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James Joyce spent his last years in Zurich and died there.



But there is another reason to visit Zurich, and it has nothing to do with fondue (unless you do fondue) and everything to do with the state of the universe. Maybe, like me, you need a brief escape from the "universal installation of the idiot," which is how Tristan Tzara defined Dada, the antiwar, anti-art movement that was founded in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire on Feb. 5, 1916. Often used incorrectly as a synonym for the bizarre or surreal, Dada and its guerrilla theatrics tweaked the snouts of Europe's sacred cows, generating so much provocation and intrigue that it instantly permeated every aspect of modern art. Dada was a call to arms against societies that financed war but whose art did not reflect war's brutality and horror. It both presaged and defined the modern sensibility - ingesting and expelling an endless effluvium of ads for hernia belts and the like; making ready-mades out of mass marketing and pastiche and collage out of rubbish; turning machinery into marvelous mayhem that mirrored the savage chaos about.

Or, it signified absolutely nothing. Dada is for people who need levity and frequent doses of silly. And that's what I needed: a tendentious tickle of truth.

The Cabaret Voltaire, in an unremarkable building at Spiegelgasse 1, is easy to find. Like Florence, Zurich is an eminently manageable city, only with trams and an abundance of perfectly working clocks. Cabaret Voltaire was named by Hugo Ball, a German refugee, stage director and composer of sound poems. As Voltaire's owner, he thought he'd make a killing by allowing soirees in the club. And for five months Dada raged supreme. Audiences were treated to bicycle wheels attached to kitchen appliances, Hans Arp tableaus, African masks and assorted chants of vernacular nonsense. There were songs, poems, dances and atonal tom-toms. Dada furrowed every brow - high, low and middle. The crowd might have thrown tomatoes at Ball, dressed in a bright blue cardboard suit and dunce hat, flapping his wings, reciting poetry in liturgical lunacy. But it was wartime: there were no tomatoes.


Cabaret Voltaire nowadays



A nearby resident complained mightily about the disruptions to his work. Lenin, in exile at Spiegelgasse 14, was perturbed by Dada insofar as it spoiled his concentration while preparing for armed insurrection in his native country. James Joyce, a true Dadaist navigating in the wake of Finnegan, lived in Zurich at the time, writing parts of "Ulysses," which would soon be banned by the United States Postal Service for obscenity. By July 1916, Dada was a Zurich sensation, this while the Battle of the Somme accrued its grisly statistics: roughly 500,000 German casualties, 200,000 French and 420,000 British. The miliary incompetence and arrogance of those in power escalated to an unfathomable scale. Hans Arp wrote, "We had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men's minds." This reached a terrible apogee in the kitsch of Nazi Germany.

It was Dada's job to keep art in its eternal infancy and the heart of the artist light. After Dada headquarters moved to a Bahnhofstrasse gallery - and out into the rest of the world - the Cabaret Voltaire went into free fall, until a few years ago, when its owner wanted to convert the space into offices and residences. A group of artists began squatting there, determined not to let the spirit of Dada turn into nada. Nicholas Hayek Jr., the chief executive of Swatch, rescued Dada by investing millions to restore the Cabaret. Now there's a coffee bar, a romper room for renegade artists, a library of Dada-ana and "provokations," or happenings: films, lectures, exhibitions, concerts. This month, in the basement "krypt," there will be a tribute to New York Dada's red-hot mama, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who wore tomato cans on her breasts and shellacked her hair.

At the grand opening last September of the new, improved Cabaret, Cabaret Voltaire offered 10,000 Swiss francs to any couple who named their baby Dada. A Swiss woman and a Nigerian man collected: Dada means "prince" in a Nigerian dialect, so little Dada was no stretch. Young Gugus Dada now has a CD sold at the Cabaret, along with a line of pacifiers and baby clothes. Check out Dada's baby pictures at www.cabaretvoltaire.ch. The Cabaret also sells Dada watches to defray the costs of running the place, as well as posters, books and postcards ("Immortality is Not Everybody's Thing" - Kurt Schwitters). The city of Zurich kicks in the rent, allowing Cabaret patrons to carry on the tradition of communing with the Muses. That Cabaret Voltaire is subsidized by Swatch is an irony too egregious to digest.



Farther along the banks of the Limmat River is the Limmatblick Hotel, which runs Bar Dada and is, in fact, a themed tribute to Zurich's own Merry Pranksters. Claude Dreifuss, the hotel's owner, had his creative friends fashion Rube Goldberg-type collages to display at the bar, not unlike Morton Schamberg and Baroness Elsa's plumbing trap set on a mitre called "God." Each hotel room is named after a Dadaist, and the hotel provides guests with a booklet briefly outlining Dada's history and offering useful phrases in Schweizerdeutsch, to make your stay more Dada. Hoi (hello; pronounced oy), for instance, sounds like something a borscht belt Tschumpel (idiot) might say, and Spinnwinde (psychiatric hospital) may come in handy around Zurich's red-light district. In any case, Bar Dada's coffee is great, the ambience better.

More irony came to the fore at the Kunsthaus, Zurich's grand museum, where a Sigmar Polke show was in progress. What you can't see, without an appointment, is the museum's extensive Dada collection. In the trendy Kreis 5 quarter, I ran smack into Gasometer Street, another Dada signpost: Dada was "a gasometer of jangled feelings," Tristan Tzara wrote. I had a jangle of coins instead and found "Shopping in Zurich" at the Kunstgriff, a well-stocked multimedia bookstore located in an old Löwenbräu factory. But my two favorite shops were my own discoveries: Fata Morgana, on the Limmatquai, with its intriguing mélange of papier-mâché masks, bold bone jewelry and more eye-popping etceteras than could be counted. I also loved the Chloé dresses and the pearlized skull necklaces by Sophie Does Pearl at Hott 46 (Hottingerstrasse 46).

The Seefeldstrasse turned out to be the street where I wanted to live and die: secondhand clothing shops; the Paradiesli Bioladen, with its cheeses, olives and picnic fare; and Tibits, a vegetarian joint with curries and prosecco and happy people stuffing their faces. I started the trip hungry for Dada and ended up just plain hungry. The most remarkable meal I've had in Europe was nearby in Kusnacht. Thomas Mann and Carl Jung once lived here, but they didn't dine at Petermann's Kunststuben, a small shrine of culinary symphonies: seared foie gras, rosy lamb, a Kandinsky-like dessert of rhubarb and citron. This was eros, c'est la vie; somewhere in Dadaland, Marcel Duchamp, whose alter ego was Rrose Sélavy, was smiling. Or perhaps just playing chess.

Zurich requires a bit of time and money to do properly, but if either commodity is lacking, you can get a quick dose of Dada in Paris at the Pompidou Center, which is sponsoring a Dada show from October to January; it then travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in February and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Published: September 25, 2005)
Sophie Tauber went to workscool here, and to the famous Laban-Dance-School. She met Jean Arp at the Galerie Tanner in 1915, she died in Max Bill's flat in Zurich-Höngg the first day of1943




Elias Cannetti lived here


The author studied here. He heard Staiger. He worked as Securitas and as parking-place-guardian

He sat in the café of Schauspielhaus and saw Nadja Tiller and Walter Giller sitting next table. He went to Allmend and heard Jimi Hendrix

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