An Artist And An Art Historian Talk The Importance Of CAM And The Dada Movement

The upcoming Dada Ball & Bash—a benefit for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM)—carries a level of meaning uncommon to many fundraising events of its kind. The Dada movement itself was developed in the early 20th century by a group of artists who were disillusioned by World War I. It then crossed the Atlantic where it flourished in the burgeoning New York art scene, thus making its mark on the Old and New World. St. Louis-based artist Cole Lu, co-chair of the evening’s after-party Dada Bash, says “It’s not only about the visual absurdity. CAM’s Dada Ball & Bash is about inclusion. You can be as loud as you want. There’s no shaming, judging or labeling. That should be the spirit and way of being right now.”

Lu, originally from Taiwan, found a home in the fabric of the arts community in St. Louis after choosing to complete her MFA at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. She frequently works with found and ready-made objects, recombining them in ways that suggest ideas about the forming of an identity. One piece titled “Thinking the word ‘somewhere’ meditatively as both placeholder and ends (Self-portrait),” is a large three-dimensional collage, combining a stock image background of paradise, a fake potted plant, a reupholstered chair, piles of fortune cookies and an image of a burger with a bun made out of rice—a common item at McDonald’s in Asia from the ’90s until the early 2000s. Lu remembers eating them as a kid. “This three-dimensional collage is by far the most literal piece I’ve made about my identity and longing for inclusion,” she says.

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Thinking the word ‘somewhere’ meditatively as both placeholder and ends (Self-portrait) by Cole Lu

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Although her work is not created with a Dada aesthetic in mind, she admires the movement as an inspiration and model for modern social change. “I love that Dada is about flipping the status quo. If you’re not happy with the pre-existing social system, you create your own. I think of Dadaism as the origin of many movements: Happenings, Fluxus, Punk, then later the Feminist and Queer movement, the Beat Generation, and many more.”

Bradley Bailey, associate professor of art history at Saint Louis University and Marcel Duchamp scholar, notes how the artists behind the Dada movement were looking to subvert institutional ideas about what art was and could be, albeit not always in the most tactful way—which was the point. “These artists were looking for new and different ways to express themselves in highly radical ways through visual culture that was intended to put you off and to challenge you to accept what they presented as art,” says Bailey. For example, Duchamp, one of the pioneers of Dada, famously submitted a urinal signed “R. Mutt” and titled “Fountain” to the exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.

In a controversial decision, the committee decided not to display the urinal. Yet Duchamp’s wicked sense of humor and underlying thoughtful provocation were not lost on his peers or the public. “It shows what Dada was all about,” says Bailey. “CAM is also about challenging expectations and introducing people to new and different ways of thinking about things. Both are oftentimes trying to undermine people’s expectations of what art is, how it should operate, and how it should be experienced.”

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Dada stands as a historical marker—the avant-garde beginnings of the artist as political commentator, conceptualist and provocateur. CAM also exhibits many artists who take on these roles, even as they are not always welcomed by the society at large. “That’s a chance you take when you’re introducing something new that people aren’t used to,” says Bailey.

Attendees to CAM’s upcoming Dada Ball & Bash will undoubtedly experience the never-before-seen—especially with the “absurdist couture” dress code. It’s all involved in one evening that is part homage, part fundraiser, part dinner, part dance party—part anything else you can think of.

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This post has been brought to you in part by the mentioned organization. Thank you for supporting the companies that keep ALIVE growing. Photos courtesy of those listed.

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