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Manchester artist channels the spirit of Duchamp and dada

One hundred years have passed since Marcel Duchamp had his famous urinal ‘Fountain’ refused entry into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. The society, bound to accept all members submissions, took exception to ‘Fountain’, believing that a piece of sanitary ware associated with human waste could not be a work of art. In May, Manchester based artist Mike Chavez-Dawson unveiled ‘Duchamp’s Ring’, his take on ‘Fountain’, at Manchester Art Gallery. His work also exhibited in Hull this year, the UK City of Culture, and is currently on display in Bury.

Mike says Duchamp’s pioneering art had fascinated him for many years. While wandering the streets of New York, in 1999, he found himself wondering what Marcel Duchamp would do if invited to commission a work from beyond the grave. Seeking the help of a nearby spiritual medium, Madame Pamduch Ramcle, he received a direct vision of himself wearing a urinal on his finger.

Little could Mike have known how much of an impact this brief mediated conversation would have on his life and career; nor could he have known that this year at the centenary of ‘Fountain,’ he would be performing at the unveiling of ‘Duchamp’s Ring’, his own homage to ‘Fountain’.

Mike Chavez-Dawson

The first attempt to propose a range of jewelry based on his vision was, fittingly, initially rejected by Wrong Gallery founder Maurizio Cattelan; he never replied.

Since then Mike has created a series of twenty-one miniature replicas of ‘Duchamp’s Ring’. Most are held in private collections, with the first piece owned by British sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor. Edition seventeen was the first to be secured within a public collection, and has been entered into the permanent exhibits of Manchester Art Gallery. Its inclusion was made possible by the support of London based gallerist, art dealer and collector Paul Stolper.

Mike’s Duchamp inspired ‘Fountain, fountain..’ enterprise is an ongoing multifaceted project about myth, authorship, collaboration and coincidence. This ties in perfectly with Duchamp’s concern that art is an ever evolving, unending process; reusing, recycling and even reinterring its component parts.

The ‘Fountain, fountain…’exhibition can be found on display at Bury Art Museum until late January 2018, with a special performance and appearance on the 26 October at Manchester Contemporary, in Manchester Central.

How can a urinal be a fountain?

Marcel Duchamp coined the term ‘anti-art,’ and was very preoccupied with challenging perceived notions of the accepted definitions of what art should be, as well as questioning the manner of creation. A pioneer of the avante-garde art movement dadaism, Duchamp lost faith in art that was only to please the eye. Calling it ‘retinal art,’ he found the adoration of paintings unnecessary, seeking to create art that was indifferent in relation to ugliness or beauty.

Celebrating the mundane, he developed his idea of the ‘ready-made.’ He would take a normal, everyday object with no particular aesthetic merit, and twist it so that you saw it from a different angle. Arguably his most famous, and clearly his most contentious work is ‘Fountain.’ This urinal, is presented on its back with the signature “R.Mutt” hand painted on it. Duchamp gave his ready-mades the identifying features of a work of art: a title, a named author, a date of execution, and a viewing public or owner.

The original ‘Fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp. Photograph taken shortly after the piece was refused a place in the Society of Independent Artists exhibition 1917.

With ‘Fountain’, and the subsequent debate surrounding it, Duchamp asserted the right of an artist to take something manufactured as his own work. A move now seen as a turning point in the history of modernism. Towards the end of his life, Duchamp mused: “I am not at all sure if the concept of the ready-made isn’t the single most important idea to come out of my work”

Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the twentieth century by a group of over five hundred artists in 2004. Tracy Emin’s unmade bed was certainly partly inspired by the French artist, and to this day many contemporary art exhibitions continue to be influenced by the founder of conceptual art, and specifically this piece. Revisited and reinvented, many artists have picked up the mantel and run with it. His ideas reverberate still to this day.

A large part of Duchamp’s point was that the work was easily replicated; the various versions around the globe now are not the original. The loss of the original is a blow, but the proliferation of ‘copies’ around today, from the Alfred Stieglitz photograph, to the Arturo Schwartz editions, to the many unofficial versions, all testify to the appeal of the ready-made. Duchamp himself produced miniature versions of the Fountain himself for ‘Box in a Valise,’ a collection of reproductions of many of his works, which was in turn itself reproduced many times.

When ‘Fountain” was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, then subsequently rejected, Duchamp resigned his place in the society in disgust. He then published an article protesting the refusal on the 4 May 1917, by Louise Norton, entitled ‘Buddha of the Bathroom’. It was on the centenary of this event that Mike Chavez-Dawson found himself celebrating the centenary in Manchester Art Gallery, performing a self-penned song of the same title.

Buddha of the Bathroom

“The smallest artwork in the largest of spaces” was how Kate Jesson, Curator of Manchester Art Gallery, described Mike’s piece in her introduction.

Arriving at the art gallery thirty minutes before the performance, I saw how, from a slow start, the foyer started to fill up. By the time there was ten minutes to go, the turnout was good. The audience was a mixture of artists, families, collectors of Mike’s work, and visitors to the art gallery who’d been enticed into the proceedings by the prospect of raffle prizes at the end of the performance.

‘Duchamps Ring’ (left) and ‘Linga Yoni’ (right) as displayed at Bury Art Museum.

Gina Warburton, from Bury Art Museum told me she was there “to find out what we’ve let ourselves in for,” as her museum was to show more of Mike’s work, later in the year.

After Kate’s introduction, the microphone was passed to Dr Micky Ruttman, a Philadelphian art critic and historian who had been flown in solely for the event. Speaking to us he contextualised Mike’s work, saying “What it lacks in size it makes up for in its execution”, echoing Kate Jesson’s opening words. Ruttman went on to say:

“[Dawson] reduces to reinvent with a precision that is almost magical, a Willy Wonka transformation.

“Duchamp himself said that he doesn’t believe in art but he believes in artists. The work laboured by their hands and minds is as much a reflection of us as it is them.

“Chavez-Dawson recognises this and places the Fountain upon a finger, the wearer is now both Duchamp and Duchamp’s artwork, they are a mobile gallery personified.”

As Micky finished his introduction, Mike and his co-writer Ruby Tingle took over and performed their co-written song, ‘Buddha of the Bathroom’ . An elaborate performance ensued, Mike and Ruby slowly worked their way to the plinth on which ‘Duchamp’s Ring’ sat covered in bespoke fabric, all the while reciting the lyrics to their song.

Unveiling ‘Duchamp’s Ring,’ the little Buddha of the bathroom was revealed. Then, as they descended the steps towards the audience, they ceremoniously waved the fabric, and repeated the chorus of the song:

“Buddha of the bathroom, Buddha of the bathroom, We monkeys hate to lose our tails Buddha of the bathroom, Buddha of the bathroom, We monkeys walk to lift the veil”

Buddha of the Bathroom MAG 1 from Mike Chavez-Dawson on Vimeo.

The memorable chorus engaged the crowd, and even I found myself joining in as the performance neared its end. The song  continued to play as an earworm long after the performance had finished.

Dada

Duchamp explored avant-garde styles of painting around 1911 and onwards. Obsessed with science and machines, he stated in 1912 that, “Painting is finished. Who can do better than that propeller?” Duchamp saw in mechanical imagery a means of developing a deliberately impersonal and anti-aesthetic style.

Together with his contemporaries Man Ray and Picabia, the three men helped to create the dada movements in New York and, later, Paris. Duchamp was the centre of this alliance, Man Ray and Picabia’s friendship was never on the same level as Duchamp’s relationship with either. Having created the seed for dada, Duchamp then distanced himself from it, not wanting to see himself restrained by the pressure to conform to a group style. Indeed, this wasn’t the first example of this attitude; his elder brothers had both been leading figures in the Cubist movement which he’d resisted being consumed within.

‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’ had created a furore in 1913 when it was exhibited; the very concept of a nude performing such a prosaic action as moving down stairs had not previously been considered. For Duchamp though, movement embraced not only physical, but also emotional and social change. These elements were to be explored further by Duchamp and the other dada protagonists, in particular by focusing on expressing ideas in unconventional media.

The dada movement embraced public gatherings, demonstrations, the publishing of art and literary journals, its influence also reaching into sound and music, sound poetry and collage. Passionate discussions of art, politics and culture were topics discussed in a variety of media.

Dada itself was partly a reaction to the horrors of the first world war. Dadaism rejected the logic, reason and aestheticism of the modern capitalist society, instead it preferred to imbue a sense of nonsense and irrationality to its anti-bourgeois protest. Violence, war, and nationalism were all eschewed; dada had natural political affinities with the radical left.

Also, pivotal in the founding of the anarchic movement was ‘Cabaret Voltaire,’ the satirical night club in Zurich, run by Hugo Ball. The cabaret’s raucous soirees featured artists experimenting with new forms of performance, and often descended into a chaotic and brutal maelstrom, echoing the world around it. It was at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 that Hugo Ball delivered his ‘Dada Manifesto.’

From the manifesto, Ball asked: “How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying dada.” Ball also echoed similar concerns to Duchamp in his manifesto:

“I don’t want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people’s inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own.”

By 1924 the dada movement had dissolved. The artists involved moved or evolved towards Surrealism, Social Realism, and other forms of modernism. Duchamp himself was aloof, and though shared many common preoccupations with the dada movement, had never directly associated with any of the Dada groups. He never frequented the Cabaret Voltaire.

‘Etant Donnés’. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It was at this time Duchamp ostensibly abandoned art to play competitive chess. His anarchic sense of humour had not deserted him, however, and he secretly worked on what was to be his final major work, ‘Etant Donnés’. This installation was only revealed after his passing, startling those who had considered him to have given up art completely.

Fountain, fountain…

I caught up with Mike Chavez-Dawson at the end of September at the launch event for his current ‘Fountain, fountain…’ exhibition at Bury Art Museum. In the interim period, he had taken his Duchamp centenary performance on the road to Hull as part of their City of Culture celebrations. His performance there involved painting a full size in-situ version of the original ‘Fountain,’ turning it from porcelain white to black. The painted urinal was then blessed and placed into the Humber estuary for a fitting end.

Ruby Tingle & Mike Chavez-Dawson performing in Bury Art Museum, with the inflatable cinema behind them.

The painting black of the urinal echoes the fact that in Hull, ‘Duchamp’s Ring’ was this time joined on display by its sister piece. A jet-black counterpoint to the original’s porcelain white, ‘Linga-Yoni’ is again a limited-edition series of miniature ring sculptures, its name emphasising the contrast of colours between the two.

In Bury, Mike has up-scaled his ambition; it is a full-blown exhibition running until the end of January next year. The starting point of reference for the exhibition is still the original ‘Fountain’ piece by Duchamp, but the exhibition encompasses more of Duchamp’s ideas, and also presents to us selected works, thoughts, and material from Mike’s explorations since 2013.

The seed of the show is again the original ‘Fountain’ piece, as evidenced by the dual pairing and display of ‘Duchamp’s Ring’ and ‘Linga-Yoni.’ The undoubted centre piece of the show however, is an inflatable cinema, a reference to the Duchamp work ‘The Large Glass.’ The milky-white, almost anaemic cinema, takes up the larger part of the exhibition space, and is an arresting, but playful work that demands your attention as soon as you enter the space.

The launch event was introduced by Tony Trehy, the Bury Art Museum Director. Reflecting on the situation of his museum in relation to Bury and Greater Manchester, he noted in his pre-amble that art and culture is “… seen as a luxury, but generates more spend from tourism than cost,” and that “art generates more spend than sport.”

Moving on to discuss Duchamp and his place within art as a whole, Tony pointed out that “Art wouldn’t be where we are without Duchamp”. Clearly an ardent supporter of all that Duchamp and his work represents, he told the audience off Duchamp’s published book called ‘The Art of Chess’, which gave insight into how Duchamp played chess. Filled with impossible chess problems and solutions, Tony says the book demonstrates the fact that “[Duchamp] played chess like a conceptual artist.”

The Bury launch again saw Dr Micky Ruttman flown in to kick things off, and as in Manchester earlier in May, he started his speech by promising to “break with tradition” and to “express the artists gratitude at the beginning rather than the end.” The playful irony of creating a tradition by breaking with tradition is something that Duchamp himself would have approved of.

Taking over from Micky, Mike and Ruby performed a renewed, reworded, and repurposed version of their ‘Buddha of the Bathroom’ song.

“In questions of aesthetics, the key is quality”

For me, the ‘Fountain, fountain…’ has achieved a number of objectives. The attention to detail displayed in Mike Chavez-Dawson’s work echoes the dada philosophy as espoused by Hugo Ball: “In questions of aesthetics, the key is quality.”

Mike’s work has taken the preoccupation Duchamp had with regurgitation and remodeling and run with it. Small details are paid serious attention to. For instance, the bespoke fabric used to cover and then unveil the display in Manchester, was remade into a football kit worn at the Bury launch, by a performer.

The reverence and respect shown towards the original urinal artwork, and also to the greater conceptual ideas around questioning what art actually is and can be are clearly evident in Mike’s work. Retaining the esoteric humour and attitude of Duchamp, the evolving work is still somehow easy to engage with, or at least react to.

The playful finesse of the exploration of scale within the works, taking us from the micro of the ring pieces to the macro of the inflatable, help answer the question of the relevance of Duchamp’s work, and further develop Duchamp’s ideas. At the same time expanding and reducing Duchamp’s ideas, Mike has taken us on a gigantic molecular transformation.

The ‘Fountain, fountain…’ installation at Bury Art Museum is in place until the 20 January 2018, when Mike will be on hand to partake in a discussion with academic Dr David Gledhill, on interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to art, and the relevance of ‘Fountain’ and other significant Duchamp works.

Prior to the finale, there are two other free special events taking place at the exhibition in Bury. On the 28 October, there will be a comics club event, exploring alternative possible origins to how the urinal became such a famous work.

Then on the 18 November, Duchamp Tourist Day, there will be a passionate and humorous overview of Duchamp, delivered by Katy Carroll, a senior lecturer in Critical Art & Design from Sheffield Hallam University.

This Friday the 27 October Mike will be performing at the Buy Art Fair, and unveiling the newly sized version of ‘Linga-Yoni.’ A celebration of the Buy Art Fair’s 10th Anniversary, this ring has been sized to CEO of the fair Thom Hetherington.

‘Fountain, fountain…’ comes highly recommended, in any of its incarnations. Seeking Duchamp’s actual words through a medium and having a conversation from beyond the grave, Mike Chavez-Dawson has truly proved that the spirit of dada and Duchamp lives on in Manchester today.

 

James K A Baker

Manchester Art Gallery – click here

Bury Art Museum installation – click here 

Buddha of the Bathroom video – click here

dada Manifesto – click here

Feature image and photos: James K A Baker

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