From an artist to Pro-engineer
Marcel Duchamp's Optical
From the beginning of the 1920s to the early 1930s, Duchamp was fascinated by the idea of movement and that of how the movement directed our retinal impression.
Throughout the decade, he made several works closely related
to the experiments of retinal effects. It was in 1920, with the assistance
of Man Ray, Duchamp built the Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics),
the first motorized optical machine demonstrating the continuity of
This optical device was composed of five glass plates painted in black and white linesmounted on an electrically operated metal axis. Seen from the distance of one meter, the machine would create the illusion of continuous concentric circles all on one plane, when the apparatus is in motion. In the dialogues with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp once addressed that, Precision Optics “was in fact one of the first ‘things’ I made after I go back to New York....when you looked at it from a certain point, it all fell together and made up a single pattern. While the motor was running, the lines gave the effect of continuous black and white circles, very hazy, as you can imagine.” And, “Everything I did as an engineer was with motors I bought. The idea of movement was what preoccupied me.” (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp, New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1967, pp. 63-4)
Three years later, Duchamp attempted other experiment to embody his idea. By using a turntableof a record player to study the effects of a revolving spiral, Disks Bearing Spirals (1923) achieved a striking impression of a three-dimensional depth. On seven irregularly cut white papers disks, he drew a series of spirals in ink and paint, and then mounted on blue paper disk attached to square cardboard. Disk Bearing Spirals envisioned the motif that would appear in Rotary Demisphere (1925), and in the film Anémic Cinema (1925-26).
In 1935, Duchamp finished the Rotoreliefs, the final version of these optical devices. Six disks painted on both sides, on one side appeared a new drawing for each disk, while on the other side of each shows the eccentric-circle derived from the earlier versions.
Later, a wall-hanging unit was added in the edition of
Duchamp recalled, "using the same procedure, I found a
way of getting objects in relief. Thanks to an offhand perspective,
that is, as seen from below or from the ceiling, you got a thing which,
in concentric circles, forms the image of a real object, like a soft-boiled
egg, like a fish turning around in a fishbowl; you see the fishbowl
in three-dimension. What interest me most was that it was a scientific
phenomenon which existed in another way than when I had found it.
I saw an optician at that time who told me, ‘The thing is used to
restore sight to one-eyed people, or at least the impression of three-dimension,'
Because, it seems, they lost it." (Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues With Marcel