Chance, Collage, Ready-mades, Juxtaposition and Condensation

Chance is the strange process that allowed the Dadaists to challenge the ideas of originality and authorship and also afforded them the opportunity to create within a framework of strange and unique expression.  Chance is the act of finding objects and building them together to form unique creations.  This process was developed among all of the Dadaists, but explored heavily among Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp in the creation of art and was used by Hans Arp, Hugo Ball, and several others in writing. Chance was key to works such as dada poems, ready-mades and collages. They act of chance along with the creation of writing and collage within dada and chance also employed several theories.  Such as juxtaposition and condensation, then using those to arrive at art created in pure form by the subconscious.

To further explain chance, it is useful to look at how it was used among a few creators in the dada movement.  Looking at the work of Marcel Duchamp one can see how he took chance materials and assembled them into ready-mades.  His readymade is a key example of chance as applied to sculpture.  In the process of creation he picked arbitrary dates and times at which he decided that he would take the first object he saw at that moment and use in it in his readymade, thereby negating the influence of aesthetics and personal preference.   Duchamp is quoted as saying,

         “I had to pick an object without it impressing me and, as far as possible, without the least intervention of any idea of
        suggestion of aesthetic pleasure.  It was necessary to reduce my personal taste to zero.  It is very difficult to select an
        object that has absolutely no interest to us not only on the day we pick it but which never will and which, finally, can
        never have the possibility of becoming beautiful, pretty, agreeable, or ugly.”

This quote shows that even chance has its negative aspects and it not necessarily chance, but by then acting in revolt to his instinctual artist sensibilities he still does create “anti-art” and is still being dada.
 The true intent of chance was to allow the artist to create something that can be completed by the viewer, an object whose meaning is finished and contextualized by the viewer and not by the creator or the culture.  Duchamp discussed this in a lecture he gave entitled “The Creative Act”.

        “…All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external
        world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contributions to the creative act. This
        becomes even more obvious when posterity gives final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.”

So in effect, even after the creation of chance art, the process of creating through chance continues.  The viewer, and who views the work are by chance seeing it and contributing their own creative powers to the work, thereby broadening chance into the entire works existence, rather than simply into its formation.
 In reference to chance as seen by Max Ernst chance can be said to be the act of employing random, accidental stimuli to awaken patterns within the subconscious of the artist and in turn the artist can record these patterns at the conscience level.   Chance is a method of arriving at some sort of destination or conclusion without allowing oneself to color the work with the faults of human perception and taint it with quotidian ideas of what reality is and should be.  He was trying to find a technique of representation beyond conventional techniques and this did not simply determine the tone of his work, but it became an indisposable part of the work.   Ernst was trying to see the world with “closed eyes” , representing his wishes to tap into the underlying meanings behind the real: to dig into the subconscious and express that super reality, which to the Dadaists and even more so to the Surrealists, would be a higher vision of truth.

 The idea of chance is a key element in Ernst’s collages.  The collage is an arrangement of found objects, found meaning randomly collected, and then are assembled in a sort of “chance meeting” often in a strange sort of association that tends to represent the subconscious.  Ernst was a student of abnormal psychology from 1910 to 1914 at the University of Bonn and he has been noted as reading many of Freud’s works in Bonn during this time and among the two most influential were Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious and The Interpretation of Dreams.   Chance is actually a vehicle through which the unconscious mind can be explored and it also served as a way for the Ernst and other artists in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements to access forms and themes which would attempt to dissolve ties to the material, representative world of the old art.

A common theme running through Ernst’s works is that of a polarization of meanings and objects and a condensation of meaning, which occurs through that process or polarizing.  It is the association between the constructive and the destructive, the rational and irrational, the beautiful and the ugly, the dead and alive, sight and not seeing which defines the experience of the juxtaposition of Ernst.   The juxtaposition of disparate images has an intense visual presence and influence in many of the collages.  The association between objects like birds and people have a connotation that is not easily understandable, but at the same time is related enough to evoke emotions such as terror, disbelief, and confusion.  These images also evoke an idea of the dream and the subconscious mind.

Condensation is a mechanism proposed by Freud by which condenses multiple words most of his work.  Using condensation, Ernst took images that did not expressly belong together and he forced them into strange associations and juxtaposed them to bring new meanings to the materials and images involved.  This is much like Freud did when he proposed the idea of condensation, but he was using word associations.  According to Freud, condensation is the pushing together of two or more words into a new word of phrase so that each original elements keeps its own nature while still playing off the others.   A good example would be the word “alcoholidays”, which is an association between the holiday season and the secular drunkenness through which they are approached today.   Ernst took this idea and used it to create intense images that interact in extraordinary ways.

In terms of writing, chance was used in ways that allowed poems and stories to be created in a way that gave up traditional notions of authorship. Often times writers like Tristan Tzara would take newspapers and cut them up and mix up the words to form new poems without even really consciously manipulating them.  Other forms of Dadaist writing allowed for lists of words to be formed and then placing those against words that seemingly have little meaning forming strange chance juxtapositions.  Other dada poems take strings of images and form-entangling stories that make little sense, but have meanings that the reader can feel.  Finally, sound poems are words created for their sounds and are intended to try to arrive at a universal unconscious meaning through the sounds, which they make.  Writing in dada was based mostly on performance and most of it was meant to be performed at the forerunner of “happenings”.  The dada chance poems also function much as a readymade does, in that it removes the idea of authorship and originality from the poem.

 All in all, dada as a movement serves to employ theories to create new art, which opens up the previous narrow vision of art forms to a new sense of vitality and energy.  This newfound dynamism propelled creative forms forward from their previously stagnating location and influenced representation within western culture for the next century.

Dada The Name

Dada as a name is often attributed to the success of the movement and its thwarting of ism status which had promoted and damned other movements for their entire existence.  In being non-ismic originally, dada found freedom and at the same time, the simplistic name of child-like babble intrigued the public.  The success of Dada can be found in the name dada.  The term is an archaic French word for a wooden horse.   Perhaps this is an allusion to sneaking around in a Trojan horse destined to change the face of modern culture.  This connection to something childlike binds the masses to the idea and feeling of dada.  There has to be an inner connection that strikes the souls of those who feel its presence.   This connection is what dada possessed that many past movements did not.


When dada stated that it was anti-art and then preceded to produce volumes of art, many people saw this as an inherent contradiction in dada philosophy.  To be more accurate, one should use the term anti-traditional art.  The dada group saw themselves as the arbiters of a new taste and a new aesthetic. They were choosing to represent through not representing anything.  This black hole of art can be seen as the triumph of freedom in artistic representation.
 Anti-art was a reaction and a solution to the narrow focus of represent art forms.  Dada’s total refute of art served to free it from rules, precepts, money and critical praise, thereby allowing it to create at will and without constraint.   The absence of exterior stimulus and alterior motives found in the freedom of the movement enabled the dadaists to listen to the voice of the “unknown” and to take power in it, thereby arriving at the central experience of dada.
 Anti-art was not the production of no art at all or a stance denouncing the viability of art and its role in society.  Anti-art was against traditional art and the traps of patronage.  Anti-art was a tool, which allowed the Dadaists to develop new, free forms of art and to promote new values and techniques within representation.

Role of the Artist

Within the context of dada, the role of the artist changed dramatically.  In previous movements in art, the artist was the genius, whose creative powers were what made art and what made culture.  As seen in previous essays within this page, the role of the dada artist is shown to be that of making social change and making things happen not because they possess some great creative potential that most people do not, but because they were in the right place at the right time employing the idea of chance, finding art and literature in the most unlikely places.  In dada the artist is not a creator, but an assembler of some great collage, the likes of which could have been built by many men, but was not.  The dada artist is just another person making objects.

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