100 years ago Marcel Duchamp unveiled the first of
his "ready-made" artworks; a bicycle wheel atop a white stool. Another readymade from a couple years later – a porcelain urinal called Fountain – is now routinely cited as the most influential work of art of the twentieth century.
With the readymade, Duchamp suggested art should be about the expression of ideas, not beauty. It took a while to catch on but it’s now considered one of, if not the, major shifts in the history of modern art. David Hammons' work Holy Bible: Old Testament consists of what looks like a leather-bound bible, but between its gilt-edged pages is a copy of Arturo Schwartz' Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (1969). You get the idea.
Reinventing the Wheel: The Readymade Century (at the Monash University Museum of Art until 14 Dec), charts the history and legacy of Duchamp’s readymade. Talking to Charlotte Day, MUMA’s director, you get the sense that Duchamp’s influence on contemporary art is so pervasive that it’s kind of exhausting. Annoying even. In the catalogue for the show she asks, "…how often is the flash of a brilliant idea is stymied by the fact that Duchamp had already thought of it?"
The readymade radically re-imagined what made art art, which had a kind of knock-on effect, calling into question many of our prevailing assumptions about what art could or should be. Day cites a long list of other big ideas intimately bound up in Duchamp’s concept of the readymade, not least: “What is the role of the artist? Who determines what is art and what isn’t? Who determines how value is attributed to something?”
Duchamp was interested in the cultural consequences of a new era of mass manufactured goods (an idea later taken up with gusto by pop art and minimalism). "He also thought a lot about the space of the exhibition itself," says Day, "He used humour, wordplay and even silliness to test the authority of that space" (anticipating institutional critique movements). And he was interested less in the art object than in the social conversations that art could engineer (a key aspect of recent participatory and "relational" art practices). "If Marcel Duchamp hadn’t come along," said American artist Ed Ruscha, "we would have needed to invent him."
Reinventing the Wheel features works spanning the last 100 years, by artists who've engaged – implicitly and explicitly – with idea of the readymade, including a strong selection of local and emerging artists. Among the works are Ceal Floyer’s garbage bag filled with air, Garbage bag, and Martin Creed’s crumpled paper ball, Work no. 88 – A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (both artists still routinely elicit howls of "but it’s not art!").
There’s also Stuart Ringholt’s severed pink bathtub which has been transformed into a mid-century arm chair, Hany Armanious’ Relative nobody, which looks like a damp assemblage of grungy junk but has in fact been meticulously crafted from cast resin and bronze, and Andrew Liversidge’s stack of $10,000 in $1 coins.
Many of the artists in the show I wouldn't automatically associate with Duchamp, which goes a way to indicating how ubiquitous those ideas have become. As Day reminds me, "from our perspective, one hundred years on, we're used to the notion that in art, anything goes. We sometimes forget what a radical gesture the readymade was." And how its ripples are still being felt.
The title of the exhibition, Reinventing the Wheel describes what Duchamp did with Bicycle wheel. But it also describes what artists do now, everyday, with the idea of the readymade: take something that already exists and make it strange, make it funny, make it ask questions, make it start conversations, make it new again.
>> Maura Edmond