You can’t spend more that a couple days in art school – or any university degree with some leaning towards cultural studies or visual culture – without encountering Marcel Duchamp. That the French-American artist, writer and champion chess player’s name – which is most readily associated with Dadaism and the notion of the readymade (an artwork created via functional objects or products not usually considered art, such as his iconic Fountain urinal from 1917) – still resonates to such a degree speaks of his profound impact on not just art, but modes of thought in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Taking Duchamp’s famed ‘assisted’ readymade Bicycle wheel, 1913 – which sees an inverted bicycle fork and wheel affixed to a stool – as its nub, Monash University Museum of Art’s (MUMA) sprawling exhibition Reinventing the Wheel: The Readymade Century doesn’t so much trace the work of Duchamp, Man Ray and other key figures in the genesis of the movement, but considers their divergent and far-reaching impact and influence, from pop and conceptual art through to various contemporary practices.
Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of Reinventing the Wheel is its eschewal of chronology or clear hierarchy. While the first room sees Duchamp’s aforementioned Bicycle wheel, Bottle dryer, 1914 and Man Ray’s Cadeau (Gift), 1921 (a tradition clothing iron studded with a line razor-sharp tacks), it also features local artist Aleks Danko’s humorous 1970 work Art stuffing (a filled hessian bag sack emblazoned with the title text) and Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed’s screwed-up paper ball, Work no. 88 – A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995.
Melbourne artist and academic Lou Hubbard’s poignant Stretch, 2007 and Ricky Swallow’s The stars don’t shine upon us we’re in the way of their light, 2000 punctuate a compact adjoining space. Hubbard’s work comprises two retractable desk lamps at full stretch, teetering so their faces meet in a kind of fragile embrace, where Swallow’s meticulous PVC pipe, plastic and epoxy sculpture of a telescope operates as the inverse of a readymade. It is a sculpture meticulously imitating an un-stylised object.
A melange of interpretations and incarnations mark the vast space that follows. The video documentation of legendary experimental composer John Cage’s 4’33, 1952 – in which he sat at a piano on a crowded public footpath without playing a single note for four minutes and 33 seconds – explores ideas of found sound and our receptivity to ambient and vernacular noise. A series of new works by legendary Australian artist John Nixon’s span the opposite wall. Using cuts of unadorned fencing timber to punctuate monochromatic canvasses, the works suggest an intersection between minimalism and the readymade. Joseph Kosuth’s work, One and three tables, 1965 comprises a table affixed to the wall, a photograph of the very same table and a text in the form of a dictionary definition. Its interest is in the double take; it explores ideas of slippage between the object and its representation, and offers a concise tether between the found object and conceptual art.
Other works mine tropes of consumerism and brand language, from Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup II – cheddar cheese, 1969 to young Melbourne trio Greatest Hits’ totemic, electronically operated structure, which emits the fragrance that replicates the scent of brand new, just unboxed 13-inch MacBook Pro. Works from Gilbert & George, Jeff Koons, Callum Morton, Rob McLeish, Stuart Ringholt and Andrew Liversidge also make for highlights.
The final room explores notions of foraging, accumulation and collection. Two of the quieter works resonate the strongest. Young Melbourne artist Charlie Sofo’s series of wheel chocks (lumps of timber, rock and brick) collected from the streets around his home make for an intriguing typology. Our knowledge of the source of these non-descript objects imbues them with meaning; we can’t help but consider their trace, their history and the vehicles they stopped from rolling away.
Hany Armanious’s Relative nobody, 2010 sits nearby. It is a series of resin and brass casts impeccably imitating worn chipboard, an ironing board frame and a brick-like entity. The most utilitarian and nondescript of objects and forms become almost mystical in stature. It seems an apt allegory for Duchamp’s legacy. If it is underpinned with thought or consideration or criticality or context, anything can be art.
Reinventing the Wheel: The Readymade Century shows at MUMA until December 14.