Artworks referred to in application

MOVING IMAGE EXCERPTS     (click on still images to enlarge and scroll through)

1. Burnt Stars. Gallery walkthrough of multi-screen installation.
_48A1778_48A1826
2. The hitchhiker’s guide to the Symbiocene. Video artwork.

3. Solastalgia. Documentation of performance at a multi-screen train carriage, Clandulla.

4. Tied, Mayday 2006. Documentation of performance on a multi-screen boat, the Tribal Warrior, Farm Cove Sydney. tiedATVPcutDSCN6564

 

 

 

 

_48A6504

This preliminary research artwork explores the accepted reading of the last painting Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven painted in 1924, Forgotten Like this Parapluice am I by You – Faithless Bernice! Elsa is pointing out specific structural forces that were preventing her from building a career and celebrating her major achievements.

forgotten like this parapluiceElsa is defiantly leaving the frame of the art field, stomping on ‘authoritative’ books that are being destroyed by the gushing water from her work Fountain as she goes, a former pet drinking bowl that she kept in her flat with a range of other plumbing objects. Fountain sits on the ‘institutional plinth’ and is sullied by Marcel Duchamp’s pipe placed on top of it. Baroness Elsa declared her found objects as art as early as 1913, including her work Fountain from 1917.

Elsa’s found objects and her work Fountain of 1917

Here I provide a summary of the research of scholars on the authorship of Fountain, and provide insights from the new evidence I have found and used for the preliminary research installation described above. This collective effort to date shows there is a wealth of material that is yet to be located and analysed as artworks, personal diaries, books, institutional records and personal items that through cross-referencing can help build up this important life story.

Evidence that French artist, Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968), stole his most famous work, Fountain, from Elsa, has been available in the public domain for many years. However, it is in the book by British writer and filmmaker, John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, that Elsa’s authorship of Fountain is most forthrightly discussed. Nevertheless, even Higgs stops short of making Duchamp fully accountable for his actions, arguing that, given the lapse in time, his memory could have deceived him about who first made the work.

Higgs says that the “excitement that accompanies a good idea emerging in conversation with others can often lead to many people thinking that the idea was theirs” (p.40). However, Fountain was not the result of a collaborative effort. It was sent to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917 from Philadelphia (where Elsa was based at the time). Contemporary newspaper reports claimed that the ‘Richard Mutt’ who had signed the urinal came from Philadelphia.2 Moreover, in her book, Baroness Elsa, Gammel provides reasons why the work’s submission to the exhibition was characteristic Elsa’s behaviour patterns.3 She also reveals that Duchamp had said much earlier in a private account that he did not submit the urinal to the 1917 exhibition.

On 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne, a nurse in war-torn Paris, just two days after Fountain had been rejected, telling her that: One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture; since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.4 The contents of this letter entered the public domain in 1983 when it was published in the Archives of American Art Journal.

Other evidence relates to the actual work. Duchamp maintained that he bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and submitted it to the exhibition, calling it Fountain. Scholars have long since proved that Duchamp could not have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works because Mott did not sell that particular model.5

The pseudonym on Fountain is a pun written in a script similar to one Elsa sometimes used in her poems. The submission of the urinal to the exhibition was Elsa’s response to America’s declaration of war on Germany on 6 April 1917. She was angry about both the rise of anti-German sentiment and the lack of response to the conflict by the New York art world. The urinal was signed ‘R. Mutt 1917’, and in German, the homophone ‘R. Mutt’ suggests armut, meaning poverty and in some contexts intellectual poverty. The latter was an implied criticism of the exhibition, the submission of Fountain being a double-pronged attack on its ‘intellectual poverty’. The Society of Independent Artists was ‘hoisted by its own petard, for in accepting the entry it would demonstrate its inability to distinguish a work of art from an everyday object, but in rejecting it, it would break its own rule that the definition of what was art should be left to the submitting artist’.6

Elsa made many other sculptures of found objects, declaring them to be works of art. The earliest that has been dated with any certainty was Enduring Ornament, a rusted metal ring just over four inches across, which she found on her way to her wedding to Baron Leopold on 19 November 1913. Not only did Elsa declare that found objects were her sculptures, she frequently gave them religious, spiritual or archetypal names. A piece of wood called Cathedral (1918) is one example.

Another is a cast-iron plumber’s trap attached to a wooden box and called God.7 This was originally attributed to American modernist painter and photographer, Morton Schamberg (1881 – 1918), who had photographed it. Naumann’s argument that God is out of character with Schamberg’s sleek machine images has now been accepted. He concluded that Elsa ‘probably came up with the idea of combining extraneous elements in this sculpture, as well as assigning the unusual title, while Schamberg was probably responsible only for mounting the assembly and for recording the work’.8 It is a fact that Schamberg photographed God in front of his machine paintings and dated the print 1917.

_48A6518Elsa’s track record in plumbing as art also includes her poem, Cast-Iron Lover, that sits with her sister works, God and Fountain. ‘The very idea [that] God should produce quotidian bodily wastes dismantles the omnipotent deity of Western culture, for his power resides in his abstract bodylessness. Besides echoing the blissful scatology of the squatting, infantilised, bowel-fixated cast-iron lover, the conception of this sacrilegious Dada artwork returns us to Elsa’s childhood’.9 The connection between religion and toilets is a recurring theme in Elsa’s life. It dates back to her abusive father’s mockery of her mother’s faith by comparing daily prayer to regular bowel movements. Elsa had appropriated her father’s ‘antireligious scatology, profanity, and obscenity for her Dada art, repudiating feminine propriety’.10

Critics often praise the androgynous nature of Fountain, for the act of turning the hard, male object on its side gave it a labial appearance.11 Duchamp did explore androgyny in the early 1920s, when he used the pseudonym Rrose Sélavy and was photographed cross-dressing by Man Ray, but androgyny is more pronounced in Elsa’s art.

Higgs points out that Fountain is base, crude, confrontational and funny, and that these are not typical aspects of Duchamp’s work. He suggests that it is perhaps this more than anything else that makes the strongest case for Fountain as Elsa’s work, because it summarises her art perfectly. Set against Elsa’s potent intuitive distillative practice are Duchamp’s readymades, inspired by the writing of French poet and playwright Raymond Rousel (1877 – 1933), which are ‘elaborate, personal rebuses to be read, not viewed’.12 Dadaism wanted to produce some innocence, the metaphor was childhood, and Fountain succeeds in presenting this within Elsa’s oeuvre presenting provocations as parodies of revolution, in keeping with the essential business of Dada.

The extraordinary life experiences of Elsa meant that she shared commonalities with Dada without the direct influence of the Dada artists themselves.13 She participated in German theatre, and in 1896 she met the German poet Stefan George (1868 – 1933) and his avant-garde group that desired to overthrow patriarchal authorities. This particular circle was ‘mostly male, homosexual, anti-bourgeois, anti-Teutonical, spiritual, and heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (1891)’. 14

In 1901 when married to August Endell (1871 – 1925), designer and German Jugendstil architect, Elsa was acquainted with actor and playwright, Benjamin Franklin Wedekind (1864 – 1918), who often attended soirées at their home.15 Wedekind’s politically charged work has been said to influence Hugo Ball, but he did not come to know of Wedekind until ten years after Wedekind had met Elsa and Endell. Wedekind’s theatre performance works and plays subversively attacked authority figures, bourgeois society and the beliefs of the liberal middle class. Wedekind performed only in the theatre, but his urinating and even masturbating on stage as a protest against the German obscenity laws could have influenced Elsa’s radical street performances in New York.

In 1900, when Elsa was based in Munich, she joined the group of avant-garde artists known as the Kosmiker spectrum, who were dedicated to a life centred on Eros, dancing and self-indulgence. This Dionysian group probably inspired Elsa’s later work because of its celebration of sexuality and the emotions, and its protest against traditional patriarchal society. It is also within this German aesthetic movement, where costume and finery were important as a means to define oneself, that Elsa could have developed her skills and the philosophical reasons for creating ‘art as life’ rather than as the production of objects.16

Elsa’s links through Endell to the Jugendstil and German Arts and Crafts (Kunstgewerber) movements are also significant. Both of these movements, as they took place in Germany, focused on gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art). Artists in these groups sought to harmonise buildings, furniture, clothing, jewelry and textiles. Her teacher and husband stressed the importance of the total work of art as displayed by their mutual interest in fashion, home and book design. This would have also been the case when in 1896 Elsa was living with German painter and designer, Melchior Lechter (1865 – 1937). His theories concerning the aesthetics of even prosaic objects such as books or furniture certainly would have sparked her later interest in turning her own life into art through her artistic costumes and performances.

Duchamp began to let his name be associated with the urinal when Elsa died in 1927, and by 1950, four years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed the original Fountain, he began to assume its authorship. In an interview in 1962, he told American curator, William Seitz (1914 – 1974): ‘I insist every word I am telling you now is stupid and wrong’.17

In 1923 or 1924, Elsa painted the picture called Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I By You – Faithless Bernice! that has been described as ‘mournful’ and from a period where she felt ‘abandoned by her friends’.18 My installation shown at Articulate Project Space Sydney in 2016 interprets the painting differently. In my view, in this painting Elsa was pointing to the structural forces and historical events that were preventing her from building a career and celebrating her major achievements. My work also acknowledges the strength she drew from her roots in Munich’s Dionysian movement and attitudes, and her status as New York’s first punk. The emotional tone in her painting is summed up in her poem from August 1927:

With me posing as art—aggressive—virile extraordinary—invigorating—anti-stereotyped— no            wonder blockheads by nature degeneration dislike it—feel peeved—it underscores unreceptiveness [sic] like jazz does. But there are a number of bright heads that have      grasped fact to their utmost pleasure—advantage—admiration of me.19

In this interpretation, the painting shows Elsa defiantly leaving the art field ‘frame’, rather than someone ‘walking out of her life’ as others suggest. My work emphasises the fact that the leg is Elsa’s, and that, by tattooing her poem Matter Level Perspective onto it, she shows how feminist critique was incorporated into every aspect of her life. Written between 1923 and 1927, the poem displays the same scientific and mathematical themes as her other work, as well as providing a representation of the barriers women face.

As part of her exit in both works, Elsa is literally stomping on the ‘authoritative’ books of the art establishment that are being further damaged from the water or urine that gushes down from her work Fountain. Fountain sits on the ‘institutional plinth’ to symbolise its new status as an art object, replacing its former use as a pet drinking bowl,20 which Elsa had kept in her flat with a range of other plumbing objects.21 A pipe sits atop of Fountain, which I along with others consider to represent one owned by Marcel Duchamp ‘so that the image becomes emblematic of their spoiled relationship’.22

Two statements by American poet, William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963), in his chapter about Elsa in his autobiography, have provided information that has led to my different interpretation of Elsa’s painting and my understanding of her cause of death. When visiting Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s apartment in New York, Williams found his eye caught by a piece of sculpture under a glass bell, that appeared to be chicken guts, possibly imitated in wax. I was told it was the work of a titled German woman, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, a fabulous creature, well past fifty, whom The Little Review was protecting. Would I care to meet her, for she was crazy, it was said, about my work. I wrote, fatally, to Margaret or Jane, saying I wanted to meet the woman. They agreed I was precisely the one who should meet her and defend her. But unfortunately she was at that moment in the Tombs under arrest for stealing an umbrella.23

Elsa first declared her found objects to be art as early as 1913,(24) but her efforts are only now beginning to be debated and fully acknowledged within the canon—amidst the mounting controversy surrounding the theft of her authorship of Fountain. The above-mentioned painting is a commentary on her neglect by the art establishment. The handle of the umbrella (‘parapluie’) nestles into the curve of Fountain in the painting, as if stabilising it from a fall, forging a relationship between the two objects that were stolen and involved Elsa being neglected. In his autobiography, and also in a letter to Jane Heap, Williams says that Elsa was ‘playfully killed by some French jokester, it is said, who turned the gas jet on in her room while she was sleeping. That’s the story’. Given the fact that Williams correctly reported details in his autobiography about the ‘forgotten’ umbrella that appears in Elsa’s painting and features in the work’s title, his assertion about the possible circumstances surrounding her death deserves more attention. Elsa’s death is attributed to suicide, and it overshadows her little known or celebrated creative life, as is indicated in the narrow reading of her painting Forgotten Like This Parapluie Am I By You – Faithless Bernice!

  1. Elsa was born Else Hildegarde Plötz in Swinemünde Germany, which is now in Poland, and lived and worked in Germany, America and France.
  2. John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, 38.
  3. In Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity at page 227 Gammel states that: “Firstly, the work was submitted late and secondly a leak to the Boston newspaper at the time claimed, ‘Mr. Mutt now wants more that his dues returned. He wants damages…’” Gammel had said earlier at page 59 that: “Elsa frequently threatened to sue people to extort money.”
  4. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 224.
  5. This information emerged from the studies of William Camfield, Kirk Varnedoe and Hector Obalk.
  6. The Old Art Newspaper. “Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?” Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson. November 3, 2014. http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Did-Marcel-Duchamp-steal-Elsas-urinal/36155
  7. Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, 39.
  8. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 222.
  9. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 219.
  10. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 219.
  11. John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, 39.
  12. The Old Art Newspaper. “Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?” Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson. November 3, 2014. http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Did-Marcel-Duchamp-steal-Elsas-urinal/36155
  13. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 56.
  14. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 44.
  15. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 57.
  16. Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 52.
  17. The Old Art Newspaper. “Did Marcel Duchamp steal Elsa’s urinal?” Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson. November 3, 2014. http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Did-Marcel-Duchamp-steal- Elsas-urinal/36155
  18. Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, 39.
  19. Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity, 293.
  20. In Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity at page 227 Gammel states that: “Mutt is the English word for a mixed breed dog whose parentage is unknown (she had an unusually intensive attachment to dogs and adopted several of them), which also explains the innocent metamorphosis from urinal to Fountain, as it becomes a water dish for Mutt/dog.”
  21. In Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity at page 220 Gammel states that: “George Biddle reports on his visit to Baroness Elsa’s apartment on Fourteenth Street in Greenwich Village. ‘It was crowded and reeking with the strange relics, which she had purloined over a period of years from the New York gutters. Old bits of ironware, automobile tires, gilded vegetables, a dozen starved dogs, celluloid paintings, ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured, yet highly sensitized perception became objects of formal beauty’”.
  22. Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century, 40.
  23. William Carlos Williams. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1967), Chapter on Baroness Elsa.
  24. In Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century at page 39 Higgs states that: “She may not have named or intellectualized the concept in the way that Duchamp did in 1915, but she did practice it before he did.”