The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

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FEB 2010 Issue


if I must live then let it be

                rudderless, in delirium 

—Mario Santiago

In Roberto Bolaño’s headstone-thick testament, 2666, goliard critics Jean-Claude Pelletier and Manuel Espinoza, listlessly trawling a disconsolate Mexico for incorporeal author Benno von Archimboldi, visit one Oscar Amalfitano while mordantly dredging for clues. Archimboldi is their Moby Dick. Whether white whale or eminence grise, wild goose chase or fish story, proof of life’s iffy at best. Nobel Prize nominee cum U.F.O. Archimboldi affords only inconstant, inconsequential sightings, ever unconfirmed. Close encounters of the third kind appear to have occurred, like twice. Such that a single dicey, and infra-thin (sic) tale draws these sad Ahabs clear across the Atlantic to the horse latitudes of gruesome, deplorable Sonora.

Marcel Duchamp, “The Unhappy Readymade” (1919). Found object (photograph, 1920).
Marcel Duchamp, “The Unhappy Readymade” (1919). Found object (photograph, 1920).

Lunching on beans at Amalfitano’s home, Pelletier spies a geometry textbook suspended by a string from a clothesline in the yard, weathering in the wind “like a shirt left out to dry.”

Now, Marcel Duchamp “made” but one readymade when in Argentina during 1919. This, near as immaterial as Archimboldi. For Duchamp did not even select a physical object; snow shovel, bicycle wheel (his readymades were chosen for indifference, a complex contradiction in itself) but instead instructed newlyweds Jean Crotti and Suzanne Duchamp, overseas, to hang a geometry book by strings from their Paris balcony so that “the wind could go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages.”

Named the Unhappy Readymade, it amused Duchamp to give feelings to a readymade, later stating that, “the treatise seriously got the facts of life.”

Precursor to Conceptual Art, art by deference and according to instruction (you can create a brand “new” Sol Lewitt today), since Duchamp re-made many readymades in replica, and favored chance as method—thus activating another irresolvable self-canceling oxymoron—no rule exists to preclude the possibility that by A.D. 2666, one such unhappy readymade might make its merry way to imaginal Santa Teresa.  

Santa Teresa A.K.A. Avernus: death’s door for 10 years’ worth of women gouged and gored. Despite its being consigned to a scant handful of lines in a 900-page magnum opus, Bolaño’s lost soul and so-called “expert on Archimboldi,” professor Amalfitano, there cathects his own readymade with a feeling of “boundless sadness.”

Bolaño moved to Mexico, from Chile, in 1968. Born in 1953, he would have been 15. He remained until 1973. In the early 1970s he formed the Infrarealist group with Mario Santiago, a two-man poetry movement sung under the sobriquet Visceral Realism in The Savage Detectives. It is easy to believe, as the simplest solution, that this prefix infra, meaning “beneath,” merely opposed that infinitely more famous, international, and influential literary prefix sur meaning “above” in surrealism. Opposition is the heart of radical poetry. Infrarealism: beneath both realism, and especially surrealism. As the measure of the lack of energy in a system, it might translate Entropic realism. But the principle stating that the simplest solution will be true also implies any excess must be necessary. All poetry movements are excessive. Then, let us seek the excess necessary to Infrarealism.

In 1945 Marcel Duchamp designed the covers for View, the only American surrealist periodical, volume 5, no. 1, an issue devoted solely to Duchamp. Its back cover posts the following poem, definition, or statement: “When tobacco smoke smells of the mouth exhaling it, these two odors are wed by infra-thin.” View’s front shows smoke issuing from a wine bottle lazing in orbit.

In the only other discoverable mention by Duchamp of infra-thin, Denis de Rougemont quotes him as saying that he picked on purpose the word thin, which is a word having human, affective connotations, and is not an exact laboratory measure. The sound or the music corduroy trousers make when one moves, pertains to infra-thin. “The void between the front and back of a thin sheet of paper [...] it is a category which has occupied me a great deal over the past ten years. I believe that by means of the infra-thin one can pass from the second to the third dimension.”

Duchamp is intellectually sexy. Bolaño’s elegant negligence? Ça m'est égal. Infrarealists/Infra-thin. To minimize distance between writing and the real.

Marcel Duchamp ushered art into the age of its mechanical reproduction (his replicas, his Boîte-en-valise). Original, aporetic, he invented repetition! Like Muybridge, then Marinetti, he stopped, showed, and slowed motion (3 Standard Stoppages, his Descending Nude, The Bride Stripped Bare—called “a delay in glass”) L.H.O.O.Q. detourned da Vinci decades before Guy Debord. Seminal emission anointing his Paysage fautif (1946) went undetected until 1989, touching 10 years before Dash Snow ooked on the New York Post, and the piece itself predates Warhol’s Oxidation pee series by more than 30 years.

While in Buenos Aires, Duchamp completed just two other works besides his mail order Unhappy Readymade. Stéréoscopie à la Main, an assisted readymade was comprised of dual seascapes to which he added painted polygons. When inserted in a stereoscope these pyramids meet as one, floating on the waves. Between 11:59 AM and 12:01 PM clocks strike bare noon.

The more elaborate piece was his To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour: a free-standing glass eye chart, 20˝× 16˝, incorporating actual optical lenses, rods, and cones. Though an independent work, this served too as a study for the Oculist Witnesses sector of the Large Glass.

In such theaters devoted to intimacy, innocence regains an excuse for production without fear.

Carrying his assault on retinal painting through reversion to revenge (it is not an instance of the opposite of the same), the operative term in both artworks would be “close.” Two separate images virtually fused, without the intervening “thickness” of reality.      

Back in Cubist Paris four dimensions thronged the air. If a three-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow, could our three-dimensional world be a projection of the fourth? Clearly Duchamp felt the Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) to be infra-thin: the slimmest conceivable interval, scrim, screen, borderline or door between the third dimension and the fourth.

“No! No one can view my face! Hideously disfigured by a terrible accident I was brought up in the sewers of Paris where I learned to play the accordion. Honk! Squawk! Bleat! My genius went unappreciated. Now, tucked away in my hidden fastness, I rule the wastes of Juarez, periodically emerging to fight in corrugated tin sheds for almost no money. Did you think for one minute I would not be drunk enough to spend three bucks for some stupid rubber mask at yet another Mexican wrestling match? Hah! I am Checkmate! I am the Eight Ball! And you, señor, are finished!”


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

All Issues