Essay 4: Black Atolls: Tom Dale's Guide to a Galaxy
New York, 18 August 1918
In August 1918, during the First World War, Marcel Duchamp abandoned America for neutral Buenos Aires. This was neither his first nor his last self-imposed exile or displacement. A self-conscious antimilitarist, he systematically avoided any probable encounter with military recruitment during the two Great Wars, travelling between Europe and the United States accordingly.
One strange drawing, a sort of nautical chart dedicated to his friend Florine Stettheimer, serves to illustrate the trip he was about to make. Where Buenos Aires features on the map, Duchamp placed a large question mark in seeming affirmation of his nomadic nature: “I leave tomorrow for Buenos Aires for a year or 2 [sic], with no particular goal and without knowing a soul over there.” With him on the journey, he is taking the Sculpture de Voyage, one of the first installations of the 20th century – coloured rubber shower caps cut into strips, glued and hung with strings from the ceiling and on the walls, forming a peculiar cobweb. A nomadic work, made to travel, which, a few years later, disintegrated due to its fragile composition. Its form depended solely on the space and time in which it was installed, an ever-changing work – and consequently one with an ambiguous identity that transformed with every installation. The photographs witnessing its existence show a bizarre spatial grid generated from the cast shadows, les ombres portées, of the rubber strips, tangled with those of the readymades hanging in Duchamp’s studio.
In Buenos Aires, Duchamp created a number of other enigmatic works, such as the transparent To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. A magnifying lens, an oculist chart and a pyramid in three-dimensional perspective, compose the work – a precursor of the three oculist witnesses or the three “occultist” witnesses of the Large Glass. A night photo shows this small work made of glass hanging from a rope on a balcony, overlooking the South American city. It functions as a transmitter or receiver of signals, an autonomous but also an intermediate surface, a mapped system (medium-place-time-energy).
Another Buenos Aires work, the Handmade Stereopticon Slide, is a stereoscopic slide demonstrating Duchamp’s interest in three-dimensional effects produced through two-dimensional media: it features a pyramid and its reflection drawn in pencil on a seascape horizon. Viewed with a stereoscope or stereoscopic glasses, this double pyramid seems to float on the water, challenging once more the apparent spatial reality.
Perhaps, it is the Unhappy Readymade, the wedding present to his sister Suzanne, an Euclidean geometry book sent to her from Buenos Aires to Paris by post, hung (again) with ropes from her balcony and surrendered to the elements of nature –getting wet, fading and being torn apart– which reveals how problematic a conventional spatio-temporal categorization, classification and identification of the world is, while simultaneously, through its decomposition, activating a separate field of understanding and recording.
Nicosia, 4 November 2015
In November 2015, in times of [artistic] mobility and dislocations of all kinds, Tom Dale generated a series of complex nebulae, a new body of enigmatic work entitled Black Atolls, inside NiMAC’s exhibition space in Nicosia, Cyprus. Unlike Duchamp, Dale chooses to be not too far away from the troubled realities in the Mediterranean: before coming to Nicosia, the capital of the postcolonial island of Cyprus, he had a short residency in Izmir, Turkey, one of the places from where some of the refugee “boats” depart.
On the other hand, Dale comes from Great Britain, where he lives and works permanently. Although the exhibition at NiMAC was presented before the referendum on the Brexit, it should be stressed that this text was completed after this important event. Observing Dale’s works and perspective retrospectively, we can see that the Mediterranean dimension that the artist originally attributed to his installations, acquire a much broader, more universal and [perhaps] more tragic dimension.
One could argue that the Mediterranean, this “liquid continent”, is “the irrational underbelly that brings disorder, border breaching, colonial phantoms, and an uncanny claim to a common, mythically glorious, ancient past.” On the other hand, the tragedies currently taking place in this enclosed sea, bring again to the fore its importance as an extremely political and politicised space. This multifaceted and complicated entity, for years marginalised in western eyes as an orientalist haven of corruption and backwardness, has become again an obvious and unavoidable focus of political action.
For his Mediterranean endeavours, Dale proposes an intricate travel guide, a spatio-temporal map of his nebulae, albeit in a duchampian manner. His research focuses upon how evidence of these nebulae and the undefined space of exchange, where signs, symbols, images, and abstract information mix freely, manifests itself.
Dale’s [intergalactic] Mediterranean journey takes off on a small one-propeller aircraft; one of those that carry adverts along the beach. Terminal Blue is a giant-sized colour swatch towed across the sky by an airplane, which details the shift of colour from dark blue to light blue. The work invites the spectator to define the colour of the sky on that particular day. Using commercially available colours and names, the work asks us to name or define the infinite. Would the passengers of “the boats” be able to identify the colour of the sky or that of the sea? How can we, therefore, determine the colour frequency of infinity? In fact, are we in a position to do so? Is infinity the end? This is the question that arises as we enter this visual labyrinth.
Soon afterwards, we are welcomed by an inflated giant and fury architectural spider, produced using unconventional material. This modular construction entitled Last Night Was Different, takes its inspiration from Sol Lewitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes series (1974). The work takes a rational or logical approach and complicates it by making an object to which there is an immediate response or gut reaction. Last Night was Different acts as a meeting point between the rational and the irrational. After all, this is reflected in the entire world of Dale, which, in this particular instance, has many similarities with the world of Marcel Duchamp. This is the point where a subtle (or not so subtle) irony meets the point where the beginning starts and the end is finished.
However, this fury artistic construction is not the only “trap” hidden in Dale’s universe. The next stop of this strange spatio-temporal circuit, Dale’s ombres portées, takes the form of a greyish show jumping course inside the exhibition space. According to Dale, using show jumping fences that are both an obstacle and a corporate advert, the work is interested in the ways we use language to give meaning. Drained of their original colour [and painted in an indistinct grey], the sculptures [which act like shadows] still retain some of the energy and excitement of this intended use. However, Light of Dead Stars (which is how the installation is called) considers the way in which language is both limiting and liberating. The work highlights the threat of homogenising cultural meaning and identity. At the same time, this monochromatic maze projects its greyish three dimensional shadows on the white space of the gallery acting like a section of another, fourth dimensional reality. A reality whose coordinates we can only sense while walking through this labyrinthine construct. What we perceive as homogenised [and mutilated], could act as a threshold to an inconceivable [and exciting and funny] experience.
Light of Dead Stars leads to a dale of atolls, Dale’s Split Atoll, Double Cache, an installation lying in the heart of the exhibition space. Atolls are very small areas of land in the sea that often only break the surface of the water. They are statistically and politically of more importance than their actual size. Rising from the floor and extending from the walls, a series of “Atolls” or sculptural tableaux use carpets taken from a mixture of abandoned and condemned interior spaces. Incisions into the body of the carpets open them out to operate like portals to redundant destinations, dead ends for hopes and aspirations. For the artist, they are objects that problematise images, highlighting the way in which too quickly images become the definition of an object or experience, but also a mask for it. Taking as its starting point the modern man-made ruins –the modern deserted architectural constructions– scattered across the landscape, Dale’s research documents and presents the ways in which it is possible to live and negotiate with this abstract space on a day-to-day level.
Somehow prophetically, these “condemned sculptures” look like deserted small islands in the white ocean of the gallery floor. And despite their “Mediterranean” origin, these strange building zombies, abandoned and mutilated, can only evoke (in retrospect, of course) the memory of another [larger] island which marginally decided to “take its fate in its own hands”.
Deeper in this intergalactic journey, we encounter multiple facets of the artist’s restless personality. A sonic cacophony welcomes us at the next stop. The Vanishing Mediator is a sound installation made up of field recordings of crowds and audiences at different events. At times, individual voices can be heard, while at others the crowd speaks in a unified way. Throughout the recording, it is hard to distinguish the force and the direction of the words being spoken by the crowds.
The confusion caused is somewhat made more subtle by the meditative character of the video Leaf Blowers. The banal task of collecting leaves takes on a meditative dimension as the sound of the two leaf blowers moves between harmony and disharmony. The film is interested in how mundane tasks can become something more contemplative and personal. It also considers the way in which we are able to find a space for ourselves within the demands of work.
Right after this, comes Dale’s work After London, a film narrated by a London tour guide, who hasn’t given this specific tour of London for eight years. It is a combination of personal and cultural history, which highlights the struggle to negotiate these two very different forms of understanding of the past.
In an open space during the tour in Dale’s galaxy, an intense white light illuminates small sculptures that seem to tease and play with our senses. One such instance is the Variations of Touch. A wall construction consisting of a pair of blinds behind which similar objects are arranged in different ways, sometimes reflecting and other times contradicting one another. The work illustrates the process of simple question and answer that takes place as ideas are formed.
Next to it, on a white museum pedestal, lies a stone with a small flashing red light. Is it a talisman with magical properties? Could it be a meteorite from a distant galaxy? Dale’s work Rock On-Standby resembles a sculpture that considers the ways in which in our days we expect all objects to be animated in some way or another. The flashing light could possibly have a more humane and down-to-earth meaning: it is reminiscent of household appliances that are ready to entertain us or perform some repetitive or menial task.
The last stop may perhaps conceal the tragic truth of this journey. A journey about man, with man but yet without man. The film Feeding Machines shows a moving escalator operating in an abandoned mall of the 1980s packed with empty clothes: pants, shirts, jackets. The shift from one level down to another takes on an altogether more loaded interpretation when empty clothing accumulates at the bottom of the escalator. The clothing and the relentlessness of the escalator suggest the fragile relationship between the individual and social mechanisms that organise them. Arbeit macht frei?
The journey is concluded with Dale’s work A Cage for Voices, which is a new film work made underwater in Izmir, Turkey. The work may be considered as much a sound work as it is a film. Disembodied voices narrate the slow fall of rocks thrown into the ocean, whilst boats pass overhead. Filmed from the seabed to the sea surface, the film monitors this silent ritual over and over. A journey that seems to never end. And one that portends many, too many, countless repetitions. Just as in the case of the moving escalator, this repetitive sequence records slowly and steadily the path to the end. Somewhere here the happy and unhappy readymades of Tom Dale seem to understand very well how problematic a conventional perception of the world is. Marcel Duchamp folds the map, the plane lands, the decomposition continues...
 Duchamp, Marcel, Adieu à Florine, 1918. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Jacqueline, Peter and Paul Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp.
 Duchamp, Marcel, Letter to Francis Picabia, 13 August 1918, New York, in Affect Marcel. The Selected Correspondence of Marcel Duchamp, Francis M. Naumann and Hector Obalk (eds.), London, Thames and Hudson, 2000.
 Demos, T.J., The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, The MIT Press, 2007, p. 73.
 Duchamp, Marcel, 1918. Oil paint, silver leaf, lead wire, and magnifying lens on cracked glass. Katherine S. Dreier Bequest (150.1953). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
 Toumazis, Yiannis, Marcel Duchamp, Artiste Androgyne, Doctoral Thesis, Amiens, Université de Picardie Jules Verne, 2009, p. 274.
 Duchamp, Marcel, Handmade Stereopticon Slide, 1918. Rectified readymade: pencil over photographic stereopticon slide in cardboard mount. Katherine S. Dreier Bequest (150.1953). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
 Duchamp, Marcel, Unhappy Readymade, 1918. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Jacqueline, Peter and Paul Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp.
 Available at: https://rivistapolitics.wordpress.com/cfp/cfp-5/eng/ [Accessed 10 January 2017].