Perceptions at Play: Giacometti through Contemporary Eyes

Article excerpt

In a rapidly executed sketch dating from circa 1918-20, Alberto Giacometti captures a true-to-type moment in the quotidian life of his family. Intimately grouped around the table in the parental home at Stampa, his three younger siblings-Bruno, Diego, and Ottilia-are portrayed with a friend, playing a habitual game, one now extinct, known as jeu de char, a cross between chess and checkers.1 Performing a conceptual shift in paradigm, the topography of pawns as articulated on the tabletop in this early drawing presages Giacometti's horizontal gameboard sculptures of the 19305 and also his models for city squares punctuated by arrestingly thin silhouettes of 1948-50. This sense of play, congenial to Giacometti's oeuvre, is de facto indelible in the history of the avant-garde. To cite a noted example, Marcel Duchamp took up chess in the 19205 as a cunning approach to art. A chess champion with a taste for gambling, Duchamp engaged in unorthodox matches, saluting ad hoc competitions such as that featured at the opening of his first retrospective, organized by Walter Hopps for the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. Set against his classic work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass, of 1915-23, the Pasadena chess encounter acted simultaneously as one of the most cerebral episodes of artistic exchange and one of the most sexually charged since Duchamp's challenger, Eve Babitz, stripped for the event.2

In his essay "Moves: Playing Chess and Cards with the Museum," Hubert Damisch applies the chess scheme to rethink broader art-historical issues. According to him, each artwork in a museum's collection is like a pawn possessing its own prescribed movement. A repository of artworks, the museum in turn operates like a chess game, at once along diachronic and synchronie axes. In short, Damisch argues, the museum can be read either as "the product of a given history (the succession of moves from which it results) or a 'position'-in other words a system-which contains all the necessary and sufficient information for the player whose turn comes next to be able to decide a move in an informed manner."3 The chess model thus insists on a double sense of temporality. From one perspective, the great works of the past operate as models for a history to come; but from the reversed perspective, the legacy of the artistic past is reactivated in light of contemporary practices. To preserve the past means in fact to invest in its future.

Positioning the notion of deferred action at the crux of the imbricated relationship between historical and neo-avant-gardes, Hal Foster postulates in his book The Return of the Real an analogous concept of temporality-that the past "returns from the future." This idea, Foster argues, focuses on a "complex relay of anticipated futures and reconstructed pasts" of artistic conventions and historical conditions.4To state it differently, the project of the avant-garde is not punctual, nor is it fully effective in its initial moment, but rather is enacted for the first time in a deferred action-"a first time," Foster explains, "that, again, is theoretically endless."5 This approach to the genealogy of art explains the concept of actuality-how a present can frame a past, and how a past can articulate a present in turn. Hence our examinations of the past are contingent on our positions in the present, which, if critically taken, could complicate the avant-garde's history and buttress its future.

Both Damisch's and Foster's discussions of time are informed by Martin Heidegger, who in his philosophical treatise Being and Time is the first to advance the notion that the "past comes to us from the future."6 Being and Time begins with an analysis of Dosein (the German word for "existence" or "being there"). Heidegger holds that because there is no a priori human essence, existence is a temporal event that reflects the course between birth and death. Understood as the "historicity" of a temporal unfolding, Dasein is defined by three basic structures: being thrown into a world not of its choosing; being ahead of itself; and being engaged with the world. …