By Lonnie Monka
Walking through the Dada section of the Israel Museum, I was headed towards the back stairwell. Gil Marco Shani’s “Bus” had sealed it off, and since his installation happened to be inaccessible that day, I was tempted to check if the stairwell had been reopened. While just beginning to hear the harsh breath-like sounds from Vito Acconci’s oversized bra around the corner, I was struck by the room appended to the Dada section. For months, or maybe years, that smaller room had been set up to screen early surrealist films. But now, something had changed. This new configuration had delayed my mission.
Standing in the middle of that dimly-lit room stood a black rectangular pedestal. Shining from above, a spotlight illuminated the pedestal’s featured item. There, with the Hollywood aura of a treasure waiting to be disturbed by a tomb raider, Duchamp’s infamous “Fountain” was displayed. Standing there, I began simply to smile. Wonder about that smile parallels the mystery evoked by witnessing that object: Why is this — whatever it is — considered art, and what is the value of its being exhibited? Like much of his work, and even perhaps much of contemporary art, Duchamp’s “Fountain” elicits two kinds of conversations that parallel two distinct groups of people: the initiated and the uninitiated — that is, those familiar and those unfamiliar with art history.
Perhaps the uninitiated have the opportunity to embody similar reactions to those who witnessed the “Fountain” during its first exhibition. There, in a space for exhibiting art, stands a urinal. Seemingly mass produced, the glossy all-white ceramic mold bears a black signature: “R. Mutt 1917”. Besides the signature, Duchamp’s urinal is distinguished by its placement. It always lays on its back side, turned against its design — transforming the flat face that is supposed to be installed against the wall of a bathroom into a base. The “Fountain”, in a sense, is merely a container designed to catch and funnel urine into a pipe.
Yet, as if in anticipation of the intuitive grievances of uninitiated museum visitors, the dimly lit wall behind the “Fountain” in the Israel Museum features magazine and newspaper clippings that testify to the importance of this piece. Many of these framed pictures and texts are difficult to read closely because they have been hung well beyond average human height. However, even without an in-depth consideration of their contents, these memorabilia allude to a clear proclamation: “This urinal is not just any urinal. It attained a monumental reception. It is part of Art History”.
This convincing communication of importance may not be able to ward off the assertion of that recurring statement that makes artists (especially those raised on heavy doses of conceptual art) cringe: “I could do that.” Surely, it’s difficult to imagine any visitor of the museum who couldn’t find an industrially produced toilet and sign it. Thus, inferring the curator’s desire to communicate the importance of the “Fountain”, the uninitiated viewer might conclude that this whole project was no more than a prank — a living rendition of the famous folktale, the Emperor’s New Clothes.
And yet, were this uninitiated viewer to stand and wait long enough before this object presented as a treasure, he or she might be surprised to hear the passing conversations it prompts. The longer I stood before the “Fountain” in the Israel Museum, my smile almost turned into a gawk, as a number of initiated viewers passed by, exclaiming their excitement about the “Fountain”. One by one, this person and then that person would speak in emotionally charged and utterly abstract language about the “Fountain”. “It’s so cool.” “This is an amazing piece of art.” “Do you believe that he thought of doing this?” Surely, to say the least, Duchamp seems to have proved that there is no limit to the sincere appending of equivocal adjectives to industrial bathroom products. Recalling the emperor, unknowingly naked before his subjects, perhaps the “Fountain” suggests that this strut of power can continue longer than the folktale suggests. What happens if no candid child describes his or her vision? Or, what happens if the frank statements of the child are rejected? Initiated or not, someone claiming that the “Fountain” is a scam might elicit harsh responses.
For me, Duchamp’s “Fountain” has been an enigma. Judgements about its value and interest swing back and forth. In a sense, the “Fountain” serves as a litmus test of my ever changing thoughts about art. Instead of acidic or basic, it tests whether I’m in a mischievous or intellectual mood. Overall, though, my relationship with Duchamp has only deepened over the years. The more I read about this intellectual jokester artist, the more I am surprised to discover new depths of interest and potential value. Given that most of my engagement with Duchamp has been through reading and pictures, this exhibition allows me to stand in the presence of the “Fountain”. Expanding my thoughts of both humor and intellectuality, I can now candidly say that I have walked around a urinal on a pedestal in a museum; I have considered its figurative suggestiveness, like the pear-like opening; while being close enough to do so, I have imagined exposing its nudity by pushing it to the floor, to break it, only to see some new replica take its place. I wish I had some profound insight to share about Duchamp’s “Fountain”, but this so called “ready-made art object” merely tempts me to relay the words of Keats: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity…”