Marcel Duchamp is a master of blending art, science, and dada-surrealist irony. He described his piece 3 stoppages étalon or 3 Standard Stoppages, as “a joke about the meter.” The work, created 100 years ago, played with the idea that the metric system, an originally French standard, is an intellectual construct rather than a universal absolute.
Duchamp made the work by dropping three threads, each one meter long, from a height of one meter onto three stretched canvases. He then adhered the threads to the canvases, preserving the shapes they had taken upon landing, and cut the canvases along the threads’ profiles, creating new units of measure, each a meter long yet all different.
In 1964 Duchamp explained: “This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.”
(Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, by the way).
"In itself it was not an important work of art, but for me it opened the way - the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art … For me the 3 Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past.” And in so doing, Duchamp liberated us all from the past.
3 Standard Stoppages is on view at NYC’s MoMA.