IDFA Signed: Barbara Visser discussing Alreadymade
Interview by Nick Cunningham
Dutch visual artist Barbara Visser talks to SEE NL about her new hybrid documentary that questions Marcel Duchamp’s authorship over arguably the 20th Century’s most important piece of modern art. Instead, ‘Fountain’ may well have been the work of a maverick Dadaist baroness, her film suggests.
Still: Alreadymade - Barbara Visser
Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaist artwork ‘Fountain’ has been described as the most important and influential piece of modernist art. The work is, of course, something that is essentially male, in that it presents a porcelain urinal, signed and repurposed as a museum exhibit. But what if ‘Fountain’ was actually created by a woman? That is the intriguing claim that visual artist (and former interim IDFA artistic director) Barbara Visser responds to in her highly engaging and challenging (and at times very funny) Alreadymade**, world-premiering at IDFA.
The flamboyant Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was a German artist and poet, and a living artwork who scandalized the New York of the early 1920s with her splendid adherence to deviancy. Duchamp said of her that “she is not a futurist – she is the future.” She took to the streets of the metropolis naked, together with her Dadaist friends, and was the first to see the artistic potential in repurposing everyday “ready-made” objects as pieces of art, their artistic significance deriving now from their association with the artist. Her sculpture ‘God’ (1917, the same year as ‘Fountain’, and which was for years shamefully attributed to the male artist Morton Livingston Schamberg) bears an uncanny resemblance to the alleged Duchamp work as it presents an iron plumbing trap from a toilet cistern, but turned and reassembled to resemble a phallus.
Visser’s film tells Elsa’s story but also presents a debate on the psychology of lying (illustrated by archive of Duchamp’s facial tics and hand gestures when discussing ‘Fountain’) and a discussion among avatared art experts in a virtual Starbucks as to the provenance of the work. Later the film gives the floor to the dissenters, who deride the notion of the urinal as art, some of whom respond in obvious fashion given its previous function as a piss pot. Furthermore, Visser recreates the Baroness in AI, using the expressive movements of contemporary Netherlands-based actress/dancer Rex Collins and the facial impression left on Elsa’s death mask.
When director Visser first read about the call to ascribe authorship of ‘Fountain’ to Baroness Elsa, she felt a frisson of excitement.
“The art world needs turmoil and criticism and rearrangement, and so that was really the trigger,” she says.
“And I really wanted it to be true, and I was excited for that. Googling the Baroness I was also very much attracted to her persona and her artistic legacy - not that there's much legacy to speak of - but she was really an artwork herself. She blended in her art and her performative position into her daily life with the costumes that she made and got arrested for the crazy stuff she was wearing. She was also arrested for wearing trousers or for smoking on the street,” Visser adds of the times in which Elsa she was living.
The director applies the concept of artistic re-purposing for her production of the film. “I wanted the film itself to be kind of ready-made, because we drown in existing footage. There's so much already that has been said about ‘Fountain’ and about this controversy that I really wanted to piece together a new story from existing material. Coming from the visual arts, I always think the form should somehow reflect the content. So to make a kind of ready-made film was one important step in the process to tell the story visually.”
World sales of Alreadymade are handled by CAT&Docs and the film will be released in The Netherlands by Cinema Delicatessen ahead of its later Dutch broadcast by VPRO. Visser is also creating an installation version that will be shown in the Kunsthaus Zurich, juxtaposed with the works of other female Dadaists such as Hannah Höch and Merit Oppenheim.
Visser articulates “a second agenda” that she wants the film to address, on the right to appropriate, for artistic purposes, works or objects that exist within the cultural and/or public domain. “I want to open up the debate about copyright, which is so outdated. If you see what kind of media landscape we live in, and what kind of laws we have, they really don't match anymore. The law is there for us. We are not there for the law,” she signs off (with a lobster).
IDFA takes place on November 8 - 19. For more information, click here. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Production Incentive