the early 20th century was a major turning point in art. it marked the true beginnings of “modern art,” and artists were pushing their boundaries beyond what was conventional for paintings, sculptures, and even photographs.
the particular type of piece i am going to focus on is the dada “readymade.” (i have provided a link to the wikipedia entry for the dada movement, as it needs a long, in depth explanation. it is a fascinating movement, +and one that i really like.) this term was coined by marcel duchamp, a “dadaist” who produced some of the most well-known readymades. creation of a readymade seems “easy”- they are existing objects with only slight modifications that allow them to be considered “artwork.”
one example (and probably the most recognizable) of a readymade is duchamp’s 1917″fountain,” which is a urinal turned on its side with “R. MUTT 1917” written on the side.
(photograph by alfred stieglitz)
this is where a viewer begins to ask, “what exactly am i looking at here? is this art? is there something i am supposed to ‘get’?”
to begin to break this down, we acknowledge that we have the object, the urinal/fountain. turning the object on its side and marking it “R MUTT 1917” was a deliberate decision by duchamp, which means that this object is meant to communicate something, based upon the effort put into it. this is the most important aspect of this work- the deliberateness of this particular object. any interpretations of “why” this object was chosen are just that, interpretations. the very idea that a urinal, slightly altered, has been deemed art by duchamp is what makes it art. his alterations and recognition of this object are what make it important.
because the work is titled, we can look at that initially as a source of meaning. the title “fountain” certainly conflicts with what the object itself is- a receptacle for human waste. one meaning lies in this conflict. movement of liquid flowing in an arc comes to mind in both cases, as a fountain puts out water, where a urinal takes in urine. a urinal is thought to be “dirty,” while a fountain is associated with “cleanliness” and “purity.” the object itself, in either case, is white porcelain with flowing lines. that description-“white,” “porcelain,” “flowing,”- gives a viewer a different perspective on the urinal. turning it over could very well make it a “fountain.”
the other major part of this piece is the text, “R MUTT 1917.” it is frequently regarded as a pseudonym. duchamp has said that “r” stands for “richard”- french slang for “moneybags,” and that “mutt” came from j.l. mott iron works (where duchamp supposedly obtained the urinal). he changed “mott” to “mutt,” who was a “fat little funny man” from a well-known comic strip. (source: quoted from an interview by william camfield). this is far as he goes to define the name.
one of my absolute favorite readymades is man ray’s “object to be destroyed.”
the original 1923 readymade has been recreated multiple times (thus also known as a “multiple”) and each recreation has a different name: “object of destruction,” “lost object,” “last object” “perpetual motif,” and the “indestructible object.” the object itself is a metronome with a photograph of an eye attached to it. the eye in second version of the readymade (and all recreations afterward) was replaced with a photograph of lee miller’s eye, who was man ray’s assistant, muse and lover. she left him in 1932, and along with the new eye, the readymade came with instructions: “cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. keep going to the limit of endurance. with a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.” (source)
the initial idea of the object was to watch man ray while he worked. the connection to lee miller seemed more than fitting- her eye, still watching, her presence constantly permeating everything he did (many photographs credited to man ray were actually produced by miller, and they “discovered” the technique of solarization together). his desire for miller and her essence never leave- hence, the “indestructible object.”
this explanation is particularly on target:
“from atop a metronome, a single photographic eye stares out at us with composure. It is a lovely eye, framed by an elegant brow. the carefully rounded corners of the black-and-white photograph attest to the care with which it was handled before being paper-clipped to the metronome. Set into motion, however, the eye aggresses, disturbs, and taunts. ticking back and forth, it regulates and controls us, stealing our will to act against it. like a petulant child learning to play piano, we are angry and resentful, resentful of the eye that will not stop watching, will not stop beating its time. with nerves frayed and frustration pent up, we are at the edge. we pick up the hammer, smash the metronome to bits; its springs and weights scatter. bent metal and splintered wood fly across the floor. There is a moment of release, even satisfaction, as our arm drops limply. but then we notice that the photograph is not so damaged. creased perhaps … abraded from the scrapes of the shattered metronome, but the eye still stares placidly, oblivious to the destruction wrought in its wake.”