Last week I took a short break from both the studio and the lab for a trip to London to catch up on some exhibitions. One of these was ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ at the Barbican. This was another great exhibition by the Barbican; I maintain that I have not seen a poor show there, and the fantastic curatorship means that the work presented is always unexpected and thought-provoking. However, whereas I recommended ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’ last year as one for all of the family and friends, this exhibition might be less accessible if one hadn’t thought a bit about Duchamp or conceptual art before.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) is often hailed as the father of conceptual art, and the title of the exhibition, ‘The Bride and the Bachelors’ references a hugely influential piece of his work, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)’ (1915-23), and Duchamp’s interactions and exchanges with visual artists Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Jasper Johns (b. 1930), and with composer John Cage (1912-1992) and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009).
Put briefly, conceptual art (or conceptualism) is art in which the idea is more important than what the piece looks like or what it is made out of. One hundred years ago, Duchamp realised his first ‘readymade’ by mounting a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool (this piece was actually what Duchamp referred to as an ‘assisted readymade’, since he modified the objects). Duchamp’s idea was to select a limited number of specific mass-produced objects to be presented as works of art. He later recalled that the original ‘Bicycle Wheel’ was created as a “distraction”: “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace” (MoMA). It was a piece he quite liked to have around.
Conceptual art frequently strips its subject down to its essential parts. In producing it, one asks questions such as: what is it about a car that makes it a car? What are the minimal parts required which will mean that it is still a car? The use of visual metaphor is also commonly used – a metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as an otherwise unrelated object (Wikipedia). This definition can then be extrapolated to apply to objects or images that, on some point of comparison, are the same as the object that they are being used to represent. This point of comparison would be the point that the artist is intending to emphasise. In philosophy, the subject that one is trying to describe is referred to as the ‘ground’, and the thing that is being used to describe the subject is referred to as the ‘figure’. These notions have also been described as the ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’, respectively, by I. A. Richards in ‘The Philosophy of Rhetoric’ (1936). The problem in the use of metaphor, in my opinion, is that the figure can require a large amount of explanation itself.
‘The Large Glass’ is divided horizontally into two parts, with the female section (the Bride’s Domain) at the top and the male section (the Bachelor Apparatus) below. Briefly, the piece is understood to be a diagram of a complex and ironic love-making machine, in which the male and female machines communicate only by means of two circulatory systems, without any point of contact. Although work was not begun on ‘The Large Glass’ until 1915, a large amount of Duchamp’s work from mid-1912 onwards concerned research and studies for its various sections. In 1934, he published 94 documents, including photographs, drawings and manuscript notes, relating to ‘The Large Glass’ as loose-leaf items in random order in a flat case (‘The Green Box’). A further 79 notes were published in 1967 and known as ‘The White Box’. Despite their random arrangement, these documents are apparently crucial for the understanding of the work, since they serve to identify the different elements, detail their inter-relationship and describe the meaning of the whole. Perhaps it is in this age of high-speed internet and our apparent need for information to be fed to us in bite-size doses that I find this way of producing an artwork so difficult to get to grips with. With one of my interests or concerns being the communication of science, I would not expect to give someone a reading list of 200 primary papers for them to study before they might understand my (art)work; instead I seek to produce a piece of work that presents the entire concept to the audience in an easily-digestible form.
In ‘Express’ (1963), Robert Rauschenberg incorporates large photographic images into his work by using the technique of screen printing (‘serigraphy’). Here, the photographs can be considered to be readymades, bringing with them their inherent associations. An overwhelming sense of movement has been brought about by Rauschenberg’s careful choice of images: abseiling soldiers, mechanical cogs, boats on a river, horses jumping over a fence. Many of the images also evoke iconic works of art: the horses, ‘The Horse in Motion’ by Eadweard Muybridge; a nude, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bride’; men sitting around a table, Cezanne’s ‘Card Players’; and ballerinas, Edgar Degas. The presence of an image of a cabbage perhaps lightens the tone of the work.
Jasper Johns uses pre-existing symbols in his work, including flags, targets and numbers – “things the mind already knows” – the use of these can also be likened to Duchamp’s readymades. In the caption alongside ‘Figure 8’ (1959), it is written: “In disrupting the habitual way of seeing and in questioning these well-known visual references, Johns hoped to awaken the senses and heighten the viewer’s sense of being alive.” I interpret this as the elation one gets upon thinking about something in a different way for the first time, understanding a previously foreign concept or solving a maths problem. Our ability to think is something that makes us human.
The featured image for this post is quite abstract due to issues with copyright for other, more relevant images. In 1923, after abandoning work on ‘The Large Glass’, declaring it “definitively unfinished”, Duchamp actively participated in international chess tournaments. The chosen image shows Ilia Chavchavadze and Ivane Machabeli, both writers from the country of Georgia, playing chess in Saint Petersburg in 1873. Chess is also a metaphor for exchange, both personal and artistic.