Saturday, August 25, 2007

Marcel Duchamp: ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’ Revisited


In 1912 Marcel Duchamp (1886-1968) painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. When exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, an art critic for the New York Times describes the work as "an explosion in a shingle factory". This canvas was controversial, provocative and, for many people, simply upsetting. Today, hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the painting is called an 'iconic holding'.


Jump forward nearly 100 years and play around with Tetka. You can use your left and right arrow keys to raise or lower gravity (you have to hold them down a while to see results).
If she gets stuck, grab her with your mouse and fling her.

Nude Descending A Staircase was ground-breaking for some, just not understood by most. Tetka, on the other hand, is an easily comprehended toy.

With Tetka we readily accept many strange phenomena. We accept that Tetka can drop an enormous distance without hitting bottom. We can drag her and slam her with impunity. We can see her in more multiple ways then we can see the Duchamp's nude. Grab Tetka and jiggle hard and you will see more stop motion images than Duchamp could have painted in a year.

Duchamp is painting a nude. The spectator is thus assumed to be a man. And thus there is the whole woman being gazed on by a man scenario that critics have discussed since the first critic saw the first nude.

Thank goodness, Tetka is dressed even if it is but an itsy-bitsy bikini. The thought of thrashing a nude lady is too nasty to bear. I start thinking of a Jacques Lacan Other (I must find the passage where Lacan talks of objects of sexual desire as puppets that act out one's fantasy scenarios) and other nightmarish thoughts. In other words because Tetka is the puppet you can thrash she is far more provocative than gazing on Duchamp's nude could ever be.

These two elements (multiple representations and remote control) already define Tetka as a work of art. Not a masterpiece but something worth preserving and worth discussing.

She is a sign post as to how far we have come in the creation of art in the last 100 years. What Picasso started in 1907 has been acquired and we have tools and technologies that he could not have imagined.

On the other hand there is a lot that that the Internet has not acquired. Nude Descending A Staircase is about multiple view point angles fused together into a single image. The dotted lines and arc segments indicate we are looking at an engineering drawing of geometry in animation. The deconstruction of the nude into simplified geometrical objects and the flatness of the perspective are all delightful rendering tricks that are lost on the realist gamer programmers.

The art of the Internet is still in its infancy. It has not yet had its Picasso or Duchamp. But they will appear before too long.


The name of the creator of Tetka seems to be lost. The word "Tetka" translates as "aunt" but is used informally as a courtesy title when addressing older women whether or not they are relatives. Some dialects use the word, "Chotka." (from Tetka's House). A full screen version of Tetka. An alternate version.

Jacques Ferrandez has made two JavaScript/DHTML versions of Tetka, Way Back (2005) and What Power (2007) and Ragdoll (2007). Because of the limitations of JavaScript it is taking him some time to achieve the responsiveness and complexity of the original Tetka, but he has made remarkable progress. There's a good chance that if he continues with his work that he will; eventually come up with with works that are as complex as traditional painted works and yet have the interaction of the new new technologies.

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