Exhibition Review: The Bride and the Bachelors – Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns: Barbican Art Gallery, London, 14 February – 9 June 2013

Ooh, suitors you sir

The Bride and the Bachelors. Photo by Tony Kyriacou

The ghost in the machine. Photo by Tony Kyriacou

The all-American quartet of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns regularly collaborated and inspired each other. This extraordinary coming together of artistic talent and their personal engagements with seminal French artist Marcel Duchamp are given a richly rewarding examination in the Barbican Art Gallery’s superb new exhibition The Bride and the Bachelors, part of the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp season.

A co-production with Philadelphia Museum of Art, curators Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle have taken on board the five artists’ fights with their respective artistic establishments and cleverly presented their extraordinary works in the surrounds of a mise en scène soundscape specially created by contemporary artist Philippe Parreno.

Obviously, central to the exhibition artistically is Duchamp and major works such as Fountain (the famous R Mutt urinal) and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) are present and correct. On purely visual terms, however, it’s the low stage set up in the middle of the gallery that attracts the most attention; every twenty minutes or so members of London Contemporary Dance School troop onto it and perform excerpts from the repertoire of choreographer Merce Cunnigham (Thursday evenings and weekends only). The dance rehearsals for this have been supervised by ex-Cunnigham dancer Jeannie Steele and includes sections of Changing Steps, Scramble, Sounddance, Canfield, Walkaround Time and Roaratorio.

The initial impression from the dance performances is that Cunnigham’s work doesn’t appear to fit in with the rest of the gang’s. The plain, dark leotards and the restrained choreographic vocabulary he employs seem cramped and restrictive compared to the explosion of formats and experimentation employed by the other artists. The Cunningham works presented here also lack the humour that abounds elsewhere in the room.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg collection. Copyright Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London

Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg collection. Copyright Succession Marcel Duchamp, 2013, ADAGP/Paris, DACS/London

However, climbing up to the first floor of the gallery and watching the dancers through the prism of Jasper John’s stage set for Walkaround Time the ideological similarities soon begin to become apparent. Cunningham’s angular, almost mechanical, choreography captures the restless energy permeating through the rest of the exhibition, especially from works such as Duchamp’s famous bicycle readymades and his wonderfully kinetic painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2).

The Dada-inspired element of chance that feeds much of the artwork on display also lurks in Cunningham too, if less obviously. For example, there’s a fascinating handwritten note from Cunningham (accompanied by his original notation) about his Suite for Five where he glibly explains it was supposed to be a sextet only one of the dancers didn’t turn up.

The problem for Cunningham in a gallery context is, of course, that his chosen medium of expression is temporary – you can’t really hang his stuff on a wall or stick it on a plinth. Consequently his output seems small amongst the plethora of works contained in the gallery. Perhaps, though, its fleeting now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature makes it closest in spirit to the ‘ghosts between presence and absence’ that the exhibition’s organisers were striving for.

The Bride and the Bachelors is essential viewing for anyone interested in modern dance. Cunningham’s influence on the dance world was enormous but his ideas have been assimilated into so many companies across the world that its true impact for contemporary eyes is difficult to establish. So to see his work afresh within the context of the wider artistic milieu from which it sprang really does help deepen appreciation of his motivation and the groundbreaking route he took.

The Bride and the Bachelors runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 9 June 2013. In addition there’s also a one-off performance in the gallery from Rambert Dance Company of Cunningham’s Andy Warhol-designed Rainforest on 27 March and a special Cunningham event run by the Richard Alston Dance Company on 29 May. The Barbican website has more information and tickets.

Gerard Davis

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