Pissing into the wind: Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’

The Bride and The Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns
Mise en scène by Philippe Parreno

The Barbican Art Gallery 14 February 2013 – 9 June 2013

There is something particularly funereal in looking at Duchamp’s urinal, or rather one of its dozen 60s replicas now placed reverently under a box of museum glass at the Barbican. This major landmark of 20th century art, an icon of the avant-garde, the ‘anti-art’ movement, lies like a dead Pope whose death mask hints, not unhappily, at the self-knowledge that his time and therefore his religion might just be up. If, like Brian Eno or South African artist Kendell Geers, you were to be caught actually urinating into Duchamp’s Fountain, there are an unusually large number of Barbican ushers (heavies) who would make you feel that your ‘chance’ response to the art work was definitely not the right one and anyway it’s already been done.

More than any other piece of art I’ve seen, Duchamp’s Fountain is unequivocally a heavy bulk of cultural history. There it is. He chose it. He authored it ‘R Mutt’ and he made it art. He saw its humour and beauty and irreverence. It is heralded as enabling minimalism, conceptualism, performance art and just about every other significant development in art of the past half century. I get ready to say hello and pay my dues. Yet here it sits as musty and retro as an aardvark’s head amongst the taxidermied spoils of the Natural History Museum while all around the glass boxed mausoleum the rest of the exhibition tries desperately hard to be ‘alive’. Standing there with my museum guide, being ‘scored’ around the space by a constant soundtrack of Cage and Parreno, all I want is for Duchamp’s drag persona, Rrose Selavy, to appear behind a door and ask to share a cigarette with me – but she’s gone and so is he.

Performers sculpt their work from the stuff of human life, i.e. the body and all that it contains. It is directly connected to the artist and can therefore not be removed nor sold as a separate entity. There is mutual consent that Lawrence Olivier’s stage performances are gone now that the man is gone. There is a mutual consent that performance, like Shakespeare’s plays, comes alive in the moment of its incarnation. They exist within life and so ascribe to the absolutes of that mortal coil- they are part of Time’s detritus. As the most famous work from the artist heralded as being the godfather of performative disciplines merging with the visual arts, Fountain, is all the more remarkable in its inertness. It is stubbornly immobile, heavy and corpse like. Therefore how extraordinary, that as I make my way out of the gallery and into the street, this heavy lump of porcelain does begin ever so slowly to sway. Buoyed by its conceptual provocations the white lump steps out a mocking dance increasingly as vital and alive as the heaving veins of the dancers who I’d previously watched strain in the next room. That smug white block stolen from a public toilet is going to outlive us all. Ah Rrose Selavy, you clever little devil you.