My first encounter with Marcel Duchamp was by no means coincidence. Of course not. How could it have been? As someone interested in art from an early age on. As someone who later studied art history. As someone like that, I inevitably had to encounter Duchamp.
In Duchamp such a first encounter is not a gentle approach. Such an encounter always hits you with full force. How could you not be agitated when, for instance, history teaches you that this artist as early as the 1910s, had declared everyday objects into works of art? (Only decades later I recognized this story as a myth, which was, I suppose, given birth by André Breton in the 1930s). In any case, I cannot remember exactly if it was in the dark of a lecture hall or in leafing through an art book or strolling through the galleries of a museum, that Duchamp caught my attention and instantly engaged my thinking. Anyways, suddenly Duchamp was just there. He just appeared somewhat in the mist of time.
However, back then I did not even “encounter” Duchamp, let alone Marcel Duchamp as a person. First and foremost, I faced what we all face when we look back in history: anecdotal stories, transfiguring myths, blurring mists etc. How could it have been otherwise? Especially with Duchamp? He is the blueprint of an artist evading every attempt to grasp him. And in time I began to realize that there is not one Duchamp. There are many Duchamps! At least in the realm of art history. For instance, there is Duchamp the grandfather of Object and Conceptual Art, of Appropriation Art, of Institutional Critique and so on. There is Duchamp the chess player, the curator, the trickster and so forth. There is the one Duchamp troubling gender, the other speculating with n-dimensions, a third supposed to be a lazy guy. Following Arthur Rimbaud´s famous aphorism “Je est un autre” (I is another), Duchamp always seems to be this very “another.” To me, a trick-photograph taken in autumn 1917 at the Broadway Photoshop in New York when Marcel was thirty years old, symbolizes the variety of facets that Duchamp’s life and work offer and open to us. It shows five Duchamps seated at a pentagonal table, all of them smoking their pipes in silence, as if they had to pre-enact the multiplication of Duchamp through his historical exegesis. Of course, I always wanted to meet the man in front of the mirror! But all I can see is his back and his images reflected through time and space.
Thus, the first extended encounter with Duchamp—in museums, in books, in interviews, even in this very photograph—over many years was nothing else than a permanent starting point for an ongoing search. A search that, I suppose, is never to be finished. Like a passion, or even an obsession (but I would not go so far as to speak of a desire without redemption, that is too psychoanalytical). Apropos psychoanalysis: Whenever asked which historical personality I would have liked to have encountered, I always answer without hesitation Marcel Duchamp. I’m a little glad that this playful fiction will never become reality. On the one hand I suspect Duchamp would be disappointed with how little I actually learned about him after all these years, in fact: in all these decades of approximation. But on the other hand, I am quite happy not to have met, only encountering the multiple Duchamps represented in the trick-photo. They give me and other Duchamp scholars lots of reasons to continue our infinite encounter.