When the Haifa Museum of Art issued a call for an exhibit to mark a century since the creation of the first readymades by Marcel Duchamp, the museum’s chief curator, Ruth Direktor, put it into question form. Is there art today that isn’t readymade? Is it possible to avoid the tyranny of the readymade? Can art avoid being an object and therefore a commodity? And does a radical aspect remain in the art world’s focus on readymade that is part of the capitalist system?
“I hope the end result also exposes the problematic nature of readymade today — its helplessness and the fact that it’s so sweeping, that it’s a real revolution in the art world,” says Direktor, speaking several days after the museum exhibit, of which she is the curator, opened. The exhibit, entitled 100 Years of Readymade, is already open to the public, though the official opening event will be held on Saturday. “We can’t think about contemporary art without internalizing Duchamp’s suggestion. It was a suggestion that changed the way we relate to art, the way we define art and the way artists work in the world. The shift he made from the hand to the head was revolutionary: no longer was the artist’s hand at the center of things, but the head, the idea. He marked the end of the Renaissance-type project of art as a process moving toward increasing illusion. After him, all anyone could do was to start working from a different place.”
A hundred years later, isn’t everything readymade?
“The easy answer is to say yes, everything’s readymade. But it lacks meaning and it’s obvious. Art can’t avoid the readymade. It can look at it straight on, it can circumvent it, it can try to cope with it out of awareness of its own impotence, it can create a poetic dimension around it, which is what Duchamp did, or create a critical, ironic or subversive dimension.”
Subversive? Is that possible?
“That’s the most difficult option, particularly in the art world, which is so sophisticated, but those are the options. From there, if the things are done correctly, then the result can be a process that isn’t banal and obvious.”
About 120 works by 38 artists are on display at the exhibit. Except for Marcel Duchamp and Arieh Aroch, who are no longer among the living, the rest of the artists are contemporary Israeli artists (except for one: Francis Alys, a Belgian artist who lives in Mexico City). About half the works were created especially for the exhibit, and the rest were created over the past year or two. Among the artists whose works are on display are the Art Espionage Group, Guy Ben-Ner, Ido Bar-El, Adi Brande, Mia Gourevitch, Yair Garbuz, Tamir Lichtenberg, Michal Na’aman, Mahmud Kaes, Efrat Klipstein, Barak Ravitz, Philip Rantzer, Merav Shin ben Alon and Batia Shani.
According to Direktor, the influence of the readymade concept has gone far beyond the borders of the art world. “It is talk about objects. Duchamp was a bourgeois Frenchman who saw how objects become an inseparable part of a person, of his body, even when the object is a readymade one that is created by mass production, not custom-made, and yet it still becomes an inseparable part of your life. He saw the inevitable process of art becoming merchandise. Today, it’s impossible not to see it as a prophecy: everything exists, ready-made, manufactured. Everything is merchandise.”
A representative example of this is the artist Hadas Hassid, who has two sketches on display, both of them text, pencil on paper. The texts she chose are banal ones: a supermarket receipt and a list of side-effects of a medication. She calls the supermarket receipt “Shalva ba-sakit” (serenity in a sack) after one of the products listed on the receipt — which can also mean the new-age concept of existential calm.
“When it’s packed in a sack, even serenity can become a commodity,” Direktor says. “So it’s such a sad and funny fact because it’s so human. We buy serenity in a sack to sweeten our lives, but we hope there will be consolation as well. Everything turns into something that’s supposed to make our existence easier, while we expect art never to confirm that which exists but to subvert it, to suggest new things, to shake us up and shake up the way we think.”
Maybe in the context of readymade, the question should be whether innovation is possible at all.
“That thought is a bit depressing because when you think about what’s already been done, the question really could arise as to what remains to do. Still, the museum still creates the context. It dictates contemplation and certain rules. Even today, to put certain things in a museum is an act that creates meaning. So on the one hand, I want to say that everything’s readymade, that every stroke of a pastel sits inside a recognized and existing style. Any work with sculpting material is something that exists and is familiar. But it’s a castrating thought, that everything exists, that everything is readymade. What still remains to do? That’s not a simple matter. We say 100 years of readymade, and it sounds like a celebration, but it’s not a celebration. It’s the marking of a complex date. We treat art as an object, and that’s the worst thing because it’s inevitable — to treat art as an object, as merchandise, and that’s an intolerable thought for artists. Today, too, there’s the moment when an artist is in the studio, creating art, something new, maybe innovative, but the tragic moment happens the instant it leaves the studio and goes into the arena of the art word. Then it becomes an object.”
Could we say that Duchamp predicted that moment?
“For Duchamp, there was something nonchalant, incidental, in his act. It’s the magic moment of that process, although even then he had the ability to look at these objects and create defamiliarization regarding them and see them in a different context. Today, as the world is a world of objects many, many times more than Duchamp’s world was, there’s no alternative but to see things differently and then the question comes up as to how an artist sees his role in the world. Certainly there’s no celebration of readymade even though the exhibit has quite a few funny, amusing works that take themselves humorously. We have to have self-irony when we work with readymade. Otherwise, it’s pathetic or nostalgic, certainly in the local context.
“For example, the work of Yair Garbuz, which welcomes visitors to the exhibit, with the words ‘Ready maideleh,’ is a brilliant play on words that suggests an Israeli version of Duchamp’s puns, which had erotic connotations. The coarse, vulgar, chauvinistic expression, with its Yiddish word, which is so repulsive, creates self-irony regarding our provincial place. To turn readymade into ‘ready-maideleh’ — that’s a stroke of brilliance that only Garbuz could come up with: in Haifa, we’re celebrating 100 years of readymade. It’s so ridiculous. The ludicrous nature of it, and the irony, are inevitable if you’re talking about the context of time and place.”