Georges Pompidou Centre

There are not many who, when asked to explain Dada, can offer a lucid and clear account of its principles and general aims without faltering. This of course is largely due to the fact that this movement’s principal aim was to show that nothing meant anything and that everything meant nothing. As Picabia emphasised, “Dada feels nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing”. Coming about as a reaction against official art and the bourgeois values of the commercial art establishment, this was a movement that was supposed to be inaccessible, aiming to deliberately undermine the pseudo- intellectual pretensions and consumerist hub surrounding art and the artist. This current exhibition, devoting a huge gallery space to the explanation of Dada at the Georges Pompidou Centre, is thus nothing short of wildly ambitious. A movement whose apparent incoherence was a large part of its point (which was of course, pointlessness) is not easy to assimilate coherently as an exhibition. There is a danger that its visitors might leave feeling more confused than they did when they arrived, and no-one likes to feel stupid. It is therefore doubly impressive, after seeing this retrospective, to feel like you have really learned something and have a genuinely clearer picture of what Dada was really all about.

This enormous exhibition is divided up into near fifty small rooms, which take you by the hand on a guided tour of Dada. From 1915 the exhibition explores the period leading up to Dada, the flurry of artistic and literary activity during its flowering, and finishes by investigating its abrupt end in 1922/23 by means of the question, “who killed Dada”? Often overshadowed by the following movement, Surrealism, one is surprised to learn how many countries were involved in Dada: Italy, Spain, Chile, Japan, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe all played their unique part. Works that can often seem daunting and inapproachable are put into context and explained in terms of their connection with the Dada ideology: the use of ready-made objects to express visual indifference; chess board imagery acting as a Dada symbol for notions of chance and the subsequent pointlessness of action; the use of banal or waste materials to counteract conventional artistic media and create a provocative impact. Rooms dedicated to the key players in Dada such as Picabia, Scwhitters, Arp, Man-Ray and Tzara and Duchamp explore each artist’s contribution to the movement and their individual investigation into the meaningless and the haphazard. The breadth of material and technique used such as photography, collage, sculpture, assemblage, video, found-object and the expression of Dada through audio and literature belies the shortness of this movement but announces clearly its self-belief.

It is through the logical and comprehensible organisation of this exhibition that the goals of this movement, and its subsequent end, in turn start to become clear. Dada, the name itself found by chance in a German dictionary, showed how arbitrary meaning is and in doing so denounced the market’s notion of artistic significance. This objective, however, was of course a double-edged sword, which, with growing recognition from the art market that it was reacting against, ended in a conflict between Dada’s original principles of spontaneous authenticity and its subsequent aspirations towards a greater organisation and artistic cohesion.