For while now, I have had a fascination with the art of Dadism – using ready-made things and arranging them in a certain way in order to create a piece of art. At a friends house once, I saw a lovely framed piece, composed of tickets of various colours and sizes. For them, this piece was a memento of a special holiday when they went to various places – special memories, from a special time in their lives.
What has fascinated me the most, though, about Dadism – in its poetic as well as pictorial forms – are the ideas behind the movement – because the pieces are the manifestation of a particular perspective of the world at a particular time, by a particular group of people. Dadism arose one hundred years ago, in the middle of World War 1, when the scale of the horrors of this first mechanised war were becoming apparent. The carnage was of such an unprecedented magnitude, that it sent shock-waves throughout society.
How could the western world, with its seeming sophistication and alleged superior virtues, have brought civilisation to the brink of annihilation? For some people, the very foundations of the proud Enlightenment project were shown to be made of fickle clay. In view of this, all the cultural manifestations that came out of that world view were regarded as defunct. How could art stay the same? How could beauty arise from the dung-heap of civilisation?
And so the Dadists conveyed their contempt for the rottenness underlying the proud civilisation by using rubbish and detritus of all kinds as the material of its expression. Throw-away things, whose very essence is impermanence, were collected and used. This was nothing like the idea of impermanence at the heart of Buddhist art. In that tradition, impermanence is a characteristic of life in all its forms. Even so, there is beauty in lives following the way of the Buddha. And so, beautiful artwork can be rendered – incredible mandalas, made out of coloured sand. Before the wind blows the sand away, beauty brings its blessing.
The impermanence of Dadist art, however, was not of this kind. The ravages of war had demonstrated how fleeting human life could be when the hand of man was against you, and the machines that man had designed could multiply deaths without number. By using materials that are disposable such as tickets and receipts, the art was showing the waste of human life – lives extinguished as if they were nothing, disposed of without a second thought.
How could there be beauty in the midst of such depraved ugliness? Millennia ago, the Psalmist* expressed the devastation of a people forcefully exiled and displaced to a foreign land – how could they sing a new song there? By the rivers of Babylon we wept, we hung up our instruments, we hung up our joy, we hung up our lives. We remembered what life had been like before, at home. That was lost, we were lost. It is time for weeping.
** Schwitters started collecting the rubbish for this in 1920 in Germany. He took them with him to Norway in 1937 when we escaped Nazi Germany and went to Norway. It includes some rubbish from life in Norway also.