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Modernism/Modernity 8.4 (2001) 583-602
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Johannes Baader's Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama: the Mysticism of the Mass Media
The First International Dada Fair held in Berlin in 1920 holds a most significant place within the history of the 20th-century avant-garde (fig. 1). It marks the point where modernist practices of fragmentation, disruption and shock were aimed directly at the German public by utilizing the strategies of contemporary journalism and advertising. Political protest was combined with attack on the exalted status of art, the death of which was famously proclaimed by one placard at the exhibition. A German soldier's uniform with a pig's head was hung from the ceiling, provoking legal action and ensuring good tabloid coverage. The walls of the exhibition rooms were covered with posters and banners which competed for attention with the more traditional paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, although their subject matter--crippled war veterans and urban disorder--was suitably confrontational. Photomontage, a new medium recently seized upon by the dadaists, was prominently placed, recycling imagery from the illustrated press for satirical or absurd ends. And in the midst of all this could be found a tower of found objects, newspapers, and textual fragments assembled by Johannes Baader and known as the Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama (fig. 2).
Some objects from the Dada Fair have subsequently become museum pieces and are now iconic images of the period, an example being Hannah Höch's large photomontage Cut with the Kitchen Knife. In fact, art historians have slaved long and hard to identify as many of the sources for this montage as possible and offered sustained interpretations of it on the basis of their findings. 1 Baader's sculpture has a very different status, given that it did not survive the exhibition and is only known through [End Page 583] photographs. Even so it is widely considered to be a crucial object in the history of modernism: "definitely the first assemblage-environment in the history of art," for Helen Adkins, "one of the first large assemblage-environments," according to Eberhard Roters, "an assemblage of, until then, unparalleled proportions," in Stephen Foster's words. 2 It has also been described as "the most audacious of the diverse array of assemblages at the Dada Fair" and, according to Hanne Bergius, it deserves a new category of its own, démontage, because of its unique, deconstructive nature. 3 Even though it has not been preserved, it is surprising that no similar attempt has yet been made to produce a close reading of Baader's object. It is my intention here to redress this situation so that the Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama might be more accurately situated within our current understanding of Dada and modernism in general.
The first point of redress is to give the assemblage its full title, not often quoted alongside reproductions: Das große Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama: Deutschlands Grösse und Untergang oder Die phantastische Lebensgeschichte des Oberdada(The Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama: Germany's Greatness and Decline or The Fantastic Life of the Superdada). It did have, therefore, a very specific subject matter. It was intended to be [End Page 584] read both as a description of recent German history and as autobiography (Baader was known amongst his colleagues as der Oberdada). In the first case the assemblage was a record of the fall of the German empire, and in the second Baader's rise to fame. We shall see how in both instances a departure was made from predominant models of, firstly, history as rational progress, and secondly autobiography as self-revelation. To the two movements which Baader aimed to represent, decline and ascent, he gave the form of a sculptural and architectural hybrid part tower, pyramid and spiral. The ultimate function of the object was to be "Dada monumental architecture," and I will conclude by considering how Baader's conception of death and remembrance was also figured in the object.
At first glance the Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama...