Celebrating a Century of Dada in Zurich

Dada is art. Dada is anti-art. Dada is manifesto. Dada is jibberish. Dada is a costume so cumbersome one has to be carried when wearing it.

Whatever Dada is, or isn’t, most agree it’s long dead.

But not in Zurich, the avant-garde movement’s birthplace.

Best known as an international banking hub, the city—Switzerland’s largest—has long turned a lukewarm shoulder to the anti-establishment art form that sprung up within its borders in 1916. But as the centenary of the movement’s founding began to loom, that started to change.

These days, while strolling the cobblestone lanes of Zurich’s Old Town, visitors can check into a “Dada hotel” (see below) or take a “Dada walking tour.”

The city is even hosting several special events in 2016 to celebrate the milestone anniversary and examine the movement’s continuing influence.

The Kunsthaus Zurich, one of the city’s most important art museums, is presenting “Dadaglobe Reconstructed,” a long-unfinished book project dreamt up by Dada pioneer Tristan Tzara, and the latest edition of Manifesta, the roving European Biennial of Contemporary Art that changes locations every two years, will be held in Zurich for much of the summer (June 11-September 18).

I’m starting my DIY Dada tour, however, at the Café Odeon, a Jugendstil (art nouveau) coffee bar that played a pivotal role in the Dada genesis story.

After WWI erupted in the summer of 1914, the cities of neutral Switzerland became havens for many politicians, artists, and pacifists. In Zurich, the Odeon quickly became a magnet for disaffected avant-garde intellectuals, including the central figures of the Dada movement—Tzara, a writer, sculptor Jean Arp and his artist-dancer girlfriend, Sophie Taeuber, Hugo Ball and his girlfriend, fellow poet and performer Emmy Hennings, and visual artist Marcel Janco.

The café seems subdued the morning I am there. A trio of gray-haired locals lean forward in their lounge chairs engaged in eager chitchat, helping to drown out an already barely audible Elvis song playing in the background. Nearby, a 20-something guy in a pink button-up pecks away on his laptop keyboard. A sign behind the bar reads “NO WIFI. TALK TO EACH OTHER.”

I’m midway through my muesli, thumbing through a German-language paper I can’t read, when I hear a Bruce Hornsby song come on. I pause to make a quick note in my journal.

“Is this Dada?”

It’s a question worth asking.

The definition of Dada has always been elusive (something its founding members fully intended), as are the origins of the term itself.

Allegedly, the word “Dada” was picked at random from a French dictionary (it means “hobbyhorse”).

Whatever it is or isn’t, at its core, Dada was a reaction against the world war and a rejection of the conventional thinking its practitioners believed had caused the fighting.

Instead, artists identified with the movement embraced nonsense, irrationality, and intuition, spouting absurdist manifestos and sound poems.

One of Dada’s more enduring contributions, photomontages where images were paired for emotive resonance, not simply to overtly sell a product, left a lasting mark on the advertising world. One wonders if we’d have Sasquatch hawking beef jerky or caveman pedaling car insurance without Dada.

In his memoir of the Dada era in Zurich, Flight Out of Time, Hugo Ball opined, “What we call Dada is a farce of nothingness.” One of his sound poems featured nonsensical sounds chosen for their “African” sound (which later resurfaced in the Talking Heads song “I Zimbra”). When performing the poem, “Gadji beri bimba,” for an audience, Ball wore an outrageous “magic bishop” costume composed of long paper tubes (see above).

Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors in 1916, giving Dada its first official venue. It was the brainchild of Hugo Ball, one of the most influential figures in the movement’s early days.

After the war ended in 1918, Dada began to wane. Having undergone various incarnations since that time, the Voltaire reopened, after a long period of disrepair, in 2004, and now operates as a wine bar, gallery, and museum.

To mark Dada’s centenary, 165 days of celebration are to be held there, beginning on February 5, the date of the cabaret’s own 100th anniversary.

I begin my time there by watching a video in a room where the projected image spills off the screen onto the curved ceiling. It opens with the frank, funny acknowledgment that “not even Dadaists know what Dada is” and tells of Dada’s migration to Berlin and around the world.

A young woman with fierce Bettie Page bangs who is “a bit of an artist” runs the gift shop. She offers to mark a banknote with a Dada seal. I hand over a Kenyan schilling that happens to be in my wallet, which she embosses with a Voltaire logo and a fish skeleton. Then she asks me to look after the place for a few minutes while she runs out for a cigarette.

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When she returns, I see her name tag reads “Anigna,” a name close enough to “enigma” to make me wonder if this whole encounter hasn’t been a form of Dada itself.

A short walk away is the Hotel Limmatblick, a “Dada hotel.” I’m staying in a tiny modern room named for Dada artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (she eventually married Jean), who appears on the Swiss 50 franc note. Downstairs, the café is filled with Dada books and locals sipping coffees.

After I indulge in one myself, I walk along the canal and peek into the Zurich James Joyce Foundation’s headquarters (the Irish writer lived here during the Dada period, too, and returned to the city during WWII (he’s buried in Fluntern Cemetery.). The director, Fritz Senn, who, incidentally, looks a bit like British actor Bill Nighy, tells me Joyce likely stayed away from Dada. “Dada was going the other way,” he says.

When I return to the hotel, the woman running the hotel café waves me over.

“Your papers,” she says as she hands me, with light-hearted satisfaction, a couple of wadded-up papers I had left at my table.

“Oh no,” I protest with a smack of the lips. “These are souvenirs for you. So that you can remember my time in Zurich.”

She erupts into laughter.

I wonder if this makes me Dada.

Celebrated travel personality Robert Reid is a featured digital reporter for Nat Geo Travel. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Instagram

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