The problem is, "the viewer" was an innocent bystander, and the unplanned performance was not presented as art, even if Dada was about injecting art into everyday life. While it seems fair to call Elsa a precursor to feminist performance artists, it's a stretch to say she coined a new genre. Furthermore, her Ernst-like sculptures and futurist collages are more interesting than her "performances," which were little more than stagy appearances. Enduring Ornament, for example, her first found object, is an iron ring she discovered on the street in 1913, the same year Duchamp unveiled his Bicycle Wheel (and two years before he invented the term readymade). Her wonderfully titled Limbswish, ca. 1920, is a metal spiral wrapped around a curtain tassel, which she wore rakishly attached to her belt. Gammel explains, "the word play of limb swish highlights the whip's kinetic swishing movement, as well as its erotic charge with its title's punning on limbs wish."
Elsa's swashbuckling poems are also arresting, if rough-hewn, and infused with Sylvia Plathńlike anger and a pop sensibility. In one, she brilliantly describes America as a "helpless giant on infant's feetóknuckles for brainsóaltogether freak." Published between 1918 and 1921 in the Little Review, her sexually explicit work was censored along with the first serial of Joyce's Ulysses. Both Hemingway and Ezra Pound championed it, and Gammel shows its clear influence on Pound's Cantos.
Though she ran with the New York avant-garde in the late teens and early '20s, Elsa never gained much career momentum. This may be, as Gammel claims, because "her originality was too much for America, which preferred an 'empty show,'" but it seems more likely that her lack of focus and formidable talent for insulting people worked against her. She was also a hypocrite, who blasted the bourgeoisie yet stole from her friends and indulged in elitist fantasies, even after landing in a homeless shelter in Germany in 1925, claiming, "physical work leaves me spiritually empty. . . . Educated and cultivated people . . . understand my whole situation perfectly." She died in a hotel in 1927, having left the gas on all night, by accident or by design no one knows.
Gammel's writing makes this bloated book a trying read. But she has done a bang-up job of researching Elsa's spottily documented life, bringing understanding to her unruly art and securing her place on a continuum that leads straight to Hannah Wilke scarring her body with bubblegum and Carolee Schneemann extracting a scroll from her vagina. Like them, Elsa used her body as a canvasóremarkably, mere decades after an era in which women were forbidden to show their ankles in public and more than a half century before feminist performance artists picked up where she left off. She probably wasn't the mother of Dada, but she did help make the world safe for Karen Finley and Susie Bright.
Margot Mifflin is the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (Juno Books, 2001) and professor of journalism at Lehman College.