When we go to art museums and are stunned by artists who exhibit a stone or a random object from everyday life and say it is art, we would probably just laugh about it or see it as a philosophical question.
Contemporary art has gone very far in different forms that people are not surprised anymore to see artworks that stand apart from paintings or sculptures.
However, when the first person broke the boundary of art almost 100 years ago, it was a real shock.
The "readymade" concept of art is only part of this person's contributions in the art world. Think about these now familiar terms in the art world: dynamic sculpture, conceptual art, performance art, and the fourth dimension. If there is one person that can link them all together, it is Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).
The exhibition, called DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA at The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), shows 31 Duchamp works centered on the famous Boîte-en-valise and also includes his magazine covers, hand notes and reproductions of paintings, including the renowned Bride and Nude Descending a Staircase.
Boîte-en-valise or Box in a Valise, like a micro moving art museum, was part of 300 examples in an edition. The box contains 80 reproductions of different Duchamp works.
Along with Duchamp's works, curator of the exhibition Francis M. Naumann and John L. Tancock also chose another 15 works from Chinese artists to show the audience how Chinese artists today are getting inspiration from Duchamp's legacy.
His role in art history
Duchamp's era was a breakthrough for Western art, creating names like Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Different from any of them, Duchamp almost stopped painting after Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and started to explore all kinds of possibilities in art.
In the documentary Marcel Duchamp - In His Own Words, he explains that he wanted to find someway to express himself "without being a painter, without being a writer or taking one of these labels…"
What made Duchamp special were not only his artworks. Among the masters, there was often a kind of tacit competition in many ways (not necessarily in a negative way) like what happened between Picasso and Mantisse. But rather than getting mixed up in it, Duchamp stayed away from those famous groups.
For his whole life he kept a distance from marriage, fame, and the identity of being an artist, spending a lot of time playing chess or working alone.
Wang Ruiyun wrote in the biography Marcel Duchamp that it was not intelligence or incredible creativity or lust for fame that created Duchamp. On the contrary, it was his detachment of everything - an attitude of not insisting on anything - that created him.
Exhibitions about Duchamp are still popular around the world. In March this year, BBC Radio 4's arts editor, Will Gompertz, held a special program on Duchamp, concluding that "Duchamp's idea of 'anything can be art' still dominates the art practise today."
In China, Duchamp's influence is recognizable throughout the works produced over three decades, from Huang Yongping and the Xiamen Dada movement he led in the 1980s until the youngest generation of artists today.
For instance, Wang Xingwei's oil paintings in the 1990s were closely related to Duchamp. In his AD 2017 (1995), an old man is teaching children art with one hand holding Duchamp's Fountain (a porcelain urinal that was presented as an artwork in 1917) and the other hand pointing at it. Poor Old Hamilton (1996) has Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee hanging on the wall.
In the UCCA exhibition, Wang's work Beacon (1998), which has a connotation referring to Duchamp's Étant donnés, was selected.
Wang told the Global Times that most of his works related to Duchamp tend to express his thoughts about the Western art history he learned in school.
According to Wang, in 1994 or 1995, installations and performance art were the mainstream in China, and many artists abandoned their brushes and palette to follow the wave. To paint things related to Duchamp was to ask whether "that is the only correct direction for the development of contemporary art."
Almost 20 years later, Wang's focus switched from art history to daily life. However, he still likes Duchamp, particularly Duchamp's idea of "emphasizing a way of presentation in a harmonious relationship that the audience as well as the social structure could all be reflected in the framework."
Artist Zhao Zhao specially created a work for the exhibition. He bought an oil painting of Étant donnés from Dafencun in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, a place that produces an estimated 100 million reproductions of paintings every year by copyists.
Zhao covered the painting with a special kind of glass and broke the glass to create a small hole on the surface with cracks, a bit like Duchamp's The Large Glass.
Zhao's work refers to Duchamp's discussion of the possible ways of seeing. "The glass itself is an artwork. You can see the glass, the reflection of yourself on the glass, the cracks on the glass or through the glass to see the work inside…"
Duchamp in China
Wang Ruiyun wrote in Marcel Duchamp that in 1890 Edgar Degas's single-color print could be bought for only 10 francs, but in 1910, his painting was priced at 430,000 francs - a period that offered artists a chance to transform from an unknown to a millionaire.
Doesn't it sound a bit familiar? Look at what is happening in China now with its flourishing art market gaining global attention. Although the situation is not exactly the same, it shares many similarities with Duchamp's era.
"People may think it is a small exhibition, but in art history it is often a very small portion that summarizes a whole period… It is like a person who took a flight everyday but never knew who made the plane… It has come to a time that we have to see Duchamp now," said Zhao.
In an age when art museums, galleries and biennales are in fast development and people are either crazily seeking fortune or fame, or looking for a way out of the big bang of consumerism, Duchamp as a person should be more inspiring than a porcelain urinal.
As Zhao put it, "It is his art, his experience and personality as a whole that makes the real art."