Dancing with Duchamp
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Richard Mutt was a pseudonym used by one of Marcel Duchamp’s friends. When he presented Duchamp with a urinal to show at the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 as an example of a ‘Dadaist anti-art statement’, they were not aware that this mundane item of sanitary ware would gain cult status as the first ever piece of conceptual art. If they had, it would not have been ‘thrown out with the trash’ after the exhibition was over. This seems to have been the fate of many of Duchamp’s ready-mades until the art world woke up to their importance. Soon the race was on to make replicas of these items for collectors and galleries all over the world. The Tate Gallery’s version was one of a series of eight manufactured in 1964 and overall, there are now seventeen known versions of this seminal work.
Performance Art is entertaining. Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi are the two performance artists who had a pillow fight on Tracy Emin’s‘My Bed’ back in 1999 followed up by having a pee in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Urinal’. Luckily it was enshrined in its Perspex box at the time and no damage was done. The jovial art pranksters were summarily ejected from the Tate Gallery and told never to return. Taking the piss out of iconic conceptual artworks is no laughing matter at Tate Modern. Marcel Duchamp ‘s early iconoclastic self must be turning in his grave.
At the Barbican is an exhibition called ‘Dancing around Duchamp’ that has travelled from Philadelphia Museum of Art: home to the Arensburg collection of Marcel Duchamp’s work and houses his Magnus Opus ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’, otherwise known as the ‘Large Glass’ of 1911 -23. A complex piece, it’s an allegory of frustrated sexual desire. Constructed on two sheets of glass one above the other, it shows the Bride in her domain, reduced to a collection of organic parts attached to a stylised cloud. She is the centre of attraction for the nine bachelor suitors symbolised as mechanical objects who are forever destined to reside below in the bachelor’s domain. This enigmatic work is the fitting centrepiece of this Barbican Gallery show, around which the paintings and constructions of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the choreography of Merce Cunningham, and the chance musical encounters of John Cage revolve. As the original Large Glass is unable to be moved because of its fragile state, the Barbican’s show has a brand new replica made by Ulf Linde and Per Olof Ultvedt in 1991-92. There is also another version at the Tate Modern made by Richard Hamilton and another in Japan. Perhaps we could have more replicas in our Galleries – a Mona Lisa in the National Gallery, a Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Victoria and Albert? They already have a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David.
The exhibition has been designed as a music, dance and visual arts experience and yes: it does have a replica of Duchamp’s Urinal. The show begins with the Cubist inspired ‘Nude Descending a Staircase No 2’ , the star attraction at the famous Armoury show of 1913 where it was described as “an explosion in a shingle factory”. The notoriety gained, launched Duchamp’s career in America where he became the leader of the New York Dadaist faction. His art activities also included writing music and his ‘Erratum Musical’ 1913, a score he composed with his sisters using chance procedures – notes being pulled out of a hat at random can be heard in the gallery. It pre-dates John Cages composition ‘Music of Changes ‘1951 in which he used the I Ching to determine the notes in which he “allowed sounds to be themselves.”
In the central space, dancers perform Cunningham’s ‘Events’ a series of dances especially designed for small spaces. The dance company acted as a catalyst for bringing the artists together and around the stage are works by Duchamp, Rauschenberg and Johns. The latter’s beautiful ‘Field Painting’ 1963-4, an oil on canvas with attached objects, light switch and neon light, illuminates the three dimensional letters that read Red, Yellow and Blue. His visual repertoire of flags, targets, numbers and letters were used because they were ready-made “objects that the mind already knows”. There is also his bronze sculpture of two Ballantine Ale Cans, which returns the idea of the ready-made to the traditional realms of art practice.
Replicas, facsimiles and reproductions aside, there is much to see and think about in this engaging exhibition. The interaction of these four artists with Duchamp’s ideas is fully explored and this show is hugely enjoyable and well worth experiencing.
Top:The Large Glass Replica
Bottom: Field Painting