Art

Duchamp and Japan: No rest for the urinal

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

If you want someone to blame for Banksy’s stunt of shredding “Girl With Balloon” after selling it for $1.4 million at auction, your prime suspect currently has a major retrospective at the Tokyo National Museum.

Skepticism of the British graffiti artist’s aesthetic value may not be cured by seeing the two-part “Marcel Duchamp and Japanese Art” exhibition, but the show is a comprehensive exploration of how and why modern art broke away from painting and the idea of craftsmanship.

One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and Duchamp’s revolutionary attack, 100 years ago, on the assumptions of what constitutes art and beauty, still radically divides people.

Duchamp’s idea of the “readymade” — that an everyday object with little or no physical alteration by the artist can become art through the intellectual work of the artist and viewer altering how it is perceived — is considered hooey by traditionalists who like their art to look like it took some effort. For some artists and the theoretically inclined, however, Duchamp’s iconoclasm is aesthetic genius. Socially and historically speaking, it’s a just and comprehensible response to the moral affront of the great powers of Europe, with centuries of culture and civilization behind them, causing death on an industrial scale in World War I.

The hosting of the Philadelphia Museum of Art-designed exhibition (part one of the show, titled “The Essential Duchamp”) at the Tokyo National Museum, rather than, say, The National Art Center, Tokyo, Museum of Modern Art or the Mori Art Museum, is a first-rate idea. Amid the precious antiquities that embody the spiritual, mythical and prehistorical side of Japan, Duchamp’s interest in connecting art and life is brilliantly brought to the fore. The exhibition is also beautifully set out: Using color, spacing and archways decorated with photography of the artist, visitors are guided though his life as a narrative of opening gambits, development and endgame, echoing Duchamp’s love of chess.

However well-designed, attempting to persuade the museum’s regulars, the lovers of traditional arts and crafts, of the value of Duchamp’s infamous 1917 “Fountain,” a store-bought ceramic urinal, is obviously asking for trouble. Duchamp the provocateur would have probably relished this choice of venue, a place where he can cause the most disruption, but the Tokyo National Museum has taken pity on its regular demographic with the supplementary exhibition titled “Rediscovering Japan Through Duchamp.”

In this small assembly of Japanese pieces, a case is made for considering parallels between certain aspects of Duchamp’s modern radicalism and traditional Japanese visual culture.

Where Duchamp experimented with text as visual form, for example, we are presented with an example of waka poetry on a 17th-century screen painting by Tawaraya Sotatsu. The idea of a humble domestic object being a readymade work of art is compared with 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu’s preference for simple things that lacked adornment and not necessarily showcases of skilled craftsmanship. The legitimacy of copying in Japanese art is demonstrated with a 15th-century painting on silk of Shoulao, the god of longevity, attributed to Sesshu Toyo, displayed next to a 19th-century ink painting of the same character by Hashimoto Gaho, who clearly copied the face of Shoulao from Sesshu’s earlier work.

“Rediscovering Japan through Duchamp” was primarily organized by the Tokyo National Museum, and in an interview, Timothy Rub, CEO and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, considered that “the goal of the show is to make the point that Duchamp isn’t sui generis, that he comes out of a number of art historical traditions and embraces certain ideas that exist not simply in European art, or art of the early 20th century.”

Rub added that: “The importance of chance, the blurring of boundaries of making art and writing, different modes of making meaning … these have analogs and corollary expressions in many different times and cultures, certainly not only in Japan. The use of chance or the readymade object in Japanese art is profoundly different in many ways than what Duchamp made of it, but they are a corollary.”

The possible insights of the ancillary exhibition may be helpful in reframing Duchamp’s work for a museum-going public whose normal fare is domestic and votive objects, sanctified by antiquity and scholarship. However, it is problematic if one considers context. The introductory text panel for “Rediscovering Japan Through Duchamp” begins with the words “Since ancient times …” and while the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition suggests that an appreciation of Duchamp’s artistic innovations can best be achieved through a focus on his inventiveness and development of creative thinking over time, combined with an understanding of what he was pushing against, this is very different from making an appeal to tradition.

This issue aside, “Marcel Duchamp and Japanese Art” is a landmark event. It may seem a paradox to expressly go to a museum to see ordinary objects that became iconic for attacking the status of the “unique” work of art, but Duchamp’s infamous bottle rack, bicycle wheel and urinal are placed among many exhibits that testify to the artist’s intelligence and keen eye for form.

It does not excuse the now-dated antics of Banksy or the art market’s commodification of heterodoxy, but does confirm that Duchamp declared a new kind of creative freedom that subsequent generations of artists are still grasping at.

“Marcel Duchamp and Japanese Art” at the Tokyo National Museum runs until Dec.9; ¥1,200. For more information visit, www.tnm.jp.