But is it art?

By Jonny Clement Brown Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-6 19:28:46

Onlookers at the exhibition highlighting some of French artist Duchamp's original work. Photo: Jonny Clement Brown/GT
Onlookers at the exhibition highlighting some of French artist Duchamp's original work. Photo: Jonny Clement Brown/GT

If I were to present to you a urinal toilet bowl, sign it "R.Mutt," title it Fountain and put it on display somewhere sometime in 1917 calling the whole thing art, I would have you and the entire art world in a state of shock.

I would have also arguably have invented the practice of "conceptual art." Avant-garde surrealists are a nightmare at the best of times but traversing the viaducts of the brain of French-American painter, sculptor, writer and conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is an interesting journey to say the least.

By presenting a preexisting found object as art, he redefined traditional notions of the link between an artist's labor and the work completed. This is exactly what Duchamp did with Fountain in 1917. It's not surprising that some consider it as one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.

So when the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing announced that it would be hosting DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA, an exhibition highlighting some of Duchamp's original work on the Chinese mainland for the first time ever, for art lovers it should be very big deal indeed.

At the exhibition's core is Duchamp's Boîte-en-valise or "box in a suitcase," - a portable museum containing 80 miniature reproductions of his key works. There are altogether 31 Duchamp works on display, plus works from over a dozen contemporary Chinese artists influenced by his work.

"I think it [the exhibition] could bring alive some of the ultimate debates about contemporary art," muses style editor at ARTINFO China, Veronique Liu, 26. Liu raises the age-old question about modern art in general: "How could this piece of crap be called art?"

Liu says she finds it "surreal" that China is following this well-trodden path.   

"The fact that we [Chinese] are adding our own interpretations to the same works that changed the face of the Western art world," Liu pauses. "Duchamp would have loved that. I think."

New York-based British art scholar and curator John Tancock, speaking at a press conference at UCCA, used Wang Luyan's piece Altered Bicycle as an example of how Chinese contemporary conceptual art has been influenced by the French master. Just so you know, the piece is a normal yellow bike perched against the gallery's wall. 

"He [Wang] denied having been influenced by Duchamp, but on the other hand it's a bicycle and we're looking at it in the gallery," said Tancock.

Most of the local artists in the exhibition come from the school of 1980's avant-gardism. 

The ever-controversial Ai Weiwei contributes a coat hanger from 1985 bent into shape so that it resembles the side profile of a man. It's called Hanging Man. Get it? Intriguingly it is strikingly similar to Duchamp's own self portrait in profile featured in the exhibition. 

Another local artist, Huang Yongping, has submitted his Large Turntable with Four Wheels from 1987. It is basically a small round table top on a trolley-like structure with four wheels.

Of all the artworks on display, the concepts are simple - maybe often even a little cheeky - but the effect when well executed is always striking.

Staying within the Duchampian rules of presenting a found object is Prize (2010) by Beijing art collective Polit-Sheer-Form. Ostensibly a crushed parcel in a Perspex box, Prize is in the gallery and people are looking at it.

"Huh," says one onlooker bemusedly as he studies the work intensely. He then bent down with extra care and took a picture of it. The scene is quite surreal but isn't that the point?

DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA is at UCCA at 798 Art Zone until June 16. Tickets 10 yuan, students/seniors/members free.


Posted in: Metro Beijing

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