Most Thursday I go into the city, Fitzroy or somewhere else and look at art galleries and street art but today I am staying at home. Most of the galleries in Melbourne, including the NGV, are in an unprecedented shut down due to the COVID-19 virus. So many things have been shut down and cancelled.
I anticipated that this would happen last week in my last blog post and that day in the city was coloured by the feeling that I won’t be doing this again soon. I had hoped to take a photo-booth photo to memorialise the day but the classic black and white photo-booth at Flinders Street Station was being cleaned. (See my post on photo-booths.)
Instead of my usual gallery crawl, today I am staying at home. Working on the eternal tasks of labelling my photographs, going through the unread emails in my inbox and catching up with my reading. With me are my wife who is working from home and an elderly 12-year-old cat, Stella, that we adopted from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital earlier this year. Stella is very comfortable and experienced with staying at home.
So, as I work out what I’m going to do for the next couple of months, here are some photos that I took earlier. South Korean responses to Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel from a design exhibition of street sports. I saw them last year at the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park and I enjoyed their play on the idea. However, the best tribute to Bicycle Wheel that I have seen was by Sean Gladwell.
At first glance I thought that Blindside was completely empty. I looked around for the ‘closed for installation sign’; nothing. There was something hanging on the wall of the second gallery, so I went inside. It was only after I entered the gallery that I saw the paintings.
Three paintings of air vents hung on one wall. There are more tromp l’oeil paintings of hatches, grilles, chutes and ceiling vents. Jan Murray exhibition “Unseen” at Blindside in October 2018; oil paintings of the overlooked architecture of the Nicholas Building and Old Police Hospital. It is the opposite of the old cartoon of the middle aged couple mistaking the gallery’s air vent for a work of art.
The Irish art critic, Brian O’Doherty wrote: “The box, which I have called the white cube, is a curious piece of real estate […] However roughly treated, the white cube is like a straight man in a slapstick routine. No matter how repeatedly hit on the head, not matter how many pratfalls, up it springs, its seamless white smile unchanged, eager for more abuse. Brushed off, pampered, re-painted, it resumes in blankness.” — Brian O’Doherty, “Boxes, Cubes, Installation, Whiteness and Money” A Manual for the 21st Century Art Institution (2009)
The double act between the art gallery and the artist gives the art its comedic meta concepts. It is a double act as old as Dada. Consider all the art spawn from Duchamp’s readymades that require the gallery to be present. All the readymades, all the installations, all the interrogations of the gallery space from Tracey Emin’s Bed to tomorrow night’s contemporary art exhibition opening.
As in comedy this double act is an uneven relationship; the gallery has all the power but takes the comic artist’s jokes with good humour. This power relationship is questioned, ridiculed, knocked about is at the core of so much modern and contemporary art. Playing on the tension of does the artist or the gallery, the frame, the plinth make the art? The art gallery is the antithesis of the artist, a space without personality.
If the institution displaying the object removes itself from this double act and no longer accepts being the butt of jokes then it becomes a museum, a temple or a palace. In such an arrangement any authority that the artist had over the object is replaced by the authority of the institution and ‘by royal appointment…’ becomes a measure of quality. And both royal and popularity as authority expose the arbitrary and an-aesthetic aspects of such power.
And now I have explained the great gallery joke; a terrible thing to do to any joke.
How to display and decorate your Christmas tree in the style of Marcel Duchamp: he did do this one Christmas at Teeny’s house. First, hang the Christmas tree upside down from the ceiling. There a strategic advantage to this way of displaying a Christmas tree, as Duchamp pointed out – there is more room for presents underneath it. On the subject of presents, in keeping with theme of Dadaist readymades, they should be wrapped à la Man Ray.
Marcel Duchamp enjoyed Christmas. In 1907 he held a two day Christmas party that was so wild that he was evicted from his apartment at 65 rue Caulaincourt in Paris. He was twenty years old and had done very little that year but hang around in Paris and go to the seaside in the summer. The menu for this riotous party survives, exhibiting some early Duchamp word play and a drawing of a naked woman sitting in a giant champagne glass drinking from a bottle. Note the English “Plump Pudding”: “Rebellion Menu / Ituitus / Hors d’ouavres / Divedi truffée / Salood / Pâtés / Plump Pudding / Desserts / Vino / Liquors / Champagne / M.D. 24 Dis. 1907”
There is a further art historical connection between this infamous Christmas party and Duchamp’s later art; leiris202 claims that photo of Duchamp’s draftsman’s stool used as a stand for a Christmas tree 1907. The stool looks similar to the one used, five years later, for Bicycle Wheel, the first of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ but even if it isn’t the idea of a Christmas tree is good way to introduce the idea of ‘readymades’.
The common claim of not to be able to understand Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ is odd because people annually make Christmas trees which are by definition an assisted (decorated) readymade. The Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme defines the readymade as “an everyday object elevated to the more dignified level of an artistic object at the mere whim of the artist”. Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938; Rennes, 1969) Ordinary objects regularly transcend the commonplace in religion, as well as, art.
The tree decorated with its lights is connecting with the ancient Roman rituals and the god Mithras. Mithras is a god who was also man, born on December 25th; his birth also announced by a star and witnessed by shepherds. Art, like religion and culture, is the recombination, reuse and reinterpretation of pre-existing ‘readymade’ parts.
In the wake of the catastrophic fire at the National Museum of Brazil it has been suggested (in Wired and Sydney Business Insights) that a digital version of museums collections could replace the need for actual public access. This assumes that the fetichism of the original, a kind of contact magic, is the principle reason for the continued practice. As an atheist I do not believe in contact magic but I don’t go to museums for that reason.
Although the National Gallery of Victoria has described itself as “custodian of the richest treasury of visual arts in the southern hemisphere”. There are other reasons, aside from guarding the horde, for a state museum or art gallery.
Firstly, museums provide unmediated contact with an analogue item is a natural interface. We can look it closer or stand back without any digital interface or restrictions from the technology. The average museum visitor only spends a few seconds on average looking at an exhibit and this would quickly become exhausting if mediated by clicking or swiping.
Secondly, not all people going to a museum are there to contact the original. I am not always looking at the original. Be it Richard Hamilton’s replica of Duchamp’s Large Glass or a working replica of Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel that I could play with. The working replica of Bicycle Wheel was much better than any authorised edition because I could see the often mentioned op art effect of light through the rotating spokes as I turned the wheel.
Finally, it is not the object but the journey and it is not the object but the place. This makes the reasons for a museum much more complex than a storehouse. Museums, art galleries and libraries are public spaces, places where there is the possibility of all kinds of interactions that has to happen in an actual space. Not only that they are public spaces located in an actual and complex world; a world where destination architecture is also a local building.
For me, the best part of going to see the art of the Belgium Surrealists was not contact with the relics of that art movement (which is distinctly different from the French Surrealists). The best part was that it lead me to Mons and the Ducasse de Mons or Doudou festival; an accidental encounter with a parade, a dragon and street festival. It was a lot of fun straight out of Fraser’s The Golden Bough with lots of Belgium beer. (I must have been having fun all I have is a terrible shot of the parade and a photo of me and local drinking beer.)
The death of Tom Wolfe reminded me that amongst his many publication Wolfe wrote a short book about modern art, The Painted Word. The blurb on the book’s cover sums it up. “Another blast at the phonies! – The author of the The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test exposes the myths and men of modern art.” In the end Wolfe’s predictions about the future of art were wrong; modernism did not have a hard landing and the art critics are not more famous than the artists.
Modernism was over by the time that The Painted Word was published in 1975. Modernism was not a fad, it was not a fantasy that was sold to the world by con artists or imposed on it by dictators. Rather it was a reasoned, articulated theory supported by empirical evidence. This doesn’t mean that it was right only that the conservatives own position of royalism, nationalism and tradition was less reasoned, articulated and supported by evidence.
Wolfe’s, and other conservatives, aversion to the ‘theoretical’, the “word” in his “painted word” is a conservative reaction to any explanation other than his own (and I use the masculine pronoun here deliberately). They assume, that ideas and words spring straight from the world into their mind and concocted ‘theories’ are corrupting influences on this allegedly natural state. In this way the ‘theoretical’ could spoil your enjoyment of art or life as if theories are like a vampiric thoughts sucking the joy out of living through understanding.
Ironically (and irony is his middle name) the great debunking of modern art had already been done by Marcel Duchamp. However, the vitriol that the conservatives have for Duchamp blinds them to this and, because Duchamp’s attacks were a kind-of pre-post-modern deconstruction of modern art, rather than by defending traditional values. It was Duchamp’s critique, rather than the conservatives, that laid the grounds for the end of modernism.
However, instead of a total collapse of modernism, as the idealism drained from the market modernism had a soft landing. This was facilitated by changes in the technology that allowed greater growth in popular culture: television, portable music technology, internet, etc. Music on demand used to be the high point of culture available only to the very rich; now everyone has the ability to listen to music or watch videos any time and anywhere and private tastes can be developed without the approval of friends or family multiplying the market for the arts.
This meant that the domination of the state art institutions and funding by ideological forces during the later part of the Cold War was rapidly and successfully short circuited by artists who reached a mass audience through popular media. The popular arts provided an economic way to bypass the moribund system of academic/institutional arts grants until the academic/institutions adapted to the post-modern world.
The idea of an ideological domination of post-modern thinking is an absurd misunderstanding of a decentralised non-hierarchical system. Few of the leading contemporary artists paint and most of them use aerosol paint cans. Tom Wolfe is dead but his attitude that modern art is a con is still an article of faith amongst many conservatives.
‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.
‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.
The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.
The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.
‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.
For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.
Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.
Turning and spinning are themes that Sean Gladwell’s art revolves around; as in his video Storm Sequence where he spins around on his skateboard. So it is not surprising that his VR art, Reversed Readymade makes heads turn.
In fact you can turn a full 360 degrees in a VR of an actual warehouse studio while seated in an office chair. It makes you feel very much in control of the VR experience, even if you are stuck in one spot, because you can turn your back on things.
Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade is a beautiful use of VR technology with a big reference to Marcel Duchamp. This is both the most direct and complete Duchamp reference that I have ever seen (I did my Master’s thesis on Duchamp so I have seen a lot). Gladwell takes Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel and makes it his own.
Gladwell actually makes it his own, making his own bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and then rides it around, spinning around in a circle in the studio. The six minute VR experience depicts this along with some bicycle riding.
Marcel Duchamp had the idea of a reverse readymade. It was a reciprocal arrangement to his readymades, where an existing work of art would be used as an ordinary object. “A Rembrandt used as an ironing board” was Duchamp’s suggestion but Bicycle Wheel is more deserving. It also works better for Gladwell who has more experience with wheels than domestic appliances.
Nor should we forget Duchamp’s interest in optical and mechanical art and that the bicycle wheel was his first attempt at optical art. Duchamp made Bicycle Wheel, in part, to be able to watch the pattern of shadows from a spinning spokes for more than a few seconds.
I’d like to think that Duchamp would have been very impressed with Gladwell’s work for its visual, optical and conceptual elements; he would have also probably felt a bit dizzy from the VR experience, I was.
Sean Gladwell’s Reversed Readymade 2016 is part of the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University.