Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History is an exposé of the conflict between conscious and unconscious forces. The slim book contains a short but dense text that sketches out Dada’s preoccupation with the present, during a period when Europe was being buffeted between regrets for the nasty past and appeals to a revolutionary utopian future. Both these sentiments are problematized here through the Dada insistence on the “continuous now.” As the author Maria Stavrinaki, Associate Professor of Art History and Theory at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, says: “Dadaist presentism revolted against any commemorative appropriation of a flawlessly coherent history.”
Still, Stavrinaki presents a rather lucid reflection on Dada history and the role of art within it via the Berlin-based Dadaists’ acute historical consciousness and their early modern experience of time. Mostly she explores Dada temporalities through the photographs of the Berlin Dada movement, including the famous one of the First International Dada Fair that was organized by George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann. The fair would become the most well-known of all the Berlin Dada’s exploits, featuring almost 200 works by artists including Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, and Rudolf Schlichter, as well as Grosz, Hausmann, and Hannah Höch. Indeed, one of the best images in the book is Höch’s incredibly dense collage “Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic” (1919), which is now at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. In this work, Höch presents the viewer with a rush of intermingled visual fragments that exceeds any attempt at a clear understanding. This form of visual noise and presentational excess offers up the possibility of multiple interpreations that may be in conflict with each other. Thus the interpretative act seems to have no end but always a present. Insofar as the deliberate obtuseness of “the present” is the whole point of the book, I was delighted to have uncovered some germane connective material here applicable to our present, our own now.