How an artist’s toilet humour is still making a splash 100 years on

How an artist’s toilet humour is still making a splash 100 years on

April 29, 2019

When 29-year-old French-American artist Marcel Duchamp walked into a New York plumbing store in April 1917, he knew what he was about to do would shake up the local art establishment.

However, he couldn't have imagined that more than 100 years later we'd be still be talking about and analysing his whimsical protest.

Nick Chambers with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and Bicycle Wheel. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Duchamp left that Fifth Avenue store with a plain white porcelain urinal. It was bog standard in every sense of the word.

Having added the signature of a fictitious artist "R Mutt", he entered the work – which he called Fountain – into that year's exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. It was a not-so-subtle challenge to the art establishment and the way in which art was valued and commodified.

His "readymade" artwork was rejected by the society and mysteriously disappeared (but not before it was photographed for posterity). Duchamp resigned his membership in protest.

However, what could not be destroyed was the radical idea that an artist could make an object into art simply by declaring it so.

And that's why one of the Duchamp-sanctioned replica Fountains is in one show at the Art Gallery of NSW this week as part of a major new exhibition, The Essential Duchamp.

On loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the gallery calls the show "the most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the art and life of Marcel Duchamp ever to be seen in the Asia-Pacific region".

And there is a great deal more to the work of the great iconoclast than his infamous Fountain.

"Duchamp is one of the great enigmas of 20th century art," says senior curator Nicholas Chambers.

As a young man he experimented with various art movements.

"But he always had his quite unique take and he never became a card-carrying member of any of these art movements," says Chambers.

Divided into four "chapters", the Sydney exhibition includes readymades, paintings, sculptures, photography and installations from Duchamp's prolific and diverse output.

"I want to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste," Duchamp famously said.

"He was incredibly difficult to pin down," says Chambers. "Essentially what he is saying there is he doesn't want his practice to coalesce into a unified style. We don't have this sense of a Duchamp artist 'brand'.

"One of the things that people will take away from the show is how incredibly agile Duchamp was as a thinker."

As well as an opinion about that simple piece of plumbing that so scandalised the art world and inspired so many artists since.

"A lot of Duchamp's artworks are about activating discourse," says Chambers. "The fact we are having this conversation now in 2019, 102 years after he made the urinal, is precisely because of the discourse that work activated."

The Essential Duchamp, AGNSW, until August 11

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