge or complete understanding, and Duchamp’s oeuvre is so rich and contradictory and puzzling that it gets in the way of any kind of complete understanding, but if I have managed to focus on any one subject in my life, it has been Duchamp. I have been studying Duchamp’s life and work and writing about it for the last decade. In particular, I have focused on Duchamp’s design of exhibition displays and the way he presented artworks to the public since I think his pioneering work as a curator and exhibition designer reveals a lot about his conceptions of the work of art. And this is a part of Duchamp’s practice that has not been as much a focus of attention as it deserves. I took time out from completing my doctorate on Duchamp in order to work on this exhibition, but as soon as the show opens , I plan to put the final touches on my Ph.D and continue work on a book about Duchamp.

What are the advantages and the difficulties of presenting Duchamp for the very first time in Latin America?

E.F.: The advantage, I would say, is the enormous curiosity and excitement that I have felt from everyone I have spoken to in Argentina and Brazil about the project. That excitement and enthusiasm is incredibly inspiring! The difficulty, undoubtedly, is the huge sense of responsibility that one cannot ignore in presenting Duchamp’s works. I see his oeuvre as being like a great chess match: sly, complex, and intelligent, but also something that keeps you guessing and wanting to constantly look so as not to miss something. So as a curator it is important to respect the richness and complexity of his oeuvre by looking constantly at his objects and studying as well how Duchamp himself chose to display them, but also to find sometimes unconventional ways of showing these artworks so that as visitors we start to look at them anew. The goal is to allow visitors to enjoy looking and to form their own opinions about Duchamp and why he still remains so relevant and influential today.

What can you say about the display of the exhibition, and what it will be like in terms of the groupings or organization of artworks? Which were your curatorial guidelines?

E.F.: The exhibition begins its “story” from precisely the moment, around 1913, when Duchamp began what would later be understood as a revolutionary shift in the history of art. Before that Duchamp was a painter, but he “gave up painting” in 1912 after which he began to forge the body of work for which he is most famous.  The year 1913 is a watershed year for him, that is when he conceived of industrially produced objects as works of art (readymades like the Bottlerack, Bicycle wheel…); it is when he began to make multiples as works of art (Box of 1914); it is when he devised a new measurement system as an art object (Three Standard Stoppages); and, it is when he began perspectival studies for his most important work on glass. It seemed important to use the organization of the exhibition to help people to understand something about Duchamp’s way of thinking and working so the first thing that made sense was to show how much of a turning point the departure from painting was, which is why the exhibition will begin with 1913. Then, it made sense to show that the crucial ideas begun in that year is carried through a range of objects that Duchamp made over the course of his entire life that all avoided the traditional definitions of art. The show will take full advantage of and indeed highlight the importance of Duchamp’s “reproductive” projects including the Boîte en valise, his various boxes of manuscript notes (the Box of 1914, the Green Box, White Box, etc.), and his numerous multiples and use these as the pillars of the exhibition, in addition to emphasizing photographic and other documentation and archives to present many different aspects of Duchamp’s artistic production. But most significantly, it seemed important not to organize all of this chronologically or according to media (in other words, books with books, sculpture with sculpture) as many solo presentations are ordered. Duchamp wasn’t an artist that thought or worked in a linear, progressive way and he didn’t think of his typographic experiments as separate from any other object production, for instance. So instead, it made sense to try to organize all his different pieces according to a series of thematic clusters and in so doing to bring together artworks that were made in different periods and of different materials, but all have some formal or conceptual or other connection. In looking at Duchamp’s work in this way, it will be apparent how multifaceted he was as an artist but also how much Duchamp as chess player or curator or typographer or optical expert or salesman is as relevant to art history as Duchamp, the inventor of the readymade or maker of the Large Glass.

What are the highlights of the exhibition?

E.F.: The exhibition has a number of highlights, including La Mariée mise au nu par ses célibataires, même (also known as the Large Glass), an important optical machine, the Rotative Demi-sphere, as well as L.H.O.O.Q. otherwise known as La Gioconde. It will also include Duchamp’s first experimentations with photography for the Box of 1914, a number of Duchamp’s readymades, and the artist’s own miniature portable museum of his works in La Boîte-en-valise. But in general I would say that Duchamp taught us that we shouldn’t imagine that even a scrap of paper is meaningless, thus the exhibition will show a range of pieces beginning from the turning point of 1913 and carried through Duchamp’s final work, concentrating on pieces emblematic of the exhibition’s central theme of artistic rupture and aesthetic interrogation and all that function like pieces of a puzzle, but not all that look like they are bonafide “works of art.” 


How would you describe the catalogue? 


E.F.: The catalogue will be quite large as it is meant to have something for everyone. So it introduces Duchamp’s life and works but Duchamp’s first major presentation in Argentina has meant an incredible opportunity to develop a publication that could not only be an accompaniment to the exhibition, with images of most of the artworks in the show and an explanation of how and why the exhibition is arranged the way it is, but the publication is also an important chance to provide background material for the curious, art amateurs, students and scholars for this generation and that to come, so it gathers together and translates for the first time historically important texts that have marked Duchamp studies over the last few decades. In this way, it will serve as a compendium and resource on some of the most influential essays on Duchamp’s artwork; not all of them are easy texts to read but each comes from a different position and suggests that there is no “right” answer or way to understand Duchamp, which is the way he would have wanted it, I think. 


How do you see the situation of having the exhibition in an institution with the profile of the Fundacion Proa, which has a special location in Buenos Aires and also a particular link with its district?

E.F.: For me it is an incredible privilege to work with an institution like Proa, with its commitment to making art accessible to a community that might not otherwise feel welcome at such top-notch exhibitions. Proa’s sense of responsibility towards its local community, one that encompasses people from all walks of life, came up again and again in my discussions with Adriana Rosenberg, so I was made very aware of how important this was to Proa’s involvement in this project. I could even see this relationship to the district articulated in plans for the new Proa building: for me it seemed quite meaningful that the new glass front of the building exposes Proa to the street of the bustling harbor district of La Boca, since I suspect the openness of the glass front will make people want to come inside. I saw it as a choice of the design that architecturally announces Proa’s desire to be a place where everyone can feel free to come in and learn and look. As I understand it, re-opening the new Proa with the Duchamp exhibition is a kind of manifesto as well, a declaration that Proa’s welcomes their new era with a serious, high quality exhibition meant for everyone to learn about the artist who changed the face of art over the last century and continues to remain its most potent source of influence, even today.

Do you imagine that it will be a difficult exhibition to attend? How do you think the audience will react to it?

E.F.: I don’t at all think the exhibition will be difficult, and certainly everyone involved in this project is committed to making an exhibition that should not be difficult for visitors to learn from and enjoy, but I do think the exhibition will be demanding, which is a very different thing. Duchamp’s artworks are not in themselves difficult to appreciate and the aim of the exhibition will certainly not be to make Duchamp’s art seem unnecessarily complicated. But Duchamp was sly and sometimes enigmatic (he was a chess player, after all!) and it is important to also show that side of him too. He left behind a body of work that doesn’t always play according to the rules of modern art, so visitors may be surprised that the usual tools they use to understand an artist’s life and work will not always help them to understand Duchamp. For instance, the idea of “progress” and “artistic development” so important to the history of art is not exactly relevant with Duchamp since, instead of moving from one idea or style to the next, he kept going back to several crucial ideas that were with him throughout his life. One could say that instead of going forward, he turned in circles around a few central themes, but in that way, he remained far more influential than artists concerned with showing the world that they were progressing and “inventing” new styles each year. Instead, Duchamp was very busy revisiting his ideas and testing them out in different ways. This is particularly evident in his construction of a series of suitcases with miniature replicas of his artworks. Imagine, for a number of years, instead of making new things, Duchamp was busy making tiny identical copies his already existing artworks like mini portable museums! The results of this and other projects that kept Duchamp returning to a single set of ideas meant that Duchamp’s objects often question the definition of art as a category, the institutions that decide about them, and the role of the spectator in the process of art consumption. But, it must be said, his artworks are also often beautiful, intriguing, engaging works that sometimes you just want to marvel at.

I began by mentioning that instead of being difficult, I thought the show might be demanding since I believe that the exhibition will demand that spectators pay attention to what they are looking at and let themselves be intrigued and inspired to think and question their ideas about what a “work of art” can be. And I think that is what any serious exhibition of art, Duchamp’s or another’s, should be. I hope an audience of all ages and from all walks of life will take up the challenge Duchamp left for us, since after all, it is the spectator who actually “completes the work of art.”