Through a large glass darkly on 24th floor is quite a trip

Those well-versed in the visual art of the 20th century will recognize the title of DNA Theatre's installation, The Large Glass, as the parenthetical name for Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. The Duchamp piece has generated more puzzlement than any other artwork of its time and makes the ideal jumping-off place for DNA's Hillar Liitoja, whose theatrical practice is nothing if not vexingly enigmatic.

In this collaboration with theatre director David Duclos, sound designer Richard Windeyer and six female performers, DNA in effect extends the two-dimensional Duchamp into a three-dimensional work occupying the entire, glass-walled space on the 24th floor at I Yonge St. until tomorrow night. Visitors are invited to make reservations ahead of time (call 416-504-5099) and are admitted to the installation, one at a time at precise intervals, starting at sunset. (A voice message last night warned callers that all the viewing times have
been booked.) .

Duchamp worked eight years, from 1915 to 1923, on The Bride Stripped Bare until he pronounced it "definitively unfurnished." That's like an open invitation to succeeding generations of artists to complete or re­interpret his perplexing construction of two window-sized panes of glass stacked on top of each other. In the top is the cloud-like "bride," ~ below are her nine bachelors, configured as peculiar industrial-looking objects. According to critics who've attempted to decipher Duchamp's extensive notes, the artist was translating sexual desire into mechanical terms, for one thing, and having a lot of fun with the interplay of words and images. .

The Large Glass on show here is reminiscent of previous DNA productions in which audience members were sternly ordered in one direction or another, sent in pursuit of the performers, or expelled from the theatre at the close of the action. Liitoja likes us to be aware of how theatre is a container in which we're at the mercy of another's imagination.

A stony-faced young attendant secures the elevator and hands the visitor a card with a note about a "fuyiam," a portrait of a bride-to-be that was kept on the walls of Egyptian households in the early Christian era and buried with her at her death. A male attendant, speaking only in single monosyllables, indicates a chair where the visitor waits, after depositing her belongings. One is allowed to enter each successive space only when a blue light bulb flashes and a bell sounds.

Inside the vacated office space is a labyrinth of chambers, created out of dividers of plastic sheeting, much of it transparent. In the first you watch a video of delicately gesturing hands. Snatches from a Marcel Duchamp lecture on the creative act, and the recitation of a marriage ceremony flow in and out of each space from concealed speakers. Other recitations occur throughout the half-hour journey, including poetry and text written by Duclos.

In the second chamber a dancer in a wedding dress is trapped between two sheets of transparent plastic wrap, like a living version of the bride pressed into Duchamp's glass. Using hands, feet and brush, she paints an abstract composition in red, white and black on both sides of her, obscuring herself with her own painting.

The third room contains windows hung over a maze outlined in pebbles. At the centre is a silver serving dish: a wedding present, perhaps.

A second bride, Viv Moore, brandishes a bullwhip and snaps it loudly, then walks around the space in a pair of heavy, black old-lady shoes, pausing occasionally to view herself in the mirror or fondle a set of plaster­cast body parts hung like a mobile. Next comes a stile where the visitor might climb up and down and watch herself on a kaleidoscopic video projection. In a larger chamber nine proposals scrawled on large cards are hung above little paintings with images of love. Catherine Duncanson sits at the harpsichord caged in a web of red cords, singing old tunes. On the second of two visits, she hands out a note, which she says was given her by "Bachelor No.2," whom she refused.

The third, last, bride is the spookiest. An extremely thin young woman, garbed in a caftan, peers at you with soulful eyes and offers you food and drink, or a close-up look at the pictures in the ritualistically arrayed photos and memorabilia on the floor around her. She follows you to the door and stares at you as you enter the last chamber, where another dancer beckons through a string curtain. Being in the performer's space is threatening enough; being turned into the spectacle is downright unnerving.

Duchamp called his picture "hilarious" and there are elements of humour, too, in this Large Glass.

Duclos poses as a painter at his easel in a space beyond the plastic. A video camera pointed at the lake displays a previous day's views. The large cityscapes outside function as part of the installation, distracting us with views of real-time human activity below on the lake, on balconies and on the streets. But the makeshift quality of the whole production doesn't encourage one to take it seriously.

This installation is a continuous work-in-progress, changing daily and drawing the visitor back for a second experience. A Bluebeard's castle of forsaken brides, a series of tableaux-vivants suggestive of ancient tomb practices, or an empty office space as the artist's studio - however one wishes to interpret it, The Large Glass doesn't do much to alter our perspective on marriage, desire, or the creative process.

THE TORONTO STAR | june 27 2005