25 August 2012

Circling: The Rotoreliefs Of Marcel Duchamp

The longer you look at the circle above the easier it becomes to imagine the goldfish swimming around in its fish bowl.  But what if you could put this circle on a turntable?

For some artists, the scandalized reception that greeted Marcel Duchamp's Nude  Decsending A Staircase when it was shown at the 1913 Armory Show  would been gratifying.  But not for the restless Duchamp, who was already chafing at the limitations of painting in spite of his success de scandale in New York City.  Frustrated in his efforts to depict movement, Duchamp left his easel for the library where he studied new discoveries in phsyics and, apparently, made one of his own.  In recent years, researchers Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould figured out that "Although Italian scientists (unaware of Duchamp's work) found and named this particular form of illusion as 'the stereo-kinetic effect' in 1924, Duchamp apparently discovered this perceptual phenomenon independently in the early 1920s and completed his first set of discs in 1923."

Duchamp called his discs Rotoreliefs.  He began with a series of lithographs, two dimensional images that gave an optical illusion of movement when played on a phonograph turntable.  He intended the name to signify the pulsating alternation of positive and negative space in the visual experience of watching them circle.  Whether he knew it or not, the horizontal turntable was not a foregone conclusion.  Early engineers at the Bell Laboratory in New Jersey focused on the intricacies of recording sound, happy to use a vertical turntable.  The playful Frenchman recognized that the turntable could be used to produce effects not unlike that of a hypnotist swinging a watch in front of the viewer's eyes.

Introduced to the public by Duchamp in his Anemic Cinema in 1926 as gyrating spiral discs, the rotoreliefs were interspersed with spiraling naughty puns )in French, d'accord).

In 1935, Duchamps applied for a patent for his rotoreliefs, producing 500 sets of six two-sided discs to be played on a phonograph at the then uncommon 33 and a third rpms.   The illusions created by spinning concentric cirles were the easy ones.  The Japanese koi fish swimming in a bowl, an eclipse of the sun viewed through a tube, a cocktail glass, a light bulb - those were amazements to viewers.  For all that, Duchamp's hopes for financial success were disappointed.  But the rotoreliefs have continued to attract admirers.  Hans Richter used them to good effect in his 1947 film Dreams That Money Can Buy, the story of a man in a mysterious rented room who disovers that he can see his thoughts when he looks into his own eyes in the mirror.

My favorite rotorelief pays tribute to the Montgolifer brothers, also inventors, who launched the first manned hot air balloon - or globe aerostatique - before the public on June 4, 1783.

Images: Rotoreliefs by Marcel Duchamp, 1935, Pompidou Center, Paris.
1.  Rotorelief 5/6 - Japanese goldfish.
2.  Rotorelief 11 - Total Eclipse of the Sun seen through a tube.
3.  Rotorelief 12 - White Spiral.
4.  Rotorelief 3 - The Chicken and the Egg.
5.  Rotorelief 8 - Bohemian Glass.
6. Rotorelief  1 - Corlolles & Rotorelief 4 - Electric Light.