The paradox of a chess board that is not meant to be played
Perhaps, with this simple hand-carved board, Marcel Duchamp said more about this game than anyone has been able to over the years.
What does making your own chess game mean? First of all it means that one is aware that chess remains. Those who have played it since a young age and have grown attached to it know that they will die playing it, because in the universe of chess there is no such thing as disenchantment. It comes and goes, perhaps, throughout an entire life, but it always remains.
A hand-carved chess set will, additionally, survive the player and his circumstance. It will remain for the generations to come, or for the world ––which could never have one too many boards. The next thing is that this endeavor is in itself an act of love, and of believing that something of us persists in the things we do. Each one of its 32 pieces will contain the time we invested in making them and our humble tribute to the game. Marcel Duchamp, who was named Grand Master by the French Chess Federation, created one with his own hands and with it he made invaluable contributions to the concept of the game.
[Chess] is logic and mechanics rather than mathematics. Mechanics in the sense that the pieces move, interact, destroy each other. They are in constant motion and that is what attracts me. Chess figures placed in a passive position have no aesthetic or visual appeal. It is the possible movements that can be played from that position that make it more or less beautiful.
His chessboard, just as his famous urinal, was exhibited outside of context. It was presented in stillness, when, as he so poignantly mentions, a passive board has no special appeal; a motionless piece is worthless. But the true beauty of his work lies in the fact that, piece by piece, he created the set and exhibited it as a paradox. For the chess enthusiast, his work is beautiful because it holds all the possibilities of the pieces; but for the stranger to the game, his work is lifeless in every sense; he cannot imagine the beautiful battle proposed by the board.
That potential battle which chess fosters in the imagination of the chess player has allowed it to remain for centuries as a game that is never played for money. Chess is so interesting in itself that it needs no profit. This is why presenting a board as a work of art says so much about its quality. On the one hand, its stillness speaks of its imaginative value; of the infinite possibilities that it holds in the mind of the aficionado; and on the other, it gives a privileged position to one of the few games that do not survive because of gambling.
“I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art… and much more. It cannot be commercialized. In its social position, chess is much purer than art.”
It could be said that Duchamp’s chess set is a tribute to the chess player more than to the game itself, because only he can understand the latent and bellicose beauty kept inside a board that is destined to be out of combat.
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