Dada: Berlin, Cologne, Hanover At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston Through January 4

DADA WAS NOT just another art movement, and its products resist being treated as art objects. In displaying Dada creations as historical artifacts, an exhibition such as Dada: Berlin, Cologne, Hanover, now at the ICA, embalms the spirit of the phenomenon and suppresses its vitality. And in presenting the works as products of a bygone era, the show makes no attempt to link Dadaism to any subsequent artistic endeavors. Drawing such historical connections is not necessarily a requirement for a strong show. In this case, however, the organizers passed up an excellent opportunity to draw parallels with contemporary art, to state the relevance of Dadaism to the art of our own time.

Dada was protest, the anguished cry of artists who came of age during the horrors of World War I. Several of the founders of the movement, who came together in Zurich in 1915, were dodging the draft in their home countries. But the Dadaists objected to more than just the cruelty of war--they protested anything that infringed upon the dignity and freedom of the individual. Industrialism came under fire: Raoul Hausmann wrote in 1920 of the paralysis of the spirit "in a world which continues to function like a machine."

The Dadaists railed against all that was conventional, against blind acceptance of tradition, against the uncritical absorption of stale and outdated ideas that inhibited free thought. The art historian Herschel Chipp describes Dada as a movement of negation. Indeed, the debilitating effect of Dada's nihilism struck many of its practitioners. In 1924 Tristan Tzara, founder of the movement, wrote: "Another characteristic of Dada is the continuous breaking off of our friends....Everybody knows that Dada is nothing. I broke away from Dada and from myself as soon as I understood the implications of nothing." In 1920 Richard Huelsenbeck pinpointed the non-directional nature of Dada that precluded constructive action: "the Dadaists spoke of energy and will and assured the world that they had amazing plans. But concerning the nature of these plans, no information whatever was forthcoming...."

Critic Roger Shattuck suggests that while Cubism and Futurism affirmed aspects of the modern world, Dada was founded on doubt. The Dadaists sought to return to a tabula rasa: to clear the slate and begin again, Hausmann felt that it was necessary "to see things as they are." Dadaists searched for authenticity amid the seemingly irrational and arbitrary forces that shape human history.

DADAISM WAS REVOLUTIONARY in spirit. Politically, it was an attack on bourgeois materialism and coventionalism. In art, Dada prescribed no specific aesthetic, but rather an attitude, a shared feeling that traditional art had somehow failed to reach modern man. The Dadaists sought new modes of expression that would make art relevant to life. Taking this idea literally, they introduced everyday objects and materials into art. Duchamp created "readymade" sculptures using old urinals, bicycles and other assorted junk. Kurt Schwitters invented the term "merz" for his art, defined as a "fusion of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes." Collage and photomontage became chief modes of expression.


The Dadaists sought direct expression, avoiding the traditional vehicles of narration and representation. And while many of the works protest the cruel and dehumanizing forces of modern life, others are deliberately cryptic. Sound poems such as Schwitters' "Primal Sonata," composed of nonsensical strings of syllables, attempted to transcend conventional language and reach listeners on a more basic level. The word "dada" itself had no specific meaning when first adopted in 1915; it acquired associations only over time. Huelsenbeck called Dada "a word, which only later was to be filled with a concept."

The Dada artists had definite opinions concerning the way in which their works were to be exhibited. Dadaism sought to strip away the pretentious trappings surrounding art, and as such, the Dadaists objected to the institution of the museum. But at the same time, exhibitions provided the exposure necessary to reach the public. The solution was to display the works in a manner that would be as shocking as the ideas themselves. The following is a description of "Early Dada Spring," an exhibit held in the 1920s:

The public entered the exhibition through the men's lavatory and was greeted by a girl in communion dress reciting obscene poetry. Once inside, visitors were invited to destroy a wooden sculpture by Ernst with a hatchet provided for the purpose and to contemplate, among other entries, Baargeld's "Fluidaskeptrik," an aquarium containing red water, simulating blood, an alarm clock, a wooden arm reaching out of the water on the surface of which floated a women's wig.

A major fault in the ICA exhibition was its choice of conventional means of presentation. Objects are arranged in neat, well-spaced rows. One wishes the curators had been more adventurous, more responsive to the nature of Dada. Inventive presentation strengthens the experience of art. For example, this past summer a group of New York artists organized an art show in Times Square. The unusual location reflected the radical nature of the art exhibited, which, in turn, used live performances and striking imagery to comment on the environment. In an exhibit of early twentieth-century Russian art now at the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington, D.C., the curators referred to photographs of the artists' own installations in arranging the works. Paintings are clustered in corners; a series of small sketches is hung perpendicular to the wall; exhibition display cases are constructed of unfinished plywood. The rigid order of the ICA show reduces the potency of the objects.

THE ICA EXHIBIT also fails to point out the relevance of showing Dada art in 1980. While museums commonly exhibit works from past periods without making historical connections, the situation here is different. The status of an institution of contemporary art that chooses to exhibit works that are now 60 years old is somewhat questionable; some reference to recent work would have proved that the spirit of Dadaism guides and inspires many contemporary artists.

Indeed, the wide-ranging ideas and intentions embodied in Dadaism have been adopted and reworked in different ways by artists in each subsequent decade. The social and political commentary of George Grosz's "End of the Day" (a sketch of factory workers making the dismal trek home) and satiric "Bourgeois Society" resurfaced in the Social Realism of Ben Shahn and other American artists working in the 1930s. Several years ago a scandal ensued when the Guggenheim Museum cancelled a show of photographs of tenement housing on the grounds that the art was too "political."

The recognition of the potential of art for political statement was only one aspect of the Dadaists' way of looking at art. In seeking to revivify art the Dadaists created an aesthetic of aggression, art that screamed at the viewer. Chaotic images such as Max Ernst's paining "Explosion" and his "Massacre of the Innocents," in which figures fell toward the edges of the paper, are evidence of a new, outer-directed approach to composition.

In a recent article in Artforum magazine, critic Ronny H. Cohen describes a contemporary trend in art that is similarly aggressive, one that may have evolved from Dada by way of Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. Cohen dubs the work of the artists "Energism" and states that Energist works have the ability to "flash out pictorial/emotive expression with such force that the impact freezes us." What the works fear most "is the possibility of coming across as boring." Significant in Cohen's analysis is that Energism (like Dada) is defined not by a set of formal criteria, but by a common attitude. Like the term "Dada," "Energism" has several definitions: "Energism is movement. Energist art is force. ENERGISM IS ATTITUDE," Cohen writes.

The recourse to a wide range of materials was another aspect that, while not unique to Dada, influenced many later artists. Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann and others made striking collages in which they jumbled and juxtaposed photographs from newspapers to create disturbing images of dissembled bodies in confused scales. Robert Rauschenberg's collages of the 1960s owe much to the Dada legacy. Duchamp's adoption of ordinary objects in sculpture is analogous to the selection of unadulterated common building materials in post-modern architecture. Frank Gehry's new house in California uses unfinished two-by-fours, asphalt and chain-link fencing.

FINALLY, THE DADAIST search for a new language, a more effective means of communication, has preoccupied many twentieth-century artists. In post-modern dance, this took the form of introducing ordinary movements and gestures into performance. Some punk music assaults the listener with a directness and intensity, stripped of contrived "artistic" mediation, that echoes "bruitism," the Dada noise-music that aimed at a forced penetration of our minds and senses.

The works in the ICA show reveal the formal similarities of much Dadaist graphic art to contemporary examples. The Dadaists experimented with the nature of graphic communication, mixing typefaces and altering size and scale. Ernst's poster "Dada Zeigt!" (Dada Wins!) uses assorted lettering with unrelated symbols--a rope, a bed, a cow, a housewife. The asymmetric anarchic quality of such compositions also characterizes contemporary New Wave graphics. This aesthetic, which has sprung up alongside of punk music and fashion, is characterized by the juxtaposition of disparate forms, symbols and lettering in designs that often are consciously crooked, random and askew.

Even the titles of the publications bear an affinity to Dadaism. The 1910s and '20s saw the creation of Dead Serious, Dada and Cloudpump; in the 1970s and '80s we have Impulse, Slash, Damage and Fetish. The element of satiric humor remains: Dada's contents included, "Painting, Sculpture, Drawings...and Vulgar Dillentantism"; Fetish proclaims itself "The Magazine of the Material World."

Dada was outburst and outrage. It shook the cultural world, and its repercussions are still being felt. Some mention of contemporary endeavors would have rendered the material in the ICA show more conspicuously relevant to the present. Without such allusions, the apt timing of the exhibit looks like just a fortunate accident, an artistic coincidence--not a conscious design. More than simply betraying the spirit of Dada in straitjacketing its works, the ICA's presentation is a model of how museums function more as mausoleums than as regenerative forces that revive the art of the past to engage contemporary audiences.