Ceci N’est Pas Un Musée

Zürich, Switzerland – January 2010

I stand in front of Spiegelgasse 1. It is the dead of winter. The streets are silent. A dim glow emanates from within the building. It is the Cabaret Voltaire, birthplace of Dada. I am about to go inside.

I first heard about Dada in a contemporary art history class that I took in 1992. The teacher briefly introduced it and then flashed a couple of art works across the screen: a mustache painted on the Mona Lisa and a urinal with the title Fountain. Dada was not art. It was anti-art. Woah. The teacher then moved on to Surrealism. I thought Dada was amusing, but brushed it off as pretentious.

In late 2006, on a visit to America, I came across a book by Hugo Ball, Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary. I picked it up and began reading. There was much more to the movement than just being bizarre. Dada was conceived as a way to combat the insanity of World War I. It was a rejection of  cultural and intellectual conformity, which the Dada artists believed had led to the war. They fought back with mockery. The main message was this: formulate your own opinions. Create your own reality.

In the beginning, they had no political leanings, but eventually some of them joined the radical left. Hugo Ball remained true to the original anarchic philosophy.

Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire. Image source: Wikipedia

“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, Europeanised, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world’s best lily-milk soap.” — Hugo Ball, Dada Manifesto 1916

After I finished Ball’s book, I went to the library and checked out Tristan Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries. I was mesmerized. They were not haughty, affected people. They were highly sensitive individuals who were simply fed up with the lies.

“Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE” — Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918

I was inspired to write my own Dada Manifesto, which was eventually published in Clockwise Cat in December 2008.  It was written during a previous administration, and although it seems like I lean one way, I want to make it clear that if I wrote it today, I would shower just as much gleeful ridicule on the current rulers. I do not lean.

DaDa Manifesto c. 2006

FreeDumb is the cherry red dildo in your Happy Meal®. The only cure for NeoConstipation is to ignore it out of existence. Dada. The ultimate abacadabra has resurfaced to save us from mutant slime politicians. Intellectual insubordination is my ray gun. It wipes out even the toughest stains. I beckon sparrows to the birdseed I have strewn on the path back to reason. E=mcHammer. Dada.

Fight nonsense with NonSense.


On the outside wall of the Cabaret Voltaire is a plaque commemorating the few months in 2002 when a group identifying themselves as Neo-Dadaists illegally occupied the premises in protest of the planned closure of the building.

I open the door and step inside. The front of the building is a gift shop. The kind gentleman behind the counter invites me to check out the exhibit in the large room at the back of the building. The artwork is mostly collages and the texts are written in German. I search for some sign of the original Dadaists, but there is nothing.

Neo-Dada art in the Cabaret Voltaire. Artist unknown.

I walk out to the gift shop. The gentleman is helping someone else, thankfully. I’m self-conscious in retail establishments. There is not much for sale – abstract art jewelry, geometric print t shirts that cost forty euros, and some overpriced, avant garde knick knacks.

I sigh and turn to leave, but then the absurdity of my disappointment hits. Mental palm to forehead. What did I expect? Fridge magnets, keychains, postcards, and coffee mugs with Dada quotes? Shot glasses and snow globes? The original Dadaists would be rolling in their graves! I shake my head and giggle at my silliness as I walk out the door and let it swing shut behind me.

22 thoughts on “Ceci N’est Pas Un Musée

  1. I love the manifestos. I am moved to become an anarchist. Should you return to the States, the Fountain is in a museum on the east end of Euclid in Cleveland. I recommend the Rothko wall, instead, though. Brilliant writing… as always.

    • Hi Steph – Dada wasn’t nearly as known as the other art movements. The Dadaists upset a lot of people (including other artists) by being such smart asses. It is a very interesting movement to read about.

  2. Ahh, I can so relate to the “doll” story… there’s a place in my homeland, where it is practiced they say. Maybe it works or maybe not, I am not so sure.

  3. You may be interested in a novel my father, Alan Isler, wrote, “The Prince of West End Avenue,” ostensibly about some old-age pensioners in a retirement home in NY who are putting on Hamlet, it tells the story of Dada’s beginnings in the inter-war years from the perspective of a young German poet (now aging in the home). It is available second hand in America but has been translated into most European languages and I believe is readily available.

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