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6 Oct 2022 / by Ariadne Long

The I Ching and John Cage’s ‘Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel’

Monochrome photograph showing Marcel Duchamp and John Cage sitting at a table playing chess. Bundles of wires are plugged into the base of the chessboard and extend off frame. Teeny Duchamp sits to the side of the table, watching.

John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto on 5 March 1968. Photo: Shigeko Kubota, courtesy of The John Cage Trust

How did an ancient Chinese divination text inform composer John Cage’s tribute to his late friend, Marcel Duchamp? Assistant Curator Ariadne Long explains.

‘I don’t want to say anything about Marcel.’

The year after Marcel Duchamp’s death, an arts publication called on artists like Jasper Johns to create an artwork in tribute to this late pioneer of avant-garde art. On receiving their request, Johns issued the above comment, and John Cage—another artist who’d received the same invitation—cleverly adapted Johns’ words into the title of his own tribute to Duchamp.

Duchamp had been deeply influential on Cage, and together the two men shared a passion for the game of chess. Cage had been serving as composer-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati when he was approached by the publication. Upon the commission of collector Alice Weston, he created a tribute to his friend that combined then-in-vogue silkscreen techniques with the principles of an ancient Chinese divination text, the I Ching (or ‘The Book of the Changes’). It was Cage’s first-ever visual artwork, and it was called Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (1969).

Installation consisting of a series of silkscreen on Plexiglas sheets, supported by a rectangular, brown, walnut (wood) base. The rectangular, transparent Plexiglas sheets stand one behind the other with a gap in-between and appear grey from the front. They feature black and white texts of different sizes, typefaces, and arrangements.

John Cage and Calvin J. Sumsion’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. Plexigram I (1969), the first ‘Plexigram’ in a series of eight. © John Cage Trust; M+, Hong Kong

Cage is recognised today as one of the most influential experimental musicians of twentieth-century America. His well-known work, 4'33" (1952), had been both a demonstration of his pioneering personal philosophy and the subject of controversy: each of the song’s three movements contained no music notes. Such an avant-garde performance predictably invoked the outrage of certain expectant audience members. In the face of their criticism, Cage explained, ‘There is no such thing as silence’[1]—the very essence of the piece was built from the previously disregarded breathing, whispers, and unexpected noises in the surrounding environment. If you understand the influence of Zen Buddhist concepts on Cage’s practice, then this act of leaving a blank space, or liu bai (留白), in fact imbues the work with a meditative spirit.

Zen Buddhism had experienced a surge of interest in 1950s America. This wave of enthusiasm for Asian philosophy seemed to offer direction to those who were lost and looking for answers after World War II. Zen Buddhism’s enduring strength also invigorated certain avant-garde artistic and literary circles aspiring to carve a new path in mainstream knowledge systems. In 1958, The Chicago Review brought the discussion on Zen Buddhism to a climax, when it published a special Zen issue featuring texts promoting the religion by the likes of Buddhist philosopher DT Suzuki and writer Alan Watts.

Two side-by-side monochrome photographs. The photo on the left shows a tall man (John Cage) in tie and button-down shirt shaking hands with a bald, bespectacled man (DT Suzuki) in a robe. On the wall behind them is a calligraphic artwork. The photo on the right shows John Cage in a suit standing with his head underneath the mouth of a large bell. Another man in a suit (David Tudor) is standing to Cage's left holding a rope attached to a suspended block, as if to hit the bell.

(Left) John Cage visiting Zen Buddhist philosopher DT Suzuki in 1962. Photo: Yasuhiro Yoshioka, courtesy of The John Cage Trust. (Right) In the same year, Cage and his regular collaborator, pianist David Tutor, visited Tôkei-ji Temple Garden in Kamakura, Japan. Photo: Matsuzaki Kunitoshi, courtesy of The John Cage Trust

Cage, in fact, had been exposed to Indian philosophy as early as 1946, igniting his interest in Asian philosophies. In the early 1950s, his passion in the subject deepened while attending DT Suzuki’s lectures on Zen Buddhist philosophy at Columbia University. Around the same time, he received a newly published English translation of the I Ching from his former music student, composer Christian G. Wolff. Cage treasured the volume, instantly captivated by its Diagram of Sixty-four Hexagrams and itching to apply the I Ching’s concepts of divination to his art. He debuted the application of the I Ching in the field of music, and later in 1951, created Music of Changes, a milestone work of indeterminate music composed using a technique called ‘chance operations’. After certain attempts in the realm of music, Cage would go on to apply chance operations to visual arts, and even everyday life.

The I Ching is one of China’s most ancient texts. Even today, it remains challenging to analyse or grasp in its entirety. Its foundation is the hexagram: a stack of six broken or unbroken lines, each associated with its own cryptic message. Ancient peoples used the I Ching’s sixty-four hexagrams to peer into the laws of the universe and the fluidity of yin and yang.

Illustration of sixty-four hexagrams, or stacks of six complete or broken lines in various combinations. They are arranged in a grid of eight-by-eight stacks. Each stack is accompanied by a Chinese character. The grid is encircled by more hexagrams accompanied by Chinese characters.

The I-Ching’s Diagram of Sixty-four Hexagrams

The two original divination tools in common folk culture were the tortoise shell and the yarrow stalk. Through heating the shells and interpreting the cracks or through casting the stalks and analysing the lines, a question-asker sought to predict and control not only their own fates, but even the fates of their kingdom. Over time, copper coins became a more common and convenient means of divining the Eight Trigrams (ba gua, 八卦), the three-lined symbols that form the basis of a hexagram. This process consists of tossing three coins six times and, according to whether they land face-up or face-down, arranging different groupings into a hexagram. The text and commentary in the I Ching is then used to decipher and predict the question-asker’s fortunes.

If one translates the choices ordinarily made to produce a visual work of art into questions to be answered, one can then make a work of art by simply tossing coins.

John Cage

Cage’s tribute to Duchamp is a display of eight ‘Plexigram’ arrangements, each consisting of eight plexiglass boards embedded vertically into a walnut wood base. Its total of sixty-four plexiglass boards correspond to the sixty-four hexagrams from the I Ching; they also correspond with the number of squares on a standard international chessboard.

The ‘Not wanting’ from the work’s title reveals Cage’s attempt to prevent personal desires from interfering with the creative process, especially the avoidance of projecting individual tastes, preferences, or ideologies onto the work. Cage once remarked: ‘If one translates the choices ordinarily made to produce a visual work of art into questions to be answered, one can then make a work of art by simply tossing coins.’[2] In his act of creation, Cage would disengage the self and surrender the power of decision-making to elements of chance—the core principle of ‘chance operations’.

Animation by Vincent Broquaire: John Cage and Chance Operation
Animation by Vincent Broquaire: John Cage and Chance Operation

An imaginative visualisation of Cage’s ‘chance operations’ by animator Vincent Broquaire. Commissioned by M+, 2021

To this end, Cage created an instruction manual to detail the production process. But he didn’t personally carry out each of the chance operations; instead he handed over part of the work to then-graphic design student Calvin J. Sumsion. Through this approach, Cage set the artist free from his traditional identity as creator.

But the I Ching’s influence doesn’t stop there. If you closely examine the logic of the manual’s layout, you can see Cage was attempting to use the framework to consolidate the various elements influencing the work. In total, he designed forty-six questions and fifteen reference diagrams; each diagram is arranged in eight-by-eight squares, totalling sixty-four.

If you have a large enough number of things, judgement decreases and curiosity increases.

John Cage

For instance, he took the page numbers from a 1955 illustrated American Dictionary as units and broke them down into sixty-four groups; he then further broke each group of page numbers into smaller parts of sixty-four, until he could fix a position at a single word or image entry. Using similar inductive rules, he allocated corresponding diagrams of sixty-four squares to determine the words’ tense, affix, typography, size, colour, and placement, orientation, and angle on the glass. With this exhaustive operational guide, any person only needed to commit to tossing the coins, and they could organise the outcomes into corresponding images and texts to appear on the plexiglass. In this view, the process of tossing coins to answer questions is like a diviner casting the yarrow stalks; using the results to obtain words and images from corresponding diagrams is akin to the diviner’s act of reading the stalks.

Installation view of John Cage's 'Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel', which consists of a series of silkscreen on plexiglass sheets, supported by a rectangular, brown, walnut wood base. The rectangular, transparent plexiglass sheets stand one behind the other with a gap in-between and appear brown from the front. They feature black and white texts of different sizes, typefaces, and arrangements.

Installation view of John Cage and Calvin J. Sumsion’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. Plexigram III (1969), on view at the M+ exhibition Dream of the Museum. © John Cage Trust; M+, Hong Kong

Each group of plexiglass boards forms one, intertwined body, like constellations of stars floating in a miniature universe. Together, they construct a series of multidimensional spaces to be freely deciphered. None of the single surface has a fixed focus, and the nature of the transparent glass increases the porous visual effect; viewers can approach the work from any angle. To the author, the work’s rectangular, box shape resembles the sort of television sets that were, in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming rather commonplace in the US: pop culture was blooming, and people yearned to peer into other worlds through the screen. Visually speaking, the decrease in the frequency of the text and the increase in the frequency of the images from the first to the eighth grouping foretells how images would gradually challenge the primacy of text in how we receive information and perceive the world.

Diagram with eight-by-eight squares, each of which displays a word such as 'intact', 'missing pt(s)', and 'n.-s. disintegr.'. Below is a label that reads 'Diagram 14: Specify whether a letter is intact or having missing part(s), or whether it is in a state of non-structural disintegration.'

Diagram 14 from Cage’s instruction manual indicates how to determine whether a word or image should be presented as intact or incomplete in the final artwork. © John Cage Trust; M+, Hong Kong

However, if you look closely at each of the eight groupings, you’ll also notice that there are incomplete words and images on each of the sixty-four panels. In a 1974 interview, Cage shared how the weathered words relate to Duchamp, who’d enjoyed the mental game of looking at signs with letters missing and figuring out what the words looked like before they’d been weathered away.[3] That there are parts on Cage’s works that fade out and decay, that there are words in a state of disintegration, is entirely because Duchamp has died.

Plan your visit to see Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, on display at the M+ exhibition Dream of the Museum until 23 April 2023.

  1. 1.

    Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. ( New York City: Routledge, 2003), 70

  2. 2.

    John Cage, ‘To Describe the Process of Composition used in Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel Plexigrams 1–VIII, Lithographs A and B, Together with a Glossary’ (New York City: Eye Editions, 1969), 3

  3. 3.

    Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 192.

Ariadne Long
Ariadne Long
Ariadne Long

Ariadne Long is Assistant Curator, Visual Art at M+.

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