Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dada, meet mama: Hugo Ball and Marie Osmond

Sometimes it's best to let words and images speak for themselves. Explaining too much about the theory and writings of
Hugo Ball and the Dada movement he helped create in the early decades of the twentieth century would risk ruining the joyous rhythms (and the sheer beauty of nonsense language) that resonate in his poetry.

If you're up to it, though, Malcolm Green's anthology of many early Dada texts offers all the intentionally maddening mysteries of the Dada movement.
Blago Bung Blago Bung Bosso Fataka!, with a title taken from a poem by Hugo Ball, offers a look at Dada's brief but complex history, and the resulting outrage from Dada's confounded critics and even more confused audiences.

Ball did try to upset the cultural expectations of his time. His poems sought to "dissolve language" and create "a new sentence that was neither determined by, nor tied to, any conventional meaning," according to his diaries. The Cabaret Voltaire -- his Zurich nightclub -- became the center of a riotous, intentionally provoking, group of artists who called their movement Dada, itself a nonsense word chosen at random from a dictionary, and meant to denote no particular meaning.

Academic discussion aside, public outrage was swift at the total confusion of word and image that followed Dada performances, even surpassing Ball's own previous experiments with Expressionism and theater. Sophisticated audiences who were learning to appreciate (some would say
grapple with) new artistic ideas such as cubism in art, dissonances explored by twentieth-century composers, and other experimental artistic forms were confused and angered by the Dada artists' complete disregard for meaning -- a clear reaction to the meaninglessness of World War I. In March 1916 one critic complained about the movement's "unforgivable blasphemy against the intellect":

They no longer believe in the intellect and its words ... and all they produce are monkey tricks. And if they were asked why they do it, probably they would answer it would be impious to expect them even to know. And they would underline this answer with a smile and this smile with a gesture of superiority.

On the evening of June 23 1916 Ball came to the stage of the Cabaret Voltaire dressed in a cardboard suit and wearing an outrageous headdress, looking, as Green observes, like a "shaman." Nervously he recited a few of his sound poems, and inspired by his Catholic upbringing he began to recite his nonsense words in the "ancient cadences of priestly lamentation," Ball later wrote.
One sound experiment, "Karawane," read:

When the performance was over, Ball wrote in his diary, "covered in sweat, I was carried from the stage like a magic bishop." This event turned out to be a defining moment in Dada; and although Dada art took many forms, the photo of Ball in his "magic bishop" suit has become a visual representation of the entire movement.

And who better to express the ineffable in the spoken words of Hugo Ball than the delightful Marie Osmond? For a presentation on sound poetry in an episode of
Ripley's Believe It or Not television series from the 1980s, Marie introduces the audience to the complex world of Dada as she puts on makeup -- explaining that "when you know you're going to be on stage, you want to be sure you look your best -- and that you're properly dressed for the part."

It's an amusing way to describe the unconventional concepts of Ball's Dada poetry and its performance as art -- especially so when she produces the famous printed text of "Karawane" (reproduced above), pauses for a long moment, and creates one of the most unexpected and truly most dada-like moments in the history of television. Marie's introduction and striking performance of "Karawane" would undoubtedly bring a small smile from Hugo Ball. It would probably be impious for him to suggest he knows why.

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