Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Cracking the Duchamp Code

Top 100 2000: Marcel Duchamp
4.3" x 13", oil on wood, 2001
Here’s another image from the Top 100 2000, a portrait of Marcel Duchamp painted in 2001. It was also the year I presented a public lecture about his 1917 readymade piece Fountain which consists of a store bought urinal placed horizontally on a pedestal, signed R. Mutt, 1917. I was obsessed with this piece as I thought at the time I had cracked the Duchamp code by figuring out that the name R, Mutt was not just a reference to the French manufacturer Richard Mutt but also a reference to the German word urmutter that translates roughly as “primal mother” (or “our mother”, or “primal matter”). In other words I likened the urinal to archaic stone age depictions of fertility figurines such as the well known Venus of Willendorf to which it also shares a visual similarity. Reading the Wikipedia page now on Duchamp’s urinal, it turns out that I wasn’t the only one associating R. Mutt with Ur Mutter. The part of the lecture that I haven’t seen interpreted yet in literature is that of the position of the beholder: If, at the normal vertical mounting position of the urinal, the beholder stands in front of it, erect, and uses it for the function it has—to urinate into—then, when placed horizontally, the beholder shifts horizontally too, and lays on top of the urinal. The beholder then would not urinate into the “fountain” but impregnate it. “Brilliant” I thought at the time, considering Duchamp’s preoccupation with sexual references and esoteric imagery. (The Bicycle Wheel, another one of Duchamp’s readymades is to me a clear reference to the medieval depictions of the “axis-mundi”, in which the enlightened individual is grounded for eternity in a central spot on earth with a wheel stuck to his (her) head, and thereby keeps the world spinning.) I’m not quite as excited anymore about my “discoveries” but don’t discard of those ideas either. The lecture in 2001 was more of a stand up comedy routine than a serious art history lecture. I do believe, still, that there is much more than the self-proclaimed (by Duchamp) randomness of his readymades that were meant (according to Duchamp, and his contemporary critics alike) to stir up outrage and subvert the idea of art altogether. While the subversion is clearly part of Duchamp’s intentions, his intentions in my opinion go much beyond that subversion. That I suddenly pick up the theme of a twelve year old lecture (and paper) is because I find myself once again submerged in art criticism. In the context of teaching art appreciation to college students, I watched the documentary Jeu d'Žchecs avec Marcel Duchamp from 1963 on the fabulous And yes…Marcel Duchamp also composed music. The Top 100 2000 featured a recording of La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even performed by Petr Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble. The painting above was the illustration for it. I couldn’t find the original painting so I scanned a reproduction of it. The reproduction had dog ears and other wear and tear that show in the scan. In good Duchampian fashion (the cracks in The Large Glass) the wear is now married to the image.

p.s. Did anyone ever consider the title (fountain) to be of any significance? It doesn't require a big stretch of the imagination to figure out that, in slang, this choice of word for a title, may very well refer to "ejaculation". If this is the case then once again, the focus shifts away from the object towards the subject (the user). It's like a mirror, and the person in the mirror, especially in a public space, is made to feel self conscious to say the least. Had only Brian Eno (et al.) intuited this interpretation before urinating into "Fountain".

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