Marcel Duchamp, 'Tzanck Check', 1919, Courtesy the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Marcel Duchamp, 'Tzanck Check', 1919, Courtesy the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

While I was having emergency dental work recently, someone was committing fraud on my bank account. By the time I went to pay for the treatment (itself somewhat traumatic), all my money was gone. Of course this is happening right here, I thought, having spent some years considering the teeth / money / death triad. An expensive bill: I couldn’t pay it. Everything had been spent on fraudulently purchased liquor and electronics. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, even recently. “Did I make a mistake or are they just amazing criminals?” I asked the representative from Citibank on the phone, from the dentist’s office.

“What a master he was,” the artist Irena Haiduk had written to me over text message, a few days earlier. “His archive always had to do with body, handwriting, thoughts, teeth, maintenance.” We were texting about Marcel Duchamp’s Tzanck Check (1919), which I had found an image of while researching the artist’s Readymades, and sent to her. In the winter of 1919, Duchamp had some dental work done by Dr. Daniel Tzanck — to the tune of $115 dollars. He paid his bill with a painstakingly forged pen-and-ink check, slightly bigger than an average check, drawing on an account at “The Teeth’s Loan & Trust Company Consolidated of New York,” supposedly located at “2 Wall Street, NY.”

Duchamp’s dentist, Dr. Tzanck, was an important art collector and supporter of artists, and knew what he was getting — he accepted the check without attempting to cash it. “I took a long time doing the little letters, to do something which would look printed — it wasn’t a small check,” Duchamp noted proudly. The axis of the check is a vertical ‘printed’ text that reads ‘ORIGINAL,’ a double entendre from which the artist no doubt drew great amusement. The slippage between his ‘own’ handwriting and the cursive ‘printed’ areas of the document is a slide between institutions and persons, between machines and bodies.

The Tzanck Check appears just after L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), in which Duchamp grafted a mustache and a suggestive pun (phonetically, the title of the work reads: elle a chaud au cul, roughly translated as, ‘she has heat in the ass,’ i.e. she is sexually restless) onto a postcard of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503). These works are connected by amplifying issues of meaning and mechanical production, and by Duchamp’s acts of contextual transformation, which he casts like spells. Duchamp spoke to Pierre Cabanne about the two pieces together: “I really like this kind of game, because I find you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen. Reading the letters is very amusing. It’s the same thing for the Tzanck Check. I asked him how much I owed, and then did the check entirely by hand.” They are also, however, connected by the mouth. Whenever I’m establishing the veracity of Duchamp’s pun, I move my tongue, lips, and teeth around the words.

Here’s what Haiduk has to say about teeth and art, in her book, Spells (2015): “Let’s imagine all facets of History as a giant corpus, a body. The mouth of that History-body is art. In that mouth there are teeth, and the teeth are sculptures — plinths and obelisks. For History to utter anything, air has to pass through the teeth. As a consequence all art disciplines pass through sculpture. All sculpture is oral.” Duchamp’s work certainly passed through that zone of plinths and obelisks, notably a large white ceramic, positively molar.

Life, in other words, moves through our little sculpture garden of the mouth. So much for what is said about the Tzanck Check: I can’t find any mention in the literature of the mortality question that resides within the proposition of a bank of teeth. A heap of accumulating loss; the pile-up of the human body. Such a troublesome sculpture garden to maintain, so prone to decay! But that’s also what makes them living sculptures. “Have you ever suffered from bulimia?” asks the dentist. No, I say, with a mouth full of tools (I’ve been asked this by dentists before, because my teeth are evidently eroding faster than average). Citibank tells me I will get the money back that was stolen from my account, though sadly, it seems I’m about to lose a tooth: it can’t be saved. Duchamp eventually purchased his Tzanck Check back from the dentist for a sum larger than the original $115. And while it’s clear that he delighted in his power to transform meaning, he also appreciated which of these meanings are made with the help of words in the mouth. For it’s possible to imagine that this work emerges from vulnerability as much as power — while Duchamp had his mouth open wide, Tzanck was leant over him, working to maintain the sculpture garden