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Kurt Schwitters' 'Merzbau': The Desiring House

Published onJan 03, 2002
Kurt Schwitters' 'Merzbau': The Desiring House

The original version of this article used links to a now-defunct website. The figure links can no longer be accessed but several images of Schwitters’ Merzbau can be found here.

From 1919 until a night in early October 1937, when Allied bombing destroyed the Merzbau, Kurt Schwitters continuously composed and manipulated this assemblage [Fig. 1]. The project, variously categorized as an architectural undertaking,1 as “Schwitters’ most important collage project,”2 or as a performatively elaborated sculptural program,3 entailed the ceaseless manipulation of the artist’s Hanover studio. Stretching vertically and horizontally to adjacent rooms, it eventually resulted in an all-encompassing environment. The internal space was transformed by the aggregation of found materials, objects, and sculptural forms affixed to the architectural structure. Alternately, Schwitters cut into and removed portions of the material pile-up he had amassed, as well as pieces of the architecture to which they were connected. He finally cut through the ceiling and floor to extend his work outside the original armature of the building.4 The expanse of Merzbau, developing and changing over a period of eight years, never cohered as a unified, architectural space or sculptural object. It came to formation, rather, as the site of Schwitters’ practice of continuous, and non-coded, production and destruction. Merzbau emerged as a function of a practice divested of either productive or deconstructive aims.

The Merzbau involved two dimensions. The first dimension consisted of a crafted architectural structure made of plaster and wood, and built up along multiple, irregular axes. The second consisted of an inner core, a formless accretion of discarded random objects and fragments. The interior and the shell-like enclosure connected to one another through labyrinthine, miniature tunnels or voids, which doubled as spaces for the display of objects. Schwitters used these spaces to present other assemblages or collections of things taken out of everyday circulation. Friends frequently noted that a possession was missing, only to visit Schwitters and find the absent item exhibited in a grotto. Hannah Hoch worried over a missing key and later found it part of a sculpture; Mies van der Rohe noted that Schwitters filched a drawing pencil and placed it in one of the caves. Because Merzbau was a continuous project altered daily, the small apertures were often sliced out of a larger mass, or covered over and buried under the agglomeration of objects, wood or plaster. The Dadaist Hans Richter generously saw Merzbau as a living, daily changing document on Schwitters and his friends.5 After visiting Hanover in 1928, Richter wrote:

All the little holes and cavities that we [avant-garde artists] had formerly occupied by proxy were no longer to be seen. ‘They are deep down inside,’ Schwitters explained. They were concealed by the monstrous growth of the column, covered by other sculptural excrescence, new people, new shapes, colors, and details.6

Richter’s account underscores the most striking dimension of Merzbau: the intersection of material accretion—including bodily, industrial, and artisinal production—with the endless flux of Schwitters’ process. The artist exteriorized parts of his own body and incorporated them into the tunnels or architectural shell. He placed hair, nail parings and his own urine in small containers throughout the project. Rendered impersonal, these bodily remains and refuse proceed along a circuit beginning from the anthropomorphic armature of the artist’s body, through various containers and objects, and then into the crevices of the architectural armature. In effect, Merzbau obviates the traditional distinctions between interior and exterior. Hans Richter articulates the tension between pneumatic and cavity-like (in)form as follows: “He explained it to me and I saw the whole thing as an aggregate of hollow space, a structure of concave and convex forms which hollowed and inflated the whole sculpture.”7 In other words, the de-territorialized material aggregate, cut off from one site, is put into circulation, and re-territorialized in other spaces. The process of cutting allows objects and detritus to enter new relations and encounters, to connect to other spaces and materials. Merzbau hardly presents a formal object—identifiable and able to be categorized as sculpture or architecture. Instead, we find a ceaseless flow of material aggregation and the habitual production of its own production. It never cohered as a finished product, a bounded and completed thing. While it would appear that the very definition of Merzbau is at stake (is it sculpture, architecture, collage, design?), it becomes clear that its hybridity exceeds any kind of classification. Any focus on the object, its form, structure, or definition must cede to the primacy of process in Schwitters’ practice. The only principle to which the project adheres is that of continuous fluid production, a dynamic additive and subtractive process of connecting and cutting. Schwitters insisted on the Merzbau’s sole structural condition as one of flux: “It is unfinished out of principle.”8

Of course this “principle” is a non-principle. A law delineates a term around which other terms cohere. A “principle” produces a code, a master key by which a set of objects or concepts may be understood. Yet the Merzbau presents, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari set forth in “Balance Sheet Program for Desiring Machines,”9 in which evaluate the operational economy of the avant-garde movement Dada, a “set of pure singularities,” objects and practices that do not have a common denominator, whose elements are bound together by the absence of a system. The Merzbau’s logic is thus “that of a functioning and not that of interpretation.”10 The assemblage-work, perpetually unfinished, paradoxically figures forth the production of the process of production, which ceaselessly changes its own rules as it develops in practice. As such, a single interpretive key is rendered obsolete the moment it seems viable; it is exceeded the very moment it emerges because its object transforms, raising new questions opening onto new interpretations. As the “work” is regenerated, the parameters of the code dynamically change. The only thread binding the organization of the work is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “the production of desire”—endlessly productive of particular flows and various configurations of materials, a problem to which I will return.

Dada artists such as George Grosz and Richard Huelsenbeck took painting, sculpture, collage, and modernist poetry—in a word, “Modernism”—at its word. They insisted that any, however violated, adherence to the formal codes salient to those practices necessarily signified an allegiance to Western bourgeois discourses, politics, and values. As such, Schwitters’ eccentric deployment and manipulation of Modernist pictorial codes, such as the relationship between line and color, entailed an inevitable rejection from “club Dada.”

When Richter interceded on his behalf, so that Schwitters could participate in Dada exhibits, manifestations, performances, or general carousing, Huelsenbeck refused any invitation, stating that he could not stand Schwitters’ “bourgeois face.”11 “He was a very unruly and intolerant fellow, he was a genius in a frock coat. We called him the abstract Spitzweg, the Kaspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist revolution.”12 This characterization alone bears witness to his contemporaries’ inability to comprehend the heterogeneous, seemingly eclectic productions that Schwitters presented, his adherence to the means and methods central to beaux arts practices (easel, paint, brush), and his simultaneous willful perversion of the codes defining those practices.

Schwitters responded to Huelsenbeck’s rebuff by setting up his own operation in Hanover under the name Merz, which he derived from the word “Kommerzbank.”13 For his journal Merz, issue L, from 1919, in a short piece entitled “Merzmalerie,” Schwitters said that:

Merz pictures are abstract works of art. The word Merz essentially denotes the combination of all conceivable materials, and in principle the equal evaluation of all materials. Merzmalerie [Merz painting] makes use not only of paint and canvas, brushes and palette, but of all materials perceptible to the eye and of all available implements. It is unimportant if the material was already formed for some other purpose. The artist creates through the distribution of materials.14

While Schwitters never exchanged the paint, canvas, or brush for photography or the readymade, or any other form related to modernity, industrialization, and mass reception (forms with which other avant-gardists were struggling), he nonetheless stripped those traditional tools of their purity and integrity. By crossing them with the very materials and processes they were meant to transcend—the organic, the industrial—he inaugurates a practice unbounded by object category or classification, what Deleuze would identify as a kind of “anorganic vitalism.”15 What is at stake is a particular self-driven economy of work indifferent to its product. This is already evident in Schwitters’s collage work of the early and mid teens, the Merzbilder. To think of the Merzbau in terms of architecture would shift the focus onto questions of architectural specificity and its limits, thereby obscuring the problem at hand: the centrality of a process undetermined by ends, objects or products. A comparison of the economy driving Schwitters’s collage production to that of Picasso’s cubist collage presents the problem more clearly.

“I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.” In a 1924 issue of Merz, entitled G, Schwitters discussed poetry and painting together:

The end pursued by poetry is pursued, logically, by Dadaist painters who, in their pictures, evaluate object against object by sticking or nailing them down side by side. Things may be evaluated in this way rather than they are when signified by words.

Here, the dyadic and vertical relationship between the material signifier and the signified is exchanged for a laterally oriented cutting and dividing of a particular signifying chain in conjunction with equally horizontal and incommensurable chains. In other words, in Schwitter’s system, poetry’s logical conclusion is painting. And, in a step counter to either Modernism or Dadaism,16 painting’s logical conclusion is the process of assemblage: the cutting, nailing and sticking together of objects. Language (poetry) and matter (the pictorial surface and paint) become mutually interchangeable as though they shared a common denominator otherwise hidden from aesthetic understanding. The specificity or integrity of any one medium is exchanged for the mutable space of production, the production of production itself. Language and materiality meet on another register: an imminent fabric of relations determined by cutting and connecting, production and passage. Each disciplinary practice (painting, poetry, labor) is cut, redirected and woven together along the common circuit of process: the nailing and affixing that cuts a material (including language in its material vocal and textual aggregation) and assure its flow and connection to an other material or language.

A question nevertheless remains. If Schwitters insists on transverse or transfinite connections and interruptions in a field of composition and decomposition, where do Schwitters’ practices meet? How can one, looking back on Merz, trace the generative logic or motivation, the gravity of its build-up of work?

In a short essay entitled “Balance Sheet—Program for Desiring-machines,” (1977), addended to the 1997 French edition of Anti-Oedipe,17 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau,18 as “the desiring house, the house machine of Kurt Schwitters which sabotages and destroys itself, where its constructions and the beginning of its destruction are indistinguishable.”19 The word “house” introduces less a sense of architectural structure than of a site of specialized production, a process, indicated by its slippage into the word “machine.” For Deleuze and Guattari, the compositional, anti-structural set of relations, cuts and connections enacted by Merz, constitute it as a desiring-machine. For the field that links objects, materials, and processes is not the coordinates of a coherent structure, but rather the aleatory encounter between materials and processes. The (dis) connective tissue itself, as a set of ruptured and re-connected points of intersection constitute the machinic assemblage. This machine, in turn, produces and is produced by affiliations between scraps and residua, or chance relations between elements that are ultimately distinct. It is “the un-connective connection of autonomous structures…that make it possible to define desiring-machines as the presence of such chance relations within the machine itself.”20 In other words, the machine is the space of excessive process, the production of production producing normative, hegemonic forms of production differently. I set the “Balance Sheet Program for Desiring Machines” into play throughout the present essay for its singular capacity to describe the Merzbau’s operative mode. It presents a chance to rethink an artist’s project as performance and practice—a set of activities irreducible to any object status answerable to art historical evaluations, which are founded on the seeming stability of the object.

In an account of living and working in the various convergent and divergent Dada circles from 1917 to the 1930’s, Hans Richter says that on his first meeting with Kurt Schwitters, the artist approached him with the abrupt declaration: “I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.”21 This statement struck Richter and his cohorts Baader, Hausmann and Tzara, as “new and attractive.” Painting and nailing seemed radically disproportionate in the logic of any heretofore-established artistic combinatory system. For nailing, in effect, would correspond to the social space of labor, while painting in this moment aspired to transcend that social-economic world. Richter goes on to state, incredulously, “he even wanted to integrate the machine into art, along with kitsch, chair legs, singing and whispering,”22 reiterating the degree to which Schwitters’ process and use of materials effaced painting’s categorical boundaries.

This productive strategy, “I nail my pictures together,” becomes the procedural matrix of Schwitters’ own self-description and artistic self-definition. Schwitter’s well-known “assemblage” works, for example, collect pieces of everyday detritus, which are affixed to the surface. Das Kreisen [Revolving], (1919) [Fig. 2] presents tin cans, string, wood, and trash situated over a painted blue field. Here, the materials and their structural configuration are one and the same. Trash does not constitute the contents of an otherwise traditional or mimetic depiction, nor does it undergo a metamorphosis from trash to find itself born anew on the other side of the frame as Art. Rather, it remains in a state of material buildup on the physical surface of the painted field. At the same time, trash functions in contiguity to formal components: line, color, etc. In lieu of stretched canvas, the surface is a piece of industrial burlap stuck to wood and frayed at the edges. Pieces of garbage constitute contour, border, figure, and ground simultaneously. A wooden band, a broken barrel part, assumes the role of drawing, as it seems to delimit painterly modeling, chiaroscuro, and local color. Nevertheless, the relation between object and drawing remains unmotivated; contour does not enclose color. The materials do not represent themselves iconographically; instead, they are posited on the surface as elements for the iteration of formal attributes.23 Rather than depicting or signifying a body in space, one element (the fragment that stands alternately for color or for line) literally becomes material. Everyday materiality at once operates as, and slowly replaces, compositional elements. Moreover, the toss-away elements that support the composition also spill over onto the wood frame. The frame—usually guarantor of aesthetic autonomy—is here compromised by bits and pieces of tin, string, and stuff, all of which appear as much a part of the virtual space of the composition as the actual space of the outside world.

Collage pieces such as Das Kreisen or Das Arbeiterbild [The Worker Picture], (1919) [Fig. 3] appear, at first glance, to represent a contraption, a set of cogwheels or cylinders. Yet the assemblage’s machinic dimension figures more from the particular productive mode, the process of making, rather than an iconographic or representational program. Schwitters’ Merz work presents us with a becoming machine of the work of art. Now this becoming machine has nothing to do with the representation of a machine and even less with any conventional understanding of the machine as tool, as industrial or electronic gadget. The assemblage-as-machine entails a cutting and connecting of everyday trash, everyday materiality, rather than a representational or referential relation to the outside world. In other words, that outside—through the inclusion of its many mute fragments and physical vestiges—is internalized into the pictorial field rather than depicted or symbolized as an absent object.

The machinic painters stressed the following: they did not paint machines as substitutes for still lives or nudes. The machine is not a represented object. The aim is to introduce an element of machine that combines with something else on the full body of the canvas, with the result that it is precisely the ensemble that is the desiring-machine.24

The representational, the very conditions of representability, and the regime of the visual code so carefully investigated in Cubist collage cede to procedural excess. The endless processing of materiality replaces a representational code based on negation or absence.

Deleuze and Guattari are careful to disentangle this operational mode called the desiring-machine from any crude analogy to a mechanical gadget, an industrial apparatus, or an electronic device. They also caution against an analogy to psychoanalytically informed notions of desire (as Oedipally organized). Rather, the authors argue that the desiring-machine is a libidinal and economic drive toward relationships, production, and productive relations or flows. “Desiring-machines cannot be equated with the adaptation of real machines, or to a symbolical process, nor can they be reduced to dreams of fantastic machines operating in the imaginary.”25 They cannot be equated with projective modes (a fantasy), because the desiring-machine necessarily involves the force of production.26

The desiring-machines’ shift from the register of consumption (of an object, a fantasy) to production, desiring production, requires a rethinking of the relation between man and “machine,” just as it had entailed a rethinking of the relationship between artist and medium. The object is not to compare, to make equivalent or to contrast man and machine, but rather to require of them an encounter. This encounter reveals the way in which they enter relations with one another constituted by, and constitutive of, larger libidinal and social arrangements. In other words, the subject combines with a tool or a fantasy in an assemblage positioned within a larger arrangement or regime (a techno-social machine) productive of subjects, of tools (conventional machines) and phantasmic projections. Guattari explains elsewhere that subjectivities “enter into machines”; specific historical regimes and their concomitant assemblage of machinic and productive arrangements, which are characterized by circuits and relays of power, knowledge and self-reference, “subjectivize” the individual in particular ways.27 These circuits, in turn, bear upon the subject’s phantasmic apparatus.

As such, the desiring-machine, in counter-distinction to the techno-social machine, may be defined as the perverse, and creatively off-course, introjection and subsequent manipulation of that hegemonic techno-social machine. Schwitters deploys what Dadaists would refer to as the hegemonic machine of bourgeois Modernist painting; yet he perversely manipulates the very forces of production within that artistic practice. This manipulation, in turn, is productive of another arrangement of circuits, materials, and ideas. “It is from this perspective that there is not only a perverse use or adaptation of a technical social machine, but the construction of a desiring-machine within the technical social machine.”28 Thus Deleuze and Guattari introduce the way in which the desiring-machine enacts an inside-outside fold of a prevailing regime. The self internalizes the dominant regime, the technical-social machine in question, to the extent that it produces him. Nevertheless, she or he may do so incorrectly. She may redirect the flow and operational mode of the machine and so elaborate a desiring-machine within the introjected machine. Moreover, she may externalize this internally developed machine in another set of assemblages, another specific desiring-machine. Machines, incessantly whirring, constantly active, produce machines that produce other machines in an infinite regress/progress of the production of production. Shcwitters remains within Modernist, medium-bound practices only to the extent that he practices them differently, and thereby inaugurates another kind of practice.

Thus the machine that Deleuze and Guattari define has nothing to do with the technological apparatus of the industrial age, nor the electronic mechanism; it is neither the technologically engineered appliance nor the utilitarian tool. A machine is that which organizes, directs, and interrupts the continuous field of materiality. The machine is a system that conducts the material flow by rendering its instances contiguous at times, breaking it from itself in order to reconnect it to other material flows. As such, the machine does not function as a figure, a unified and bounded identity, over a material ground. “These breaks should in no way be considered separate from reality.” Rather, hylè (or material flow) and machine operate in tandem as inextricably linked.

Materiality surfaces and functions along the machinic armature, which it reciprocally effects; hylè cuts into the machine even as the machine cuts into it. As a system that breaks and directs the matter that in turn molds it, the machine is not incommensurable with the organic. Indeed the mutual force of each obviates the standard differentiation between organic and artificial/synthetic, body and machine. On a larger register, Deleuze and Guattari’s enfolding of machine/material flow as contiguous and continuous contests the set of binaries inherited from Western metaphysics between form and matter, idea and material, system and matrix. That which forms (machine), and that which is formed (hylè), are continuous with one another.

The anthropomorphic body is itself already a machine. It processes the endless flux, the associative flow. The mouth will cut speech, air, milk (food). Likewise, it will afford the conditions of possibility of that material passage; it provides a set of thresholds and surfaces that conduct the passage of matter, of stuff. The anthropomorphic body, then, is both armature, machinic system, and material flow. The body is one site among many where the machine and the endless anorganic vitalism of surfaces and flows converge.

Flow and rupture necessitate and enable one another on a common register: process. This arrangement and organization of process “the law of the production of production. Everywhere there are breaks-flows out of which desire wells up, thereby constituting its productivity and continually grafting the process of production onto the product.”29 The resultant object of production thus bears the imprint of its making and in turn becomes another point along the circuit of production. The object becomes a machine itself as well as a material aggregate testifying to process and becoming part of another process: the producing assemblage. The law of the production of production, then, is predicated upon points of intersection between disparate codes that produce syntheses, which in turn produce the conditions of possibility for subsequent productive flows. “Connect-I-cut-I-connect…” Or, “I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.”

Merz is extracted from KommerzKommerzbank. The desiring-machine of Merz, already inscribed in “komerz” or the techno-social machine of capitalism, is productive of objects that give way to further process and production. As such, Merz opens onto a set of material processes always already operative. Yet it redirects them. Schwitters manages to twist the bourgeois dialectic between private and public sphere. The slices and openings perform on a microcosmic level what the avant-garde had attempted on large scale: the transformation of collective life through the radical interpenetration of the street and the interior, of individual private existence and public collective experience.30

The eerie labyrinthine and subterranean sexuality operative in Merzbau in the investiture of space with bodily flows and byproducts, and the inclusion of an object deriving from the Other, surfaces as a set of practices. Rather than a reference point, a static problem, or a thematic presence, sexuality becomes a productive force, endlessly productive of production.31 “There is no sexual symbolism, and sexuality does not designate another economy, another politics, but rather the libidinal unconscious of political economy as such.”32 As such, it entwines with and redirects economic interest.

Although Merzbau appears to grow in an organic manner, its organicity cannot be interchanged or understood as an organic, whole body. For its organizational strategy, like the organization of the desiring-machine, and like the “full body of society,” depends upon the contiguity of incommensurable elements bound together by value of a social and procedural economy.

The Dada desiring-machine again stands at the juncture between individual and unconscious desire and its entwinement with social-political structure. The challenge that it poses derives from its challenge to the Oedipal mode—the predominant structure put in place in the techno-social machine—of organizing the self. Dada,

puts desire in contact with a libidinal world of connections and breaks, flows and schizes that constitute a world where each thing becomes a component of the motor of desire, of a “lubric wheelwork,” crossing, mixing, overturning structures and animal, mineral, vegetable, juvenile, social.33

This crossing, intersecting and overturning across a lateral field of desire, production and social interaction challenges the vertical, projective plane of Oedipality—the law, the nom du père. Desiring-machines express the non-Oedipal life of the unconscious. If Oedipus is the retroactively inscribed screen, the gadget or fantasy, then the desiring-machine is, to quote Francis Picabia, “the daughter born without a mother.”34 What defines the desiring-machines, in the absence of a vertically organized relationship to the law and the father (the parental hierarchy), “is precisely their capacity for an unlimited number of connections, in every sense and in all directions. They possess two characteristics or powers: the power of continuum and the power of rupture.”35 The notion that the machine is voided of a cerebral father, linking it to a fixed law, allows it to open onto a collective, a “full body” or body politic.36

Recall the definition of the desiring-machine, where “everywhere there are breaks-flows out of which desire wells up, thereby constituting its productivity and continually grafting the process of production onto the product.”37 The machine and the fluid passage of materiality operate along an endless chain of continuous production. The resultant “object” of production thus bears the imprint of its making and in turn becomes another point along the circuit of production. The object becomes a machine itself as well as a material aggregate testifying to process and becoming part of another process anew: the producing assemblage. After the Nazis bombed it in 1937, Schwitters built a second Merzbau in Norway, and then a third when he moved to England, where he died. The final object (the architectural work) was of little consequence. Rather, the function of connecting and cutting material, of continuous production, is what mattered.


Jaleh Mansoor is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at Columbia University. Her dissertation is on the significance of the readymade for Fifties abstract painting in Italy, France, and America.


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