This Daily Review essay on Duchamp’s urinal, contemporary art & buying artworks from friends was inspired by a new show of works by the talented artist Paloma White.
I was sitting on a toilet when I looked up and saw it. There, hanging on the wall, was a Picasso. Just a black and white drawing, but an original Picasso. The couple whose inner-city apartment I was in owned the gallery downstairs. Their home was filled with art. But a Picasso? In the toilet? While I was having a piss, I couldn’t help wondering: were they taking the piss?
One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp (or someone close to him, this story has more than one version) purchased a urinal and anonymously submitted it to a New York art show. Although the avant-garde group behind the April 1917 exhibition was supposed to accept submissions from anyone who paid the $5 entry fee, the show’s board rejected the work and Fountain was left behind a gallery screen unexhibited. But the ideas Duchamp suggested with his work – art is whatever the artist says it is, an artist does not need to ‘make’ an artwork, a toilet can have a place in an art gallery – changed the art world forever.
Were the Redfern gallery owners making a witty comment on Duchamp’s century old move? If a urinal could be exhibited in an art gallery (copies of Fountain are now in major galleries around the world) then surely the exhibition could come to the toilet? I was impressed by the cool nonchalance they applied to hanging art. And I envied the wealth that allowed them to own such art.
I covet beautiful artworks. In the Norman Lindsay Gallery in the Blue Mountains I’ve loitered over original prints for sale, repeatedly turning back to a beguiling nude, ownership fever gripping me. Recently in Central Australia my head kept turning to an artwork of emu footprints, in the same way you can find yourself turning repeatedly towards someone in a crowded room, a knot in your stomach building – something about the way their features are arranged (the lines and shapes on the canvas) feels right. “You know you are in trouble when you keep looking,” an artist tells me.
I’d like to say I don’t buy because, as the late John Berger argued, when a price is attached to art, its commodification is also a process of alienation from the physical thing that is the artwork. Art dealers have “faces like silk purses” he said, adding: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps.”
So I’d like to say my failure to buy beautiful works of art has something to do with the rejection of ownership, but the less flattering reason is that I simply don’t have the money. Instead, I buy beautiful but modestly priced artworks from friends. When my friend Paloma held an exhibition of paintings in Melbourne last year I sat at my desk in Sydney scrolling through paintings she had posted online. Studies of flowers and still lifes, reminiscent, everyone said, of Margaret Preston. They were also like painterly translations of my artist friend. We met when we were 20 or so. She arrived at the flat I was living in, flowers in her hair like a Carlton Carmen, carrying a cake she’d made that morning, like a cloud floating ahead of her arrival that she was holding onto with a string. Carmen and Mary Poppins.
I spent an hour or so gazing at her latest creations. Enlarging the petals. Looking at the refracted light passing through the glass and water of the vases. I settled on one. A personal purchase resisting commodification, I told myself. But my modest friend’s talent far exceeds her fame: I tweeted a picture of the painting. She deserves more recognition, and the brutal fact is that more recognition leads to more sales, more funds to make more work.
I’ve always been fascinated with artists and their craft. There was a moment when I was 15 when I thought I might become an artist. I had a basic technical ability; I could make things look like the things in the world they represented. But I never had a feel for it. Others do. The ability to take the way things look in the world and mix themselves into it.
I once interviewed the painter Nicholas Harding. Paints and brushes and canvasses filled every surface of his studio. It was as if he was conjoined to the artworks, rather than creating them with any kind of distance between the artist and the work. The physicality was intoxicating. Something to do with the artist who has a hand on the object. It’s why we like cards handmade by the giver. And thank you notes in someone’s handwriting.
One of my first housemates was an art school student who would come home with canvases where he re-imagined the Russian icon form. They were heavy with golds, reds, and a bronze colour that seemed to have dripped from his rusty-hued hair onto the canvas. A few years later he’d moved on to other styles and held a show. I stood besotted in front of a large six-foot black canvas of two ghostly white nude outlines embracing, a mother and a child.
The equivalent of two Austudy cheques later, the work was mine. The painting followed me through countless house moves: too large for most loungerooms it’s mostly leaned against my bedroom wall. Recently my mother contacted me to say she’d met my old housemate but he was no longer painting – he had moved on to other mediums – and she wanted me to send her a picture of the painting so he could show his own wife and child.
‘Untitled’, Ben Sibley, 1991
Still lifes of flowers and nudes. I know this is a conservative view of art, a long way from the abstractions and theoretical turn that much contemporary art has taken since Duchamp. I’m not dismissing the value of that work, but I am saying that the cleavage in art, between work based in ideas and work that you can hang on walls, now seems almost irrevocably permanent.
In 1967 Berger wrote that “soon a dealer will mount an exhibition of shit and collectors will buy it”. He was already prophesising Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (pictured below), a shit-making machine commissioned by David Walsh in 2010 and installed deep in the bowels of the billionaire’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. (And Berger was also forgetting, it seems, the 90 cans of ‘Artist’s Shit’ produced by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni in 1961). In audience surveys visitors say Delvoye’s crapping machine is their most disliked exhibit at MONA. It’s also the one they spend the most time with. When I visited with my children they looked up at it wide-eyed for a long moment, before driven from the room by the stench. Towards a wall covered entirely with moulded vulvas in the adjacent gallery.
We’re wedged between the compulsion to stare and a feeling that the gimmick has gone too far. That someone’s taking the piss. In the background is a feeling that we’re being conned when the most subversive, the most cutting-edge art is owned by billionaire collectors who can dig deep into sandstone river banks to create the capacious spaces that house them.
We can find ourselves almost giving up on contemporary art, as I was tempted to do when I stood in front of a blank canvas at a Sydney Biennale at the end of the last century. The captions on the works in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s show that year were either irritatingly droll or annoyingly obscure. One caption, accompanying a blank canvas, tested my credulity more than any other: “This artist stops where other artist begins,” it read. I felt like I was being had.
Artists have always quoted and referenced and critiqued each other in their artwork. But now the gap between works of art and works of criticism and theory can be indistinguishable. Artists now speak of “investigations”, “experiments” and “interventions”, borrowing from the language of science and research. It’s the language of the higher education system where art training now mostly takes place, the language of theory, of publications, of grant proposals.
I understand the imperative, but as someone who has made a living composing words, I bristle at prose that is often nonsensical, full of hyperbole or just impenetrable. Most of the time I still want art, no matter how conceptual or theoretical – to have some art, some craft, to it. An idea – as a rule – doesn’t arouse our senses, our passions, our imaginations: an idea could just as well be left to a book.
This isn’t a traditional essay of art criticism. It’s not a manifesto. If anything it’s simply a statement of my own personal taste and preference rather than any attempt to define what is “good” or “bad” art. Apart from anything else, it’s impossible to say that any one thing unites contemporary art – except perhaps that it is whatever is made by artists now. But I am suggesting that it is difficult to know now what’s a gimmick, what’s crap, and what’s gold. Perhaps it just comes down to what you like.
Wandering around a park in Bondi at The Sculpture by the Sea I see a portaloo in the middle of dozens of carefully conceived and executed sculptures and installations. Then I hear voices, trapped and trying desperately to reach someone on their mobile phone who will help them get out. What first looks like a much-needed amenity in a site crushed with crowds but desperately lacking loos was actually another artwork. It’s funny and strangely compelling. Maybe the voice really belongs to someone trapped in the toilet? I forgive the work for not being beautiful. For not being something you can take home. In a place where the surfaces work hard to impress, where human waste is reduced to faecal counts of the water in the beaches below, here is the least impressive surface you can imagine, but also an interesting Duchampian idea that makes me laugh and think.
Contemporary art has cleaved into two – art you can take home and put on walls, look at in private, and art you go and see publicly – sometimes it’s just an idea you go to see. In the former, it’s still the object itself that matters. I’ve often wondered how artists must feel giving up this object. Unlike other artforms – music, writing, or ideas-based artworks – it’s the thing that is important. Wanting to own it, though, that’s easy. For me, there’s appreciation of beauty and technique, but it also has something to do with a desire for a narrative.
I look now at my old housemate’s picture of mother and child, and I can finally see what must have first drawn me to the painting: when I bought it, my immediate family had recently separated in four directions. I’d purchased, without realising it, a representation of the thing I no longer had. When I look at my friend’s picture of flowers, I’m reminded of another time, half a lifetime ago: Paloma and her two brothers and a circle of friends that still comes together now and then and moves through subtly changing iterations.
After buying Paloma’s flowers I dreamed about taking a road trip down the Hume alone to collect it. I started composing music tracks for the trip. I’d return to Sydney on a sunny day, my cargo carefully placed in the back. Nothing happens how you picture it. On the way to Melbourne I had two children in the car with me, and I had one of those shameful moments of parenting when I lost control. I yelled, I blamed my kids when we got lost. I ran out of petrol half way. My country cousin, calm and competent, bundled her own kids in the car and rescued us.
On the day we left to come home it didn’t stop raining. I drove to my mother’s workplace to collect bags of bubble wrap. A couple of suburbs away I picked up the painting, waiting patiently for us on the porch of a friend’s bungalow. I dashed out of the car and bundled it in wrap. Back in Sydney the painting lay in its plastic bubble armour, until the gloomy mood that had descended on me and gathered momentum as I made my way down the Hume finally lifted. I could look at the bright and cheerful vase of flowers with a feeling that wasn’t totally at odds with what I was seeing. I hung it on my loungeroom wall.
Main image: Coburg Lake, oil on canvas, Paloma White, 2017. Mono/Chroma, New works by Paloma White and Brendan Lakin, opens at Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street, Carlton on Friday September 1.