Art

Imaging a City of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades

Have you ever accidentally walked into an occupied bathroom? That incredulous shock of embarrassment is precisely what the Swiss Institute’s new exhibition conjures.

Installation view. Center: Claire Fontaine, “Yoda” (2016). Mannequin, padding, polystyrene, mask, false eyeballs, eyelashes, wig, djellaba, trousers, cape, prayer shawls, leather prayer socks, slip on shoes, socks, t-shirt, leather gloves, metal base, armature, pot with chain and carpet (image courtesy Swiss Institute, photo by Daniel Perez)

Have you ever accidentally walked into an occupied bathroom? That incredulous shock of embarrassment is precisely what the Swiss Institute’s new exhibition, Readymades Belong to Everyone, conjures. Curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, this charmingly unkempt exhibition excites through its unexpected cast of everyday objects spread across three gallery floors.

Commemorating the centennial anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s breakthrough “Fountain” (1917), the objet trouvé urinal that stunned the world with its blatant potty humor, Readymades intends to do the same for JPEGs, street performers, and security gates. Also included is a variety of objects that could pass for stage scenery and props. One that springs to mind is Lutz Bacher’s “FIRE” (2016), an enormous firetruck print on plywood. Although not as large as a real firetruck, Bacher’s rendition shrinks the room, minimizing the importance of other objects by sheer scale. Not that it necessarily earns its precious East Village real estate. Sidling around this toy truck, one notices Alan Belcher’s aforementioned “Desktop” (2012/2018) wall installation including 23 ceramic JPEGs. Compared to “FIRE,” which only globs up the gallery’s precious square footage, Belcher’s “Desktop” better gets at the question of how we might evolve Duchamp’s concept of the found object further. By transforming the flat image icon we all know into a wall sculpture, the artist has creatively reconstituted an everyday object from digital image to physical object.

Installation view of the exhibition, including Lutz Bacher’s “FIRE” (2016). Print on plywood and wood (image by author)

In the Swiss Institute’s inaugural exhibition for its new East Village digs, Belcher is not the only artist seeking to express our internet tendencies in express physical form. Richard Sides and Gili Tal’s unfussy installation of T-shirts, cardboard boxes, and shopping bags seen in the far corner of the institute’s first gallery also accomplishes this task. Appropriating internet memes and art world jokes for statement shirts, the artists have emphasized the blasé cheapness of such clichés. Farther into the gallery, artist Flannery Silva’s “Poser Tube Doll Limited Edition” (2018) rotates a series of photographs of women’s legs in high heels. These images could have easily come from a shipping catalogue or an online portfolio of stock images. Standardized as they are, the viewer notices a formulaic pattern of posing for women’s apparel.

Flannery Silva, “Poser Tube Doll Limited Edition” (2018). Offset print on corrugated cardboard (image by author)
Installation view. Right to left: Richard Sides & Gili Tal, “Deep down the masetrs have always been anarchists” (2018); Ser Serpas, “brooklyn baby” 2018); Lena Tutunijan, “The Individual (Subway)” (2018) (image courtesy Swiss Institute, photo by Daniel Perez)

A perennial interest of the Swiss Institute, architecture features prominently (if awkwardly) into the exhibition as an addendum to Duchamp’s initial definition of readymades as a disruption of the manufactured object. As the show’s title may suggest, its curators believe that even buildings and floor plans can be seen as readymade objects. (They cite a steamboat as inspiration for Le Corbusier’s minimalist modernism and the Berlin Wall as a source of inspiration for starchitect Rem Koolhaas.) It’s a compelling thesis, but the supporting materials on display in Readymades are lackluster examples.

Installation view including Alan Belcher’s “Desktop” (2012/18) in the background. Unique installation of 23 ceramic “______.jpg”s (image by author)

In the downstairs gallery, Christian Kerez presents a variety of museum blueprints and photographs, called “Collecting Architecture” (2018), which is accompanied by a lengthy explainer text. The description deserves partial reproduction here:

We can all see directly into the White House through television from our living room or bedroom without every actually going there. As distant as the physical and personal experience of the built architecture space may seem to us, as close and available its representation appears to be through another medium. In a similar manner you very rarely find a collection of built architecture, as you frequently find collections of its representation through drawings, sketches, pictures, and models.

My difficulty with processing Kerez’s proposal begins from the very first sentence. Seeing something doesn’t necessarily mean understanding it. (And that’s especially true when it comes to the current White House administration.) Even architecture — first envisaged through blueprints, models, and CAD mockups dozens of times before construction — cannot truly be experienced through its intermediaries. Further, if the goal of architecture is to create new environments through spatial manipulation, how does it conform to our understanding of readymades as everyday objects rechristened as transgressive artworks? Something doesn’t track here, and the curators have seemingly ignored clearer examples of Dada-inspired architecture like Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau” (1927–1933) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s contemporary installations of detritus.

Sergison Bates Architects, “Prototype for suburban houses” (1998). Plywood and veneer, print on paper (image courtesy Swiss Institute, photo by Daniel Perez)

Rather than strain themselves to justify architecture’s relevance to the readymade, other artists on display better excel at evoking the strange referential powers of form. While not exactly related to the show’s curatorial conceit, I find such works in Readymades most compelling. Evoking the indexical land works of Robert Smithson, “Prototype for suburban houses” (1998) by Sergison Bates Architects is an excellent example. A low-key complicated work, “Prototype” pairs a photograph of a modernist condominium with the building’s small-scale model. With the backside of the home facing viewers, Sergison Bates creates a discrepancy between image and model. The architects force the viewer to reckon with the model as a true signifier of the larger structure. How do we really know if the back of the condominiums look exactly like the model? Buyer beware.

Although many of the works in Readymades fall flat, the Swiss Institute should be commended for taking a risk with its new space; the exhibition sets the tone for a gallery devoted to artistic experimentation. Even if its curatorial conceit is a mess here, at least it’s a hot mess.

Readymades Are for Everyone continued through August 19 at the Swiss Institute (38 St. Marks Place, East Village, Manhattan).

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