Realm of the Readymade

In its latest exhibition, a Delhi-based gallery has brought forth a collection of artworks by some of the most avant-garde artists of our times, who have dealt with French artist Marcel Duchamp’s century-old concept of ‘readymades’ in myriad ways, says Poonam Goel

Who does not know about Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary idea of turning a common urinal on its side and marking it as an object of art? Even a century later, the concept of the French-American artist’s “readymade”, inherent in this act of subversion, continues to inspire artists across the world. In its latest exhibition titled ‘Opaque Emblems’, Delhi-based gallery Nature Morte has curated works of some of the most contemporary artists of our times, who rediscover this concept.

Take for instance, Subodh Gupta, whose steel utensil installations have been the centre of attention globally, ever since he developed this unique language in the late 1990s. Most of the objects he chooses to work with highlight the sociopolitical changes taking place in India since the past 20 years, yet he never shies away from exploiting the bravura of the materials he works with. For this show, his work oscillates between sculpture and painting. It incorporates a bunch of mangoes, which are, in fact, cast in bronze and then painted in oils, effectively being both a painting and a sculpture. This installation, which also includes a sewing machine, “blurs the distinction between realism and abstraction. It is also to signify that everything commonly available can be recreated into a piece of art,” says gallery spokesperson Arushi Vats. An oil on canvas by Gupta titled Brass thali always has mystery achieves the same result – is it the commonly-used utensil or a multi-layered painting?

Says gallery director Peter Nagy: “Duchamp created the concept of the ‘readymade’ in 1917, and 2017 was its 100th birthday, so I have been thinking about the longevity of this concept and how it continues to be pertinent to art practices today. Many artists use found objects and images in their works these days, but I chose to bring these six artists together because they have made this a central part of their practice and have continued to use and reuse very similar things in their works, often quoting their older works in their newer ones. So there is a sustained, long-term engagement with the readymade, and not just a single work or two, in all of these artists’ practices.”

Well-known as a painter, Atul Dodiya has collected a range of found objects and combined them with his own photographs shot in museums around the world, as well as facsimile art works by famous artists (such as On Kawara and Lucio Fontana). He then positions these in intriguing patterns within a glass cabinet, questioning the role of an artist, the curator and the collector, through this ‘cabinet of curiosities’. On the back of each cabinet hangs a large watercolour by Dodiya of a poem by Arun Kolatkar, from his ‘Kala Ghoda’ series. The artist chose these specifically because they are about the part of Mumbai known for its art galleries and artists’ hangouts, extending the ‘Readymade’ to include literary works.

Some other notable works in the show are Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimotos’ images of industrial tools used to illustrate movement of machinery and Louise Lawler’s Tracings series. Lawler has chosen about a dozen of her most wellknown photographic works and hired a children’s book illustrator to trace them, turning them into line drawings in someone else’s hand. The works Peter Nagy: “I am intrigued by this doubling-over of the artist’s older works, bringing in others to create new versions of them, the artist relinquishing control of the final objects which appear in the exhibition.” exist only as digital vinyl prints, but the size can be determined by the curator who is choosing them for a show or the collector who is purchasing them.

Says Nagy: “I am intrigued by this doubling-over of the artist’s older works, bringing in others to create new versions of them, the artist relinquishing control of the final objects which appear in the exhibition. The works act as ghosts of Lawler’s former images, ‘traces’ which extend the life of the image in a sort-of zombie form.” Then, there are three photographs on view by Isamu Noguchi whose work reflects the aesthetic bridging of two cultures, being born to an American mother and Japanese father. These photographs shot in Manipur and Indonesia document common objects of use in villages like earthen pots, baskets et al.

Indian artist Dayanita Singh, too, uses photography to create two separate bodies of work. Time Measures are photographs of bundles of official papers bound in faded red cloth. This is the traditional Indian method of keeping records, and the work is an offshoot of a larger project that Singh has been involved with for years: documenting ‘File Rooms’ in government offices throughout India. The photograph becomes a readymade document, three-dimensions are rendered as two, and the found object functions as an image. Also on view are some black-and-white photographs mounted on to aluminum and given a thin coating of an ash grey coloured paint. This process changes the original image covering it like a sheath of skin. Indeed, while the ubiquitous certainly informs the work of all these artists, it has certainly not stifled their art in any way.

The author is a senior art critic and the views expressed in the article are her own

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