Given: The Illuminating Gaslight of Wonder
Miranda Morris on how a 2-inch-by-3-inch photograph sparked a lifetime of curiosity.
As a teenager on a school trip, I picked up a book of symbolist art from a museum gift shop in Ottawa. I was fascinated by the garish depictions of lush mythical scenes and esoteric mysticism. One image that really bewitched me was a 2-inch-by-3-inch photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés. The medium baffled me—too realistic to be a painting, it possessed a surreal quality not unlike collage animations I’d seen in Monty Python movies. Also, the subject was shocking and taboo to a sheltered 15-year-old. The nude, headless woman lay in a vulnerable position—spread-eagle in a prickly-looking bush—but held aloft a lantern with dignified serenity. It was eerily textural and enigmatic. I couldn’t talk about it but couldn’t stop thinking about it—a curious beacon to a brave new world somewhere far beyond the confines of my rural Ontario hometown.
Fifteen years later I was playing trombone in a band in New Orleans. Last summer we went on our first tour. In Philadelphia we shared a joint outside the Museum of Art and wandered carefree through the galleries. When I turned a corner and stumbled upon an old barn door, my memory stirred. I peered through the unassuming peepholes and my stomach leaped. It was Étant donnés, the diorama I’d puzzled over a tiny picture of half a lifetime ago. Now it was exponentially more alluring—a hypnagogic microcosm with a shimmering waterfall. I welled up, knowing I’d made an unconscious pilgrimage to that moment. Somehow, I’d come full circle.
I’ve since read how Duchamp crafted the work secretly over two decades in a windowless New York apartment and compiled a detailed manual for its relocation, instructing that it be exhibited only after his death. Reflecting a year later on it, I realize that experiencing Duchamp’s finale wasn’t the conclusion I thought it was, but rather an invitation to a lifetime of ever-grander curiosity. After touring, the band split. Now I find myself back in Canada, returned to the childlike restrictions quarantine allows. I wonder if the gaslight is on somewhere deep inside the empty Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Miranda Morris is a writer, illustrator, and musician who splits her time between Hamilton, ON and New Orleans, LA. To read more, visit miramorris.com.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) created Étant donnés in secret between the years 1946 to 1966. Duchamp was inspired by the Surrealist movement and cultural changes after World War II to begin work on this piece.