Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Stairing Contest

by Drew Martin
Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2 (pictured left) is one of the most influential paintings in the history of modern art. Duchamp reinterpreted Eadweard Muybridge's sequence of a naked woman walking down a flight of stairs from his 1887 Animal Locomotion (pictured above).

Duchamp combined Futurist and Cubist ideas in a unique way and depicted movement through fragmentation. Most viewers weren't impressed by its showing in the 1913 New York Armory Show. In fact, the piece was mocked, much to the Frenchman's delight.

I like looking at this painting now in a different light. We cater our movements and behavior to our environment. It is a Darwinian idea that follows us all the way into our homes. Furnishings, architecture and the details of urban planning effect our posture, sense of space and movements.

Stairs are arguably one of the most loaded of all the architectural impositions on nature because there is a visual disruption, which is geometric and fragmented, but there is also a distortion in corporeal articulation: ascending and descending them causes the body to move in a very mechanical way. Perhaps we all harbor memories of the dangers of stairs from when we were toddlers but I think our reaction is much more complicated. It is interesting to look at how stairs are used in art.

For Maurits Cornelis Escher, they were a kind of visual madness: the ultimate labyrinth with no solution (pictured right). For filmmakers such as Sergei Eisentstein (Battleship Potemkin, pictured at bottom) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho...), stairs are the stage for suspense and carnage. For the Aztecs this morbidity was much more real: the sacrificed bodies, with torn out hearts, were kicked down the steep steps of the pyramid temples for onlookers to fear.

To say the stair is metaphoric and symbolic is simply too superficial. Humans gravitate towards organic forms and seem to tolerate geometric intrusions, which are usually met, then ingrained, with tension and anxiety. Duchamp unconsciously gets at the earliest reaction to stairs without the emotional layering we see in much of film and the visual arts.