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Duchamp, Marcel

b. 1887, Blainville-Crevon, France; d. 1968, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

1200 Coal Sacks, 1938 Jute coal sacks, metal brazier, variable dimensions 

The “grotto” Duchamp devised in the large central room of the 1938 Exposition internationale du surréalisme at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris was roofed with 1200 coal sacks suspended above a brazier. The empty sacks were stuffed with newspapers to give volume and rained fine coal dust. The brazier was the only source of light – an electric bulb substituted for coal for safety reasons – apart from the torches initially supplied to the visitors. Blotting out the ceiling illumination had always been the intention, though Duchamp’s first idea was to fill the ceiling with opened umbrellas. In the exhibition catalogue Duchamp was described as “Générateur-arbitre” but the whole installation was a collaborative affair: Wolfgang Paalen was responsible for the dead leaves and brushwood on the floor and Dalí for the pool. Four double beds were placed in the corners and revolving doors – Duchamp’s idea – served as additional hanging space, with the smell of roasting coffee completing the sensorial roster. The invitation card for the opening on 17th January 1938 announced a “ciel de roussettes,” Duchamp’s coal sacks: ‘a sky of bats’ (reproduced in Altshuler et al. 2008: 282). The whole space completely destroyed the ambiance of an art gallery and contravened the conventions of the ‘white box’, carrying much further incipient dada gestures in that direction. The coal sacks, so heavy in appearance, would usually be on the ground, while illumination – here from the brazier on the floor – would normally be from above. Dark, dirty, with echoes of industry rather than art, it must have seemed a strange distortion of the grand celebrations of technology and creativity of the Paris Universal Exhibition of the previous year, with its theme of “Art and Industry”. DA