This strange object embodies the spirit of the Dada movement that erupted in 1916 in reaction against the chaotic destruction and mass slaughter of World War I.
In his autobiography Man Ray recounted the story of the making of the original Cadeau. On the day of the opening of his first solo exhibition in Paris he had a drink with the composer Erik Satie and on leaving the caf茅 saw a hardware store. There with Satie’s help — Man Ray spoke only poor French at this point — he bought the iron, some glue and some carpet tacks, and went to the gallery where he made the object on the spot. He intended his friends to draw lots for the work, called ‘Cadeau’, but the piece was stolen during the course of the afternoon.
Arturo Schwarz, Man Ray’s dealer and author of a monograph on him, has written of this piece: Gift is a typical product of Man Ray’s double-edged humour. Its sadistic implications need not be stressed. Its erotic aspect is revealed by Man Ray’s remark: "You can tear a dress to ribbons with it. I did it once, and asked a beautiful eighteen-year-old coloured girl to wear as it as she danced. Her body showed through as she moved around, it was like a bronze in movement. It was really beautiful."
Man Ray’s intentions, which might be seen as merely to deride the iron’s functions are much more subtle. Man Ray never destroys, he always modifies and enriches. In this case, he provides the flatiron with a new role, a role that we dimly guess, and the probably accounts for the object’s strange fascination. (Schwarz, p.208)
By gluing carpet tacks to a hand iron, Ray transformed a common household tool into a threatening, nightmarish object. Deprived of its functionality and associations with domestic life, this perverse iron assumes disturbing associations with the world of irrational violence and sexual desire.
I recreated Man Ray’s Cadeau with a vintage flat iron off eBay for the purposes of this photographic series.