The Essential Duchamp
It’s easy to take the institutions that house and present art for granted. We attend exhibitions, spend time looking at and learning about works of art and artists, but until recently we generally didn’t pay much attention to the forces that govern these choices. Rather than question the syntax of their narratives, or the political frameworks underpinning these institutions, we took them as a given.
Marcel Duchamp, the early 20th-century artist who helped found Dada, a movement less about style than a determination to subvert the establishment, was intent on not only overthrowing the powers he saw governing art but also immortalising himself within its hall of mirrors.
The term “ready-made” was used by Duchamp to describe ordinary manufactured objects presented as works of art. The most famous of these works was Fountain (1917), the urinal Duchamp signed R. Mutt before submitting it as a work of art into the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp was himself a founder and director of this society, which had been set up to open the doors and allow anybody to exhibit for a modest fee. When Fountain was refused by the committee, Duchamp resigned as its vice-president.
Fountain – or “the urinal”, as it is commonly known – sits among a group of ready-mades, in large part 1960s replicas of the originals, in The Essential Duchamp, an exhibition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art currently showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where it has been curated by Nicholas Chambers.
A hundred years removed from their historical moment, these objects now appear as fresh, thoughtful and poetic works with little shock value. If their impact remains great, it is, increasingly, in the inherent richness of the objects, rather than the irreverent provocations they once stood for. The photographic footage of Duchamp’s studio that accompanies these objects helps us to focus on the objects as well as the very decisive actions that created them – the processes of selection, presentation and amalgamation with other objects. It is this, along with the distance of time, that hints at their lasting power.
The first ready-made, Bicycle wheel (1913), apparently wasn’t initially considered an artwork by Duchamp but something to “divert his mind like a plaything”, which sounds like a very good way to make art. The black circular form, having been removed from its vehicle and functional armature, was turned upside down, its fork – the part of a bike that links the front wheel to the frame – mounted onto a white stool roughly the same height as the wheel. The trapezoidal structure of the stool and the upraised arms of the fork bring a quality of worship to that being held while it returns a level of appreciation to the pedestal. In other words, the system for securing, framing and appreciating art is no longer taken for granted.
Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy? (1921) beguiles much as a poem might, unfolding in the gaps between the title – the name referring to Duchamp’s female alter ego, its phonics resembling éros, c’est la vie, or “physical love is life” – and an unlikely set of objects: a birdcage, uncharitably scaled between an adult’s shoebox and a child’s; a pile of marble cubes that bring to mind both sugar and dice; a thermometer; and a cuttlebone. The scaly, sand-coloured bone cuts through the symmetry of the cage, into what might have been orderly, a board or a foundation – an association encouraged by the timber perches and thermometer lying in its rubble. The slender bone is both the force of destruction, the wrathful bolt bearing down, and lightness embodied – the wing of an angel painted by Giotto.
The way the objects have been thrown together pushes the involuntary act of the title towards natural disaster or, more precisely, the immediate, flummoxing aftermath of such an event. Helping to shed light on the riddle, Duchamp pointed out, during a television interview many years later: “... you don’t sneeze at will; you usually sneeze in spite of your will. So the answer to the question ‘Why not sneeze?’ is simply that you can’t sneeze at will!”
The elements of With Hidden Noise (1916), a ball of twine squashed between two brass plates, are also suggestive of riddles, order and secret agendas. Inside the twine sits an unknown object that was added by Walter Arensberg, a collector, poet and friend of Duchamp. We only know this from the placard; as is the case for so much art made since Duchamp’s time, it is the information accompanying a work that provides the launchpad for our imaginations. It is in the gaps between words and objects, in that which is hidden from our eyes, that art finds flight.
The dynamic between the implied collapse of the marble cubes and the cuttlebone, with its striking and releasing actions, finds equivalence in Duchamp’s artistic output, specifically the way he upturned – and thus renewed – the system he found lying beneath art and museum culture. A century later, it’s the freshness more than the destruction we appreciate. The distance of time and culture have shifted the meaning of these works but also made clear the care and curiosity Duchamp brought to these everyday items, the way he so deftly liberated them from their past lives and functions.
Bottlerack (1914), a knee-high totemic structure made of galvanised iron, only needed to be given a bit of space to be appreciated as a sculpture. With its use long evaporated – it’s a structure more suggestive of torture than wine, to my eyes – the intrigue of this proposition is clear, its beauty self-evident. It’s only the gesture and context, the way it was smuggled into a fortified system, that affords it any brashness. As with the urinal, the trick in appreciating Bottlerack, besides what it has come to represent in language and ideas, is to come at it as an alien might – to try to glimpse it across the room or from the corner of one’s eye rather than through the tightly construed net of historical associations.
In doing this we are brought closer to the studio and the moment of wonder that made them, but also to the world of objects lying beyond art’s very specialised discourse. Moving back in time we learn of art’s embracing of the everyday but also its lack of preciousness in relation to the role of the artist – exemplified in the extraordinarily beautiful and candid Fayum portraits, which were attached to coffins in Ancient Egypt and buried with the dead. The art world was so easily offended by Duchamp because of its separation and extreme rarefication. By offering up the ready-mades as things worthy of artistic reflection, he was merely opening the valve of museum culture and releasing some pressure.
The post-Enlightenment mania for order, classification and posterity was easily exploited by Duchamp, who was also a master chess player and once a librarian. From the opening rooms of paintings in The Essential Duchamp – the earliest examples depicting churches glimpsed through trees; the majority concerned with chess, cubistic codes and technology – to the ready-mades and obsessive self-cataloguing, it is clear that Duchamp was fascinated by power and its machinations. He saw the board that art was playing on and knew precisely how to expose and exploit his opponent – an orthodoxy ripe for disruption, a set of rules and values and prejudices that no longer made sense.
This is probably what makes a Duchamp exhibition seem particularly pertinent at this moment in time: with the tsunami of problems coming towards humanity, museum culture can feel strange, even wasteful. If it was a world war that brought the attention of artists to the culture of power governing art 100 years ago, then there is – contrary to any appearances of transparency and democracy – plenty to react against now. The culture of vested interests that undermine our biosphere have, by virtue of a ruthless capitalism, unprecedented equivalence in art.
Underlying Duchamp’s iconoclasm and his obsession with posterity was an understanding that evolution relies on careful contradiction. Like the shadow of Hat rack (1917), the ready-made object-cum-creature that appears from above us, hanging from its invisible thread like a spider, Duchamp arrived in art history with stealth and cunning. A master of many things, this poet was really quite a sneaky fellow.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Come to Dada". Subscribe here.