Jul 14, 2015

In advance of the broken art

Inside the house I call my mind

there are many rooms and passages I cannot find.

Stripped bare and burrowed deep

I search for things I care to keep.

A spade is a spade, right? But when is a spade not a spade? When it’s a shovel, sure, but we’re here today to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of Marcel Duchamp’s momentous decision to say a spade is spade and a spade is art if he says so. 

At this point I should mention that I have a habit of applying what I think of as a parental test on great moments of art history and although the telephone line hadn’t yet crossed the Atlantic in 1915, let’s imagine a typical Mum rings Son chat. So Lucie Duchamp rings Marcel who’d nicked off from France to America because he found Paris a bit unpleasant during WW1.

Ring ring

Marcel – Hi Mum.

Lucie – Hi Marcel, what’ve have you been up to? Are you looking after yourself properly? It’s pretty tough here, what with the war and all.

Marcel – Doesn’t sound good from what we’re reading in the paper Mum. I’m fine but the real big news is that I may have made a massive breakthrough in my art, I went to the hardware store and saw this shiny American snow shovel, so I bought it, it’s great. I took it home and lent it against my lounge room wall, it’s as good a piece of art that I’ve ever seen. I’m very excited about it. I also invented 2 special new expressions, "anti-art" and "readymade" (art), pretty good eh?

I had a bit of trouble thinking of a title for it, but I remembered your advice about always being careful in the snow in case you fall or slip over and break your arm, so I called it “In advance of the broken arm” in honour of you. 

Lucie – BLOODY HELL MARCEL! Have you gone completely crazy since you’ve been in America, it all sounds too much like, In Advance of My Broken Heart .

Marcel– Don't be like that Mum, the Americans love my stuff, I'm the hottest thing in town.

Lucie - Yeah right, what do the Americans know about art, they're probably just excited because you're French and French is always cool - Have you got a proper job yet? Teaching a few people French seems like an awful waste of your good education.Why don't you become a photographer, they make heaps of money these days, don't tell me you can buy a perfectly normal spade in America and then sell it back to them as art for more money than you paid in the first place, the Yanks must be as mad as you..... you should become a salesman.  

Marcel - I have been playing a fair bit of chess, I enjoy that.

Lucie - I might of thought so, lazy as usual, that's your real problem. 

What do you mean by doing this to your family? 

I know your brothers do some pretty wacky stuff but why do you always try to out-do them? – you used to draw so nicely. Even though you led your sister, Suzanne, astray, she’d never doing anything as nuts as call a spade, Art

The war’s bad enough but having a son like you will be the death of me. Promise me you’ll get some counselling as soon as possible. I’ll get your brother Jacques (Villon) to give you a call tomorrow, I know you’ve always respected him; maybe he can talk some sense into you. Good bye, I’m too distressed to talk anymore……..I think I'd better talk to your father about inheritance.

Fast forward 100 years and of course we can notice that we tend to keep the bits of the Duchamp story that suit us and loose the others in bottom of our odds and sods draws.  

For me there has always been a bit of a conundrum surrounding the location of “art” or “anti-art” in the readymade snow shovel sculpture. Duchamp selects an artless object (no art or anti-art) and claims some authorship (dubious), places it so that it is ready for its intended use of controlling nature (heaps of inconvenient snow) and then lets everybody imagine the climatic circumstance that may require its use (much art/life imagined in the mind of the viewers). So in reality the snow shovel is just a triggering device for a kind of art that exists only in the mind, which is, coincidentally, an accurate definition of a completely abstract art.

It has been persistently claimed that a major motivating force behind the rapid changes in art between late 19th and the early 20th centuries was the invention of photography or more particularly cameras. Indeed a machine that could create a reasonable facsimile of art or convert anything into instant readymade art must have been quite terrifying and undermining. Artists of the time had every reason to see photography as anti-art. Although Duchamp’s readymades are not quite in same league as the invention of photography both contributed immensely to the ever expanding idea that anything and everything could be art and anyone could be an artist or Art is everything – Nature is Art - Craft is art etc etc.

Bunnings or the Bush?

Bunnings was the very obvious choice for a readymade sculpture gallery commemorating 100 years of Duchamp with a readymade retrospective. There are, however, many present day impediments that should really be considered. Most notably that Bunnings has so many artless objects which means they often cancel each other out. Sadly these are curated in a very conventional way and ordered into categories replicating the attitudes of the traditional 19th century museum. And worst of all Bunnings is an icon of the Anthropocene.

That said, no art is far worse than some art, so regular trips to any of the many convenient Bunnings stores may just about service that need for art. And of course there’s something for everybody, kids included.

The scrubby bush seemed a much more sophisticated and appropriate choice for a Duchamp inspired readymade outdoor sculpture venue, but it too comes with a few minor problems. Comprehending these Australian landscapes has always been a persistent problem for many people, who tend to see them as a characterless mess, devoid of worth and inhabited by all kinds of nasties.

Fortunately by 1915 a few painters from the Heidelberg School had made a good start at making convincing representations of this most Australian of art problems. Frederick McCubbin 1855 - 1917, effectively interpreted this kind of bush in pictures such as "Violet and Gold" 1911, the "Pioneer" 1904 and "Lost" 1886. In terms of chronology, a direct Australian comparison with Duchamp 1887 - 1968, must be Hans Heysen 1877 - 1968, with works like "Sunshine and Shadow" 1904 that by now depicted the close bush devoid of humans or farm animals.

The site for this commemorative work is an area of bush bounded by the Tinamba-Glemaggie and Weir Roads, just north of Heyfield. There is convenient parking at the corner where these roads meet. It is available for viewing all year round though it is advisable to use insect repellent in the warmer months and take notice of local bushfire fire alerts.

It is recommended that visitors walk into the bush to a point where roads or buildings cannot be seen, then stand still and just look. Soon, instead of seeing a mess, millions of intriguing details will start to pop out of nowhere. You should look at one as long as it interests you or your eye is attracted to another. Sadly it is a little easy to get side tracked by evidence that other humans have visited this place and have abandoned items here. Most seem to have been purchased at Dan Murphy's or possibly Bunnings. Whilst these objects definitely refer to Duchamp's readymades, the delights and layers of experience offered by the natural version is infinitely more rewarding.

The special character of this place is largely due to fire, it has probably burnt regularly since it first took root. As each fire has gone through, saplings bend as they are burnt, in keeping with the wind direction, leaving not only evidence of the process but an example of nature's own fabulous art skills. Some trees fall over and re-compose their broken parts on the ground or get hung up in other trees.

When approaching this genuinely site specific work it does help if you know quite a bit about art, because here, it definitely is the case that the more you know the more you'll find. This complex show makes Nicolas Bourriaud’s, "Art in the Age of the Anthropocene" at the 2014 Taipei Biennial look clumsy, naive and a cynical avoidance of truth.

Lovers of sculpture should go looking for Henry Moore's truth to material theory, you'll see nature's made a few Giacometti's of its own, there are many examples of the David Smith/Anthony Caro accumulations of readymade parts arranged according to the cause and effect, syntactical relationship concept and Eva Hesse lurks everywhere. It is not hard to notice that nature has avoided the quasi-medievalism of Goldsworthy. Minimalism is well represented, though the earthworks of Smithson and Heiser are purposely avoided by nature as being a particularly human imposition on landscape.

Better use of space, more sophisticated manifestations of kinetic movement, perpetual change and greater variety of form, tone, colour, light, line, edge and texture in this place challenge the combined best efforts of human artists.

One cannot help but observe that art and the planet could be in better shape if Marcel Duchamp had chosen a readymade landscape instead of a tool used by humans to shape it according to their own selfish interests.

Note: Bunnings is a chain of warehouse sized hardware stores, Dan Murphy's is a chain of liquor stores.


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