A Story About an Unfinished Love Affair and Readymade Literature

“Emergency in Favor of Twice” by John Holten (and maybe Marcel Duchamp), recommended by gorse journal


I have a confession to make: when I started gorse journal, I didn’t know what I was doing. Not really. I mean, I had edited before, yes, but print is very a different animal to the web. What I did know was that I had to hit the ground running, for in contemporary Ireland, there already is a rich vein of literary journals writers, and readers. I also knew that I wanted my journal to be outward looking, and experimental (a digression: we have a fine history of experimental writers in Ireland — Lola Ridge, Blanaid Salkeld, Joyce, Beckett, Sterne — but I wanted experimental writers with a pulse). I also knew I wanted it to transgress boundaries — be porous. I find that disciplines in the arts are too often too fixed.

John Holten is the embodiment of the two things I did know. Holten is an Irish writer and artist based in Berlin, and runs the “fictional” publishing house Broken Dimanche Press, a publishing endeavor that takes its cue from Yves Klein‘s one-day newspaper, Dimanche-Le Journal d’un Seul Jour. John wrote the following story, “Emergency in Favor of Twice,” for gorse no. 10 in response to a request by my poetry editor, Christodoulos Makris. For the issue, Christodoulos was given a free-reign to assemble works that celebrate Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain — assemble them quite literally because the issue was a box, and the stories were compiled within. The title of John’s story comes from a lost Duchampian piece. Duchamp did not subscribe to the thinking that artists were original makers. He argued that ordinary objects could be transformed into art simply by the artist choosing them. And so, by adding his signature to the famous urinal, a “readymade” piece of art was made.

The Readymades, John Holten’s 2011 debut novel, which I’ll be republishing later this month, is a Vila-Matasian, avant-garde page-turner of sorts. It tells the story of a fictitious Serbian art collective practicing in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Propped up with artwork by Darko Dragičević, the novel is so convincing in its execution that an extract I published in gorse was reviewed as an art essay, the critic saying they had never heard of the group before. Does that make “readymade” literature a joke, an art prank? Certainly not. There may be more than a few metafictional tricks and turns in John’s work, but readymade literature is not an imitation, it is literature.

Susan Tomaselli
Editor, gorse

A Story About an Unfinished Love Affair and Readymade Literature

“Emergency in Favor of Twice”

by John Holten

The artworld was always a safe place, a refuge and somewhere I was all to happy to retreat, and sure I’d curated one or two shows, written some exhibition reviews, took part in the wider game but I always considered myself a writer first and foremost. I never expected the artworld to present me with a conundrum I wouldn’t be able to solve, an emergency to which I would not recover. There was always a mystery as to what Duchamp’s first readymade was; note the interrogative what, not which or what ever happened to, although of course the younger sibling Fountain is famous for having been more than likely destroyed after Stieglitz’ iconic photograph of it. Then there is also the theory that Duchamp didn’t even choose the urinal but that it was the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who signed off as Monsieur Mutt. But who created or what happened to Fountain are not the problems on which this story turn: like so much art history of the last century, they are but the accidental and academic backdrop.

The story begins in Berlin. The bar was full with the neighborhood hipsters though that sounds like a slur I don’t intend to throw. Mostly they were just artists and music heads, people just getting by and working as much as they could in the city — which is to say obscurely or not at all — staying out late as if avoiding their under furnished sublets because to be in them at nighttime, that time of day so full of potential, would only make them lonely. I said hello to the few faces I recognized at the bar, people from my time here around 2011, 2012 and sat down and took in the drinking and conversing, the ordering of drinks and boisterous flirtations. But I don’t really want to talk about the bar. As much as that is possible seeing as I met her there, as I sat at the counter near to the entrance, pretending to myself that I was there to think through my next possible life moves. She was with a large contingent of Spanish speakers, Colombians mostly I learned later, together with the Spanish crowd from the Bartleby bookstore. Out of this profusion she sat down beside me and we got chatting in that interrupted parataxis so common to such a bar at such a time, the Berlin usuals: where we were from, how long had we been here, what did we do in life?

Me: Ireland; just passing through; a writer and curator.

Her: Argentina; two years; artist.

I lost her interest when instead of asking her follow up questions about herself as one is supposed to do and so make her talk about herself more, I stumbled trying to explain how I had lived here before but she didn’t seem to care and then, soon after, she was gone, lost to the back of the bar, lost among the jostling crowd, beyond those two deep waiting at the only available spot to order. The haze of inebriation, myriad lines of attention, attentions kaleidoscopic.

Out on the street I was smoking a bummed cigarette, swaying on my feet and taking in the steadiness of Sonnenallee, when she came from the side and reminded me we hadn’t properly introduced ourselves. Her name was Mina, an anachronistic name I found a tad surprising. Let’s get a coffee sometime? Sure, I said with obvious delight, or a drink. Or a drink, she smiled and turned and looked down the street, continuing to speak: I can tell you my secret theory of the readymade. It involves Duchamp obviously — she had turned back to face me, the trace of a smile lingering — and Borges. A literary art guy like you should love it. She said then we were the same: We’re the same you and me, we both have Irish blood and badly kept hair, our countries both know economic ruin and embarrassment and have lots of cows…

The night was warm and indistinct and I laughed at her cultural analogies. It was drunk hour and people remained neither inside nor outside the bar but rather seemed to be constantly moving between the two. Some women sat around a low table on plastic chairs laughing loudly but speaking quietly as if in mock efforts to respect the neighbors. Mina was talking to a group in Spanish. I finished my cigarette and left soon after for home.

I forgot that she had a theory of the readymade, all I remembered was her confidence. Some detective work on Facebook led me to her quickly enough, we had a dozen or so friends in common, mostly through people from the bookstore, and she used her real name: Mina Vismara. I guess I fancied her a little. She had wanted to meet me again and such was my weak position in the indifferent universe at the time that this was more than enough for me. At the time I was fairly convinced that one never actually meets interesting people in real life, that people are boring or annoying — they’re not like the populace of the novels we love as teenagers. Sure they can be smart and amusing but one has to really work hard in putting them all side by side, to line them up and evaluate their auras as it were and once you’ve done that you might just be able to say, yes, I have lived with the luck of meeting one or two interesting people. Otherwise, I think of Ann Cotten’s dictum: I’m no misanthrope, I just find the people I’m around annoying, stupid or overly glum.

A week or so later I found myself sitting across from Mina Vismara on a low stool in the same bar in which we had first met. I put my elbows on my knees and joined my hands together: I wanted to be open to her, to make her feel confident that she had my undivided attention. But then, like an alchemist, like Duchamp himself, she was going to start dividing everything, including the limits of my attention.

She started talking about graphic design and the books she liked to buy, about Willy Fleckhaus and how she came to Germany because she liked the U Bahn design. She said her favorite books were full of widows and orphans. That her mother gave her to her auntie to raise and she’s never gotten over this relinquishment (she asked me if this was the right word and I said I guessed so but wasn’t sure). She said that she was at the Venice Biennial in 2013 but she hadn’t gone into the German Pavilion, which was in fact that year housing the French Pavilion as both countries had decided to swap their fin de siècle abodes in the giardini. Post-nationalism in the giardini she said, the biggest doubling in contemporary art history! So it came about that Anri Sala was representing France as an Albanian in the German Pavilion. The queues had been very long. The artwork was called Ravel Ravel Unravel and she started to explain in great detail this artwork she apparently never saw. It was a three screen video-work in which two pianists play Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major which the pianist Paul Wittgenstein — naturally the brother to the philosopher Ludwig — had commissioned, one of many, after having had his right arm amputated during the First World War, a radical division as it were. The two renditions are slightly out of sync, creating a disharmony that is at times cacophonous and boisterous but also somehow elegiac as if reminding us that time is out of joint and history itself is unraveling. On a third screen a DJ tries to scratch these two versions together into a harmonious whole, which of course is impossible: people always forget what it is DJs actually do, she said with an exasperation that was a little startling. She said she had sat beside Sala during a dinner once and he was very charming and very smooth, he had a nice wristwatch and eyes that penetrated right through you such that she was deeply attracted to him but also repelled because she knew so many women must have felt the same concentrated attention he so easily dealt out, he was a man that knew exactly what time he had to get up at the next morning and what he had to do. Our primary sources exist online she said, what we have to play with are digital files. Did I lament the demise of books, she asked. I didn’t, I said, because there’s no demise. She demurred: I guess it’s true that we’re all still readers and always will be. Duchamp had explained, she went on, that the choosing of what became readymades was merely a little game between ‘I’ and ‘me’: he wanted to get away from his own tastes, his own eye for the pleasing or the more favorable, but of course to do so he had to fool himself and to limit the amount per year of readymades he would put out into the world. There were, after all, only 20 or so over his lifetime. Borges meant something similar, she said, with his late piece Borges and I: the public and the private persona, the most intimate doubling of them all, and to be in favor of entertaining yourself twice, once in solitude by way of collecting your favorite physical items or consuming food you find pleasing say, and a second by pleasing others around you and sharing the art you may create even in the quietest moments of your limited days — this was a fruitful way of going about life. She said: she remembered growing up in Buenos Aires and going on holidays each summer to the south near Mar del Plata and once upon returning home she had an existential crisis that left her paralytic in fear of having to grow up. She realized that she would one day lose her parents and that the annual ritual of the holidays by the beach would stop and that she would be an adult herself. This had made her cry and led to a talk with her mother in which she spoke of her fear of growing old. She has abandonment issues. She said her favorite musician was Andy Stott but this had nothing to do with what she wanted to tell me, which was her theory about Duchamp and how it included Borges and her hometown Buenos Aires.

It went something like that the first readymade by Duchamp wasn’t Fountain as people who don’t know anything falsely assume, or even Bicycle Wheel or Bottle Rack, but another work called Emergency in Favor of Twice and that the latter had never been photographed nor described in any way, the only thing that was known about it was its name, written by Duchamp in a letter to his sister Suzanne in 1914[1]. It was from Buenos Aires that he also wrote Suzanne in 1919 to mark her wedding with the instructions for her favorite readymade and which Roberto Bolaño used in 2666, and it was called The Unhappy Readymade. Which was a geometry book hung outside to be slowly destroyed by the elements. She started to talk about delay, as a concept, and that Emergency in Favor of Twice was about the same event that happens at different times. I started to lose her and my eyes roamed, first to take in the bar and then back to Mina and her crossed legs and I thought how male writers are always describing women in much the same way as men check them out and I grew ashamed. Ashamed to be a failed writer and ashamed to be a man in the world. But the truth was I had no idea any longer what she was talking about or why she had felt the need to meet me a second time and tell me any of this but I refocused my attention. She was saying that artist projects like Saâdane Afif’s Fountain Archive really bore her, or even annoy her — I started to think she was talking in circles — and that the real work to celebrate was Emergency in Favor of Twice because it demonstrated why Duchamp stopped painting, stopped making art and that decision, to stop making first retinal art and then art altogether and spend his life playing chess and making the odd art deal here and there, was where the real meaning lay. Then a remarkable thing happened: she asked me about my writing and I told her a little about it and how I also edited a book or two ‘a couple of years ago’ and she grew quiet and let me talk and the more I talked the more I realized what failure sounded like and how the best thing to do was stop writing immediately.

We left each other with a warm enough embrace but it was perhaps not what I was hoping for. I may have loved her but it was clear I didn’t have the attention span to love her, and in any case, she would never love me back. We both stood up at the same time and the hug we gave each other was light and fleeting now that I think of it, I suppose you could even call it business like. It was still evening and not yet night and the bar was quiet and the street outside seemed empty. I’ll be in touch, she said, I’ll try and make sure to get you further evidence. She was grinning, checking her pockets that she had everything, whilst also keeping her head held high and I thought how she was almost about to break into laughter and while that may make her seem aggressive or dismissive right at that moment, as if she was merely playing me for a fool, it was in fact the very opposite of those things and I thought she was like a fire engine whose call-out was a false alarm, its siren and lights growing silent and dark, returning meekly to its station. Emergency in favor of twice, I said suddenly, it could also mean something like a false alarm. You know, like the boy who called wolf. No, she said, I don’t think so. It doesn’t mean anything at all, that’s the point, it means everything and nothing and this alone gives a clue to the possibility of its existence. It lies innately in the world, just as surely as you’re going to go to the toilet at some point tonight, after I leave you’re going to keep drinking and at some point you’re going to piss into the descendant of Fountain and you will continue to live in this artwork, to make it real like Brian Eno did with Fountain (he claims he pissed in it at the Whitney), this is the function of the readymade artwork…Seguro azar. Certain chance.

She was right about me pissing in the urinal, in fact no sooner had she breathed out the door leaving the faint hum of the poetry of Pedro Salinas like a waning electric filament than I had gone into the toilet to relieve myself, only curiously there wasn’t actually a urinal of the ceramic kind of Fountain’s ilk, there were buckets, two black plastic buckets sat suspended in a wooden sort of table and one pissed straight into them at the bullseye at the bottom, a metal, domestic plughole. A quaint DIY urinal in a dive bar, one that was trying all too hard. The night that followed I cannot recall but I’m certain it went the route such nights must travel.

I left the city soon after and spent time in Birmingham on a residency, then to Glasgow, Dublin. I was listless and bored and gradually over time I had become fearful of making false equivalences so that I couldn’t enjoy one thing more than another without succumbing to a reading, or a viewing, or a listening that I felt was unjust to the work at hand, a priori. I would listen to an Arcade Fire song and think I could intuit the vestiges of a James Turrell work from the 1980s or I would read Tom McCarthy and spend the entire book scratching notes in the margins like ‘Robbe-Grillet’ or ‘Warhol’ — the inverse of how he probably wrote and this obvious and fickle distillation of mine made me depressed and ultimately unable to enjoy reading.

It is true that I saw doubling and delay everywhere and the meeting with Mina stayed in my mind and I would think about this missing artwork and what emergency lay behind Duchamp’s word games. Each time I was back in Berlin I would look her up but as it was we would always miss each other, she would be back in Argentina on some obscure business trip or preoccupied or simply silent, replying only weeks later with a short apology and a blossoming of energy that would carry my interest in her just a little while longer: she was a consummate charmer, of this I had no doubt.

My career, such that it existed at all, was in free fall and I wasn’t writing a thing. In Dublin I moved in with a friend from my college days, this was just last autumn and I tried to juggle making rent-money with serious efforts to undertake the burden of writing a novel. I thought of Mina (I wrote the words SEGURO AZAR in large print on the wall above my desk) and played with Cagean efforts of chance and randomness. When I realized I was in danger of plagiarizing Perec I took up playing Go with a maniac’s enthusiasm in the hope of purging him. I was clearly losing my grip on things. The writing spiraled off and fizzled out in several directions, never really catching light. The money jobs came and went: bartending, sales, bike courier. I realized I was sinking. I made plans for London, New York. I even thought about returning to Paris where I had started out almost a decade before. I thought about curating something, some exhibition that looked at the readymade from a new perspective. I just didn’t know what that perspective would be.

Around this time I finally read through Calvin Tomkin’s strangely arid biography of Duchamp and not without surprise I noted that the man had no interaction with Ireland whatsoever, and as far as I can see I mean that: none. Nada. In my despair I feared for population explosion, seeing how much smaller the world was 100 years before. Joyce and Duchamp were connected through the figure of John Quinn, the New York lawyer and art collector, who, via Pound, was a patron of Joyce; for Duchamp, Quinn was an integral actor in the first Armory Show and instrumental in getting Duchamp from Paris to New York.

I grew cynical.

‘After Duchamp it is no longer possible to be an artist in the way it was before.’ And the same could go for Joyce. Why exactly write a novel after Ulysses? What did any of this mean? My favorite sneer to anyone who would listen to me was that nobody knew what to do with the readymade in literature, found text and the individual talent, the only example I could find in Ireland was of Joseph fucking O’Connor writing out sentences of John McGahern. In some of the most difficult, cringe inducing passages of reading I’ve ever encountered, O’Connor writes about how he became a writer and one almost reads through your fingers at the sheer intellectual and literary parochialism of it all, as if Pierre Menard had never existed, had never opened Cervantes, as if the actions of a 16-year-old boy should be paraded anew as an adult with the excuse of the former’s innocent naivety.[2]

But I didn’t wish to wallow in this cynicism, god knows there are enough frustrated and mediocre writers out there that I didn’t need to add to their numbers. And besides the story played out elegantly: Mina sent me a message on Instagram, it was an image of a chess game with each player having just two pieces left on the board, caught in suspended delay, her thumb scribbling the words over it in bright blue. And that was it: the first readymade was predicated to solve the conundrum between determinism and free will. Borges taught us that, and Duchamp knew it from playing chess, which he had really got into in Argentina and from which, chess and the parsimony of geometry, he would never really escape. When he did it was just to reprise everything that had gone before. And this is when I’m supposed to outline my epiphany, give it a frame so it is all the more believable yet still shrouded in happenstance mystery: I was looking out the window when I thought I saw the blond of Vismara’s hair. Or, making coffee the thought suddenly came to me as I poured in the water. But, dear reader, no such moment exists. Made-up epiphanies and pious metaphor are — one last false equivalence — to writing what retinal art is to the conceptual. I would never write again and this story would be my last, and that was a good thing.

[1] 15th January approximately. My dear Suzanne, A huge thank you for having taken care of everything for me. But why didn’t you take my studio and go and live there? I’ve only just thought of it. Though I think, perhaps, it wouldn’t do for you. In any case, the lease is up 15th July and if you were to renew it, make sure you ask the landlord to let it 3 months at a time, the usual way. He’s bound to agree. Perhaps Father wouldn’t mind getting a term’s rent back if there’s a possibility you’ll be leaving La Condamine by 15th April. But I don’t know anything about your plans and I’m only making a suggestion. Now, if you have been up to my place, you will have seen, in the studio, a bicycle wheel and a bottle rack. I bought this as a ready-made sculpture. And I have a plan concerning this so-called bottle rack. Listen to this: here, in N.Y., I have bought various objects in the same taste and I treat them as “readymades.” You know enough English to understand the meaning of “ready-made” that I give these objects. I sign them and I think of an inscription for them in English. I’ll give you a few examples. I have, for example, a large snow shovel on which I have inscribed at the bottom: In advance of the broken arm, French translation: En avance du bras casé. Don’t tear your hair out trying to understand this in the Romantic or Impressionistic or Cubist sense — it has nothing to do with all that. Another “readymade” is called: Emergency in favor of twice, possible French translation: Danger Crise en faveur de 2 fois. This long preamble just to say: take the bottle rack for yourself. I’m making it a “Readymade,” remotely. You are to inscribe it at the bottom and on the inside of the bottom circle, in small letters painted with a brush in oil, silver white color, with an inscription which I will give you herewith, and then sign it, in the same handwriting as follows: [after] Marcel Duchamp. [Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk, eds.; Jill Taylor, trans. Affectionately | Marcel: The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion Press, 2000, 43–44.]

[2] ‘Whenever I tried to write, there was only frustration. One evening, in dismal hopelessness, I found myself copying out “Sierra Leone” word for word. I ached to write a story. So I wrote one of his. I must have felt that the act of writing would make the words somehow mine. I suppose it was comparable to aspirant pop-stars throwing shapes and pulling pouts in the bathroom mirror. But something richer and more interesting was going on, too. McGahern was teaching me to read, not to write: to see the presences hidden in the crannies of a text, the realities the words are gesturing towards. Perhaps this is what pulses at the core of the desire to read: the yearning for intense communion with words we love. Not just with what they are saying, but with the words themselves. Perhaps every reader is re-writing the story.’ The Guardian, August 5, 2008

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