Marcel Duchamp remains a fascinating and inspirational figure to contemporary artists for the daring way in which he turns the world upside down. Nothing was sacred to him and all established systems open to deconstruction. He plays with language and meaning more deftly than most thinkers. It’s even possible to regard him as a philosopher working in concrete form rather than a more conventional artist who happens to manipulate materials. So it’s a rather inspired idea of Blain/ Southern to curate a show, ‘Tell Me Who You Haunt’ in Hanover Square exhibiting Duchamp alongside artists engaging with his concept of the ‘readymade’, a pre-existing object translated into art through the artist’s selection and translation through the act of exhibiting it as an ‘artwork’. This strategy is now well established and prevalent today. We take the idea on trust and it remains a founding principle of conceptual art. But the exhibition is also exploring how reading a ‘readymade’ may change depending on how it is shown and its relationship to other objects. Therefore a ‘readymade’ is always in flux and never fixed.
Paradoxically, Duchamp’s use of a men’s Urinal to exhibit a work he called ‘Fountain’ at the New York Armoury show in 1917 directly challenged the claims made for an artist’s creative vision and technical mastery. The gesture carried satirical and destabilising assault on traditional values of art, but arguably the power of the act and its audacity has arguably transferred more power and authority to the artist and galleries. However, this exhibition illustrates that today’s ‘readymade’ has become a worn down from conceptual overexposure. Much of the contemporary work exhibited alongside historic Duchamp objects like ‘50cc d’Air de Paris’ do not possess the same potent ambivalence and ironic thrust. Jimmie Durham’s ‘Heaven and Earth shall Pass Away’ has a theatrical impact as a boulder pins an anonymous jacket to the floor. While it is made from two found objects it’s not strictly a ‘readymade’ and neither is Jota Castro’s Leche y Ceniza comprising an infant’s playpen with a mirrored floor. It is an engaging work touching on memory and the troubling sight of seeing your own face returned to as a psychoanalytic jolt.
Perhaps only Nasan Tur’s ‘Fortuna’, a roulette ball from a casino placed archly in a vitrine on a pedestal carries that uncanny presence we expect from a successful ‘readymade’. As you leave, David Batchelor’s balls of monochromatic electrical cord straddle the gap between being pure ‘readymades’ and sculptures that are re-fashioned from pre-existing objects.
Down the road at Hauser and Wirth, Savile Row, Sterling Ruby is enjoying a solo show where he is exhibiting a range of theatrical sculptures employing poured urethane that creates a glossy, gloopy effect over large scale forms that resemble visceral organs and sinews but also double as mechanistic objects like ramped up cars, built in a domestic garage. These enormous, horizontal fleshy things are also inverted vertically so that they resemble stalagmites found in caves from solidifying minerals. There’s a feel of ‘goth-pop’ here, a range of cultural references heightened by a touch of the monstrous. An entire room is indeed dedicated to a vampiric theme when Ruby hangs several soft sculptures form the wall indicating open mouths with two prominent fangs dripping blood. Acting like absurd stags’ heads lined up as trophies of hunting prowess, these sagging mouths quoted from contemporary culture possess an absurd ‘attitude’. Sewing has emasculated Dracula.
Less successful are the large collages of waistbands ripped from branded underwear and fragments of blankets. Following an American tradition of quilting, these large pictorial assemblages imitate the scale of ‘important’ painting but feel lifeless and inconsequential. Even worse are the flattened boxes used to create the urethane sculptures, which are then framed alongside banal labels taken from beer and pharmaceutical packing. These works pay homage to the tradition of Picasso’s Cubist assemblages or Kurt Schwitters’ Merz constructions, but again feel limp and lazy.
After seeing Ruby’s erratic and dizzying assault on contemporary American culture, Alexander Calder’s mobiles, stabiles and standing mobiles are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
Each Calder sculpture, whether floating in free space suspended from the ceiling or sitting deftly in miniature on a plinth and stored in a re-conditioned cigar box, finds an intrinsic co-ordination of colour, line, materials and flow. Their slow, bobbing search for equilibrium is entrancing and satisfying, lulling you into an art-induced reverie.