From Beck to Duchamp: the readymade revolution

Duchamp’s “Fountain” in all its porcelain glory.
Duchamp’s “Fountain” in all its porcelain glory.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of artlex.com

In the hands of Marcel Duchamp, a bicycle wheel, snow shovel and urinal became famous.

The French artist invented the idea of the “readymade:” taking an everyday object and, with few or no modifications, presenting it as a new artistic discovery.

Duchamp started in 1913 by affixing a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and amusing himself by watching it spin.

His snow shovel appeared at an exhibit in 1915 after Duchamp picked it up at a hardware store and wrote on it “In advance of the broken arm.” Duchamp’s most famous readymade is 1971’s “Fountain,” a detached urinal upon which he painted one of his pseudonyms, “R. Mutt.”

What does it all mean? The pieces, isolated from their function, can be amusing, troubling or completely bewildering. But according to Duchamp himself, we’re not supposed to feel anything in particular.

“The choice [to use certain objects as readymades] was based on a reaction of visual indifference with ... a total absence of good or bad taste ... in fact a complete anaesthesia,” Duchamp wrote in 1961.

Placed in an art context, Duchamp’s items could become saturated with irony, or completely meaningless. Critics often interpreted the lax nature of the art as exemplary of Duchamp’s alleged cultural nihilism and detachment from the world in general.

Regardless of what the works mean, Duchamp slowed down with his creation of readymades after only ten years.

“Art can be a habit forming drug,” he said, “and I wanted to save my readymades from such a contamination.”

Duchamp moved on to other mediums with a focus on painting. However, his name continues to be associated with readymades and the movements and artists it inspired, including Man Ray and the heavily ironic and nihilistic Dada movement of World War I.

--With files from the Washington Post

More on found art

Found art is not just a quirky underground movement. Over the years, it has has found its way into popular culture.

Family Ties (tv series)

Scott Valentine’s character Nick was introduced in 1985 as Mallory Keaton’s artsy boyfriend. The Keatons were aghast because Nick, in traditional found-art fashion, made junkyard sculptures and was considered extremely weird. Nick’s quirky artistic tendencies were a running joke throughout the series.

Amelie (d. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

Found art is a prominent part of the plot in this beloved French film. The title character played by Audrey Tautou embarks on an impromptu do-gooder quest. In one scene she consoles her neighbour—who is pining for a long lost husband—with a found letter from the post office. Amelie convinces the neighbour that the letter is actually from her husband, and the found item gives the woman happiness anew. In another interesting plot point, Amelie’s elusive suitor Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz) collects abandoned snapshots of random people from photo booths and keeps them in a book.

Al Hansen (performance artist)

Beck Hansen’s grandfather was an influential artist from the 1950s until his death in 1995. Although he didn’t exclusively use found items in his artwork, he certainly used everyday items and odds and ends in his pieces. His preferred materials included candy bar wrappers, matches, cigarette butts, feathers, imagery torn from magazines and various odds and ends. Many fans of Hansen speculate that Beck Hansen derived his cut and paste mishmash of musical styles from his grandfather.

One of Hansen’s exhibits actually made it to Kingston—his show “Beck and Al Hansen: Playing With Matches” came to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in 2000.

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