Sixteen Miles of String (1942) / E

Layout for the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, organized by Andre Breton and "his twine" Marcel Duchamp [in French, ficelle means both "twine" and "chum" or "buddy"] on the Premises of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, 451 Madison Avenue, New York, October 14 to November 7, 1942.

Schiaparelli asked Duchamp to prepare a layout as economical as possible since the exhibition was organized for the benefitof the French Relief Societies. String was among the cheapest materials available, and Duchamp bought 16 miles of it, of which only about one mile was used, to prepare an entanglement in which the visitor experienced difficulties in finding his way to the paintings, a metaphor for the difficulties which the layman often encounters in the attempt to understand modern painting....During installation the string caught fire through spontaneous combustion and had to be replaced by another mile of string. [Duchamp comments in one of his interviews with Pierre Cabanne, "Imagine that these strings were really guncotton--they always are when they're attached to a light bulb, and I don't know how, but at a given moment they burned. Since guncotton burns without a flame, it was rather terrifying. But it worked out all right. It was rather funny."] That left fourteen miles unused. "I gave it away," Duchamp recalls. "It made someone very happy--a kind of insurance, string enough to last him the rest of his life." The preview evening was invitational, distingué, and dressy. First the arriving guests were confronted by the string jungle. Then their ears were assailed by the happy shouts of children at play. The whole ballroom, in fact, looked like a public playground. A day before, and unknown to anyone, Duchamp had said to Sidney Janis's eleven-year-old son Carroll: "Get some friends together and I'll send taxis for you." Then he outlined his plans, concluding: "And pay no attention to anyone. Just play all evening." The guests had no choice but to pick their perilous way through this juvenile Olympiad. A half-dozen boys were vigorously and lightheartedly playing a sort of combination game with various types of balls. They wore football helmets, baseball pants, basketball sneakers, and gym shirts. A like number of girls were in little groups, skipping rope, playing jacks and hopscotch. Some foolhardy guests tried admonishing the children: "Why don't you, litle dears, go out in the street and play, where you belong?" "Mr. Duchamp told us we could play here," was the invariable answer. Mr. Duchamp, of course, could not be found. Having arranged the show, his final Dada gesture was not to attend.

[ Schwarz, Complete Works, No. 314, p. 515. The account is from Rudi Blesh, Modern Art USA: Men, Rebellion, Conquest, 1900-1956, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1956), pp. 200-201. See also, Cabanne, p. 86. ] [ pp 22.5 (cert.UNIT); rose 1995]



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