Before I say anything about Estancia FEMSA and their latest exhibition, DADA Zúrich, I want to step back to 2016 and an exhibition in London. In July of that year, Studio Voltaire exhibited, what was in technical terms, an archive show, but in reality went way beyond the traditional boundaries of the genre. The Neo Naturalists retrospectively looked at the art, activities, lives and organisational administration of a group of artists and performers who in the 1980s embraced nudity, body paint and a counter-cultural innocence that played upon traditions of the English pastoral. Where the exhibition differentiated itself from traditional archive shows was its insistence upon bringing the material back to life. There were displays of letters, photographs and posters, slideshow projections and digitised videos. There was also the soundtrack of a New Romantic nightclub, evocative lighting and the impressions of paint soaked bodies splattered against the wall. It was in short alive, and undoubtedly the private view was amazing.

Dada, the movement, was, from the accounts one reads, a similarly anarchic moment of rebellion, freedom and wild experimentation, married to highly intellectual pursuits and serious considerations of art, poetry and society in general. To get a picture of the scene I’d like to quickly quote extensively from Hans Arp’s account of the Zúrich based Cabaret Voltaire:

On the stage of a gaudy, motley, overcrowded tavern there are several weird and peculiar figures representing Tzara, Janco, Ball, Huelsenbeck, Madame Hennings, and your humble servant. Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and miaowing of medieval Bruitists. Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an Oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.”  – ‘Dadaland’, in Arp on Arp, p234.

Now, the DADA Zúrich exhibition by Estancia FEMSA at Casa Luis Barragán is not intended to be an all out re-awakening of Dada; the material was provided by Archivo Lafuente and the show is primarily concerns print publications and editions. This it does very well and with considerable style. In the exhibition’s single room you find three vitrines, a bench, works displayed in groups on three walls and two lamps. The vitrines, bench and lamps have all been custom designed by the architect Frida Escobedo and fabricated especially for the show. Stylistically they seem to take inspiration from Dada woodblocks and fuse this with a nod to Anthony Caro, all in jet black. The most impressive are the lamps, which stand taller than a person and feel like demonic piano tuning devices; admitting small pockets of light they are more sculpture than utility.

The work too is excellent. I’ve not before had the pleasure of seeing a set of Tristan Tzara prints in pristine condition, neither have I often seen Dada publications and bulletins. Each piece on display is handled with purpose and a delicate frugality. With the bold yellow ceiling hanging overhead the curation serves to clarify the material and engender a contemplative academic mood.

However, here arises the problem: I’m going to make a generalisation but I assume French isn’t a well spoken language in Mexico, not even within the art scene, and with my limited French I could not get far beyond the word ‘DADA’ in this text heavy show. At the opening event the curator and exhibition organisers shared their knowledge with visitors, privately talking people through the pieces. Unfortunately, beyond these circumstances the show becomes fairly impenetrable.

Without a grasp of French or guidance the show remains dead, it cannot be brought alive and therefore the material cannot be done justice. I’m not one for a heavy use of translations; blocks of vinyl text occupying the space would simply turn it into a museum. However, there are methods of activation which could have helped lift the work from its slumber. The methods need not be as intensive as those in Studio Voltaire’s retrospective, but something needs to be added. My instincts automatically say audio, maybe Dadaist poems translated into Spanish, or a soundscape recreating the atmosphere of the Cabaret Voltaire. Something; anything; a reminder that Dada once lived and still has its claws in contemporary lives.

Elliott Burns

Elliott Burns is an independent curator, exhibition production-er, writer, ex-artist, sometimes photographer, occasional teacher, approximate art technician, able bartender, decent cook, events co-ordinator, budget organiser, spreadsheet handler, competent admin-er, and happy copy-editor.
Since graduating from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation and Central Saint Martins he has worked exhibition production on Art Night, a one night contemporary arts festival in central London, co-curated What Do You Meme?, an exhibition of meme culture and curated Practices of Enquiry, an exhibition of teaching pedagogy at UAL. He currently lives in Mexico City.

Featured Image: Installation View, DADA Zúrich, February 5 – April 30, 2017. Courtesy of Estancia FEMSA.
Photo credit: Ramiro Chaves.

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