In the year 1917, an artist named Marcel Duchamp bought a standard urinal from an ordinary plumbing shop, turned it upside down on a plinth, added a signature, and submitted it for an art exhibition.
In today’s contemporary art context, this might not seem particularly shocking. After all, we’re now familiar with art works made using inflatable life jackets, piles of candy and even an unmade bed. But this urinal, titled Fountain, was at the centre of a lot of controversy in its time, and arguably laid the foundation for a good amount of the contemporary art that we see around us today.
The urinal in Fountain is a readymade or, in other words, an ordinary manufactured object that an artist selects and modifies to ‘become’ an artwork. Duchamp sought to make three important points through his readymade:
- First, the artist’s act of choosing is itself an artistic action, just like painting or sculpting.
- Secondly, when the function of an object is removed, it is possible for the object to take on a new identity as an artwork.
- Finally, the presenting of an object and act of giving it a title imbues the piece with new meaning.
The birth of the readymade overturned rules established by the art world and forced us to reconsider what it is that makes something artistic.
In between the high and low
Readymades challenge the divide between so-called ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’ On the one hand, ‘high art’ is typically considered to be art that elevates and inspires the cultivated spectator. On the other, ‘low art’ is usually thought of as art which merely amuses or entertains the masses.
Stepping away from the art world for a minute, it seems that society does have a tendency to believe that the world can be separated in this way, between the ‘high’ and the ‘low’: For example, fine dining and hawker food, haute couture and fast fashion, bespoke travel and package tours, and so on. In the art world, this divide is blurred by the idea that any lowbrow, mass-manufactured object has the potential to be elevated to the status of an art object.
By using materials from our everyday environments, artists challenge the notion that art should be the domain of a ‘higher class’ of spectator. For example, the works of Thai artist Montien Boonma use ordinary and everyday objects, like herbs, alm’s bowls, and even soil. These simple, primal materials comment on our human experience of mortality, life and being.
Carrying the weight of their cultural meanings
The readymade has come a long way.
Compared to Duchamp’s works, contemporary readymades are sensitive to the objects’ cultural significance. By choosing objects that carry personal and social significance, artists make use of the original function and associations of their chosen objects to connect with the viewer.
For example, The Love Void a site-specific installation by Singaporean contemporary artist Diva Agar utilises readymades to bring to mind a space and experience that is deeply relatable to any Singaporean – the void deck. An otherwise ordinary void deck, populated with vinyl stickers and artificial floral decoration by the artist, taps into our collective memory of the culturally significant activities taking place in such spaces – Malay weddings, Chinese funerals, and more. In the artist’s words, “The Love Void hopes to invoke the happenings of love and the stories of void within the space.”
Here’s what it looked like:
In a similar vein, Khairullah Rahim and Nghia Phung’s, after-party, references ‘stray objects’ that the artists have regularly observed in working class neighbourhoods. As explained here, these random objects appear to be abandoned, yet in reality are often transformed into makeshift storage or resting spaces outside of the home, disrupting the boundaries between the public and the private. The artwork communicates the idea that these objects and their functions will always be the subject of surveillance, and may even be cleared away without warning. As a result, what could have been a purely welcoming place of respite for a resident or worker is also a precarious space of hostility.
These readymades recall scenes of the everyday, and viewers become involved in the works as they have to tap on their individual lived experiences to make sense of the works.
Objects that speak of their history
An additional development associated with readymades is the opportunity that they provide for an investigation into the history of the objects themselves. Such readymades are objects invested with loss and experience, and the viewer is invited to dive deeper and learn about the specific readymade’s particular significance.
This development of the readymade acknowledges the value of an object in a deeper way – as a physical custodian of memory and history that can teach us lessons about the world we live in.
The contemporary readymade
In even more recent times, there has been a return to the more formal preoccupations of readymades. Contemporary artists growing up in a globalised, always-connected world view objects around them not solely through a cultural and historical lens, but also a bodily one.
In their installation A Tired Holder, Held and Holding, artist Aki Hassan chooses and combines objects meant for holding (like clamps and clips) in a way that makes the installation a form for viewers to interact with and relate to with their own bodies. Readymades are malleable in works like Aki’s, made to be stretched to their limitations as objects.
Readymades are all around us in the art world now, but few might realise that the concept has only been in existence for the last 100 years or so. In utilising these materials, artists have plucked objects out of our everyday existence and placed them into the spotlight, allowing viewers to insert their own experiences into the meanings of such works.
Through readymades, we also now see the world anew, with artistic possibilities all around us, encapsulated in the most mundane of objects.
Perhaps most importantly, the readymade has changed the role of artists, turning them from makers of unique objects, to creators of experience and provocateurs of thought.