L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse consists of a sewing machine, wrapped in a blanket and tied with string. This enigmatic sculpture stages a concealed object, whose cloaking suggests an unreal and potentially disturbing presence. Man Ray was inspired by a metaphor used by the French writer Comte de Lautréamont: ‘Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.’ For Man Ray and many of the dada and surrealist artists in Paris with whom he was close, the phrase exemplified a startling new non-rational imagery based on chance or surreal juxtaposition, often with disguised sexual symbolism. The umbrella was interpreted as a male element, the sewing machine as a female element, and the dissecting table as a bed.
The sculpture encapsulates the surrealists’ vision of what lay beyond rational norms of daily reality. Its sexualised symbolism is expanded and amplified by Dorothea Tanning’s animal-like sculpture, its soft-sensuous skin punctured with pins. Linked themes of entrapment and concealment find further unlikely correspondence in Christo’s wrapped objects and landscapes, conjuring dreamlike environments.
The constellation further traces the influence of dada and surrealism across twentieth century art, expressed through the legacies of the readymade artwork and the interest in language as artistic material. For example Haim Steinbach stages everyday objects on his hand-built triangular shelves to comment on the relationship between factory production and the commodification of art. Simon Starling expands conventional notions of the readymade as a found object by creating a mutated bicycle whose technology was the same as that used for bridge trusses. Our understanding of such objects is also inverted by Richard Wentworth, who combines a 1950s table with a model ship’s propeller and a metal plate anchor, transforming a piece of furniture into a vehicle for the imagination. Fusing European surrealism with a distinctively English subject matter, Paul Nash’s painting functions like a window into an urban setting imbued with his interest in mystery and uncanny ambiguity