July 28

Marcel Duchamp (b. 1887)


Your high school art teacher argued that a cubist painting might depict the world more accurately than traditional, representational artwork.  Consider the various angles presented at once, she would say, to represent the movement of bodies through space.

In one example she projected a slide of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”  In the image, a crowded blur of wood-colored shapes seemed pasted one above the other, with vague hints of human features appearing along a left to right downward descent: an arm with a balled fist, the curve of a buttock, a bent knee and the arch of a foot.

But you’d seen nude pictures in magazines, and on Internet sites.  And, of course, you knew what your own body looked like.  Duchamp’s image looked nothing like a nude person, descending a staircase or otherwise, and modern theories of art and perspective and the relativity of time and space weren’t likely to change your mind.

Then, years later, a bizarre aurora appeared in the sky over your country.  It was a harmless meteorological event, you were told, similar to the colorful aurora that appeared in the Earth’s polar regions:  a beautiful display of shifting blues and pinks and greens in a curtain of swirls and waveforms.  Along with other residents, you had climbed to the roof of your apartment building to get the best view.  As you watched the changes in your night sky, you gave little thought to the scientific principles involved (something to do with charged particles in the atmosphere, solar wind and magnetic disturbances).  It was a free show, and you were happy to enjoy it.

At some point, the other tenants in your building grew tired or bored, and they headed toward the roof exit to return to their respective apartments.  As your neighbors walked away, some after effect of the aurora created an optical illusion:  their bodies blurred and swirled and stretched over time, like colorful images of themselves pasted over each other again and again.

You ran after them, shouted, Are you seeing this, too?…and the roof shifted beneath you, eight blurring spider legs spinning from your torso, and the exit door turned into a checkerboard of light and dark, a formerly straight staircase spiraling deep into the building.  You reach out with your hand to touch a firm surface, to steady yourself, and your hand has too many fingers, and you see the back of your hand and the palm at the same time, and now your mind is spinning, too, like the strange display in the atmosphere, and you realize that the aurora has transformed your world into a cubist painting.