It seems counterintuitive to celebrate the anniversary of an art movement founded on a contempt for tradition and a desire to break with the past. Nevertheless, February 2016 marks a full century since the term “Dada” was first coined at Cabaret Voltaire, a Zurich nightclub, to describe the artwork that was being created at the time in reaction to the horrors of World War I. The original Dada artists despised the so-called sensible traditions and rational ideology that had led to the brutal war, so they decided to create a new form of artwork that was proudly meaningless and stubbornly random. The Dadaists scoffed at history, including widely held assumptions about was supposedly “good” and “beautiful” in art. Among the most celebrated of all Dada artists was French-born painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp, who became one of the world’s greatest recyclers with his “readymades,” i.e., found objects he would repurpose and present as art. In 1965, approaching the end of his life, Duchamp discussed the readymades with Martin Friedman, employing typical humility and humor.
As luck would have it, Duchamp also dabbled in film early in his career. Around the 1920s, he became fixated on kinetic sculptures and began fashioning spinning, circular works that created hypnotic patterns as they rotated. During this phase of his career, he experimented with painting designs on cardboard circles and then placing them atop a spinning turntable, dubbing these “Rotoreliefs.” In 1926, Duchamp had the idea of filming some of his Rotoreliefs, and the result is a mesmerizing film called Anémic Cinéma.
Over the years, the Dadaist art movement in general and Duchamp in particular have been the subject of numerous tributes from the music world. In 1962, a group of British art students, including Vivian Stanshall, formed a surrealist, chaotic comedy/jazz/rock ensemble called The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, later simplified to The Bonzo Dog Band. Several Bonzo songs from the mid-to-late-1960s are named in tribute to the work of Duchamp, including “Readymades” and “The Bride Stripped Bare By Bachelors.”
A later, considerably less comedic British group, the experimental/industrial trio Cabaret Voltaire, took their name from the Zurich nightclub where the Dadaist movement was christened in 1916. Originally more of a performance art ensemble when they formed in the 1970s, Cabaret Voltaire ultimately evolved into an experimental rock band, and their music played a role in the post-punk and techno scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. The group’s early work is said to have been heavily influenced by Dada.
One of the livelier tributes to Dadaism in recent years was a web comic simply called Dada that ran from 2002 to 2009. Created by writer Craig J. Clark, largely in response to the Iraq War, the strip employed existing images, including Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and placed them in absurd situations, all done with the pacing of a typical newspaper comic. When he wrapped up Dada after a seven-year run, Clark acknowledged his debt to the Dadaist art movement:
In its own hastily conceived way, I saw Dada as a reaction to a nebulously conceived—and potentially endless—war, and one which I likened to the original Dadaists’ collective response of World War I. Now that it’s over I can’t help but wonder how it holds up as a singular piece of work. In a lot of ways I expect it doesn’t, but I have a three-inch high pile of printouts sitting next to my computer (the physical manifestation of the strip’s archive, printed out by my increasingly unreliable inkjet printer) that tells me I must have been doing something over the past seven years. Maybe someday I’ll go back and read it all from the beginning. Maybe other people will, too.
So as a comic strip, Dada was a combination history lesson, oblique political protest, and exercise in profound meaninglessness.