The readymade can prove to be rather a poisoned chalice for an artist to drink from. With its associated and unmistakable framework of artistic connotations, the object in question is often preloaded with defined parameters before it has physically and conceptually been manipulated by the artist itself. The readymade required the viewer to engage with the object in a recontextualised setting within an accredited environment, tipping their hat as they walk by to acknowledge that they are privy to the devices instigated by Uncle Marcel and fully comprehend the conditions that his readymades laid out.
The subversion of the functionality and purpose of the original object is indeed a large slice of the mantra of the readymade; the nullification of the external context that it used to operate in is now a well versed artistic tool that has become synonymous with the majority of objecthood. It is almost a curse that Duchamp bestowed upon the readymade – associations with his work can prove to be a knot within the rope that particular readymades find themselves tangled in. Within the white cube and traditional gallery spaces, the readymade can often flounder under the weight of relational history and critical positioning.
Aside from the critically loaded readymade, each object that appears within the gallery or a arena designated for the purpose of exhibiting art, commands varying status within regards to being classified as an artwork or merely acting as a prerequisite to the finished work. With the emphasis on the framework of the exhibition paramount, the white cube gallery preserves the integrity of the directness of the readymade, yet it is the activation of the static object, the functional object whose form has not been directly recontextualised by the artist, that intrigues me. The role of functioning objects in artwork is often underplayed and objects are often merely assigned roles within the larger framework. I insinuate that Krauss’s term of ‘exhibitionality’ has some relation to Baudrillard’s concept of ‘atmosphere’ (1). Whilst Baudrillard emphasised the value of the properties and the relationship of objects to their environment and other objects, he stressed that atmosphere was a product of a ‘functional’ system of choices. This analysis of domestic interior theory was written outside of the artistic cannon but still finds relevance within it.
Some of the most successful exhibitions in the city over recent times have taken place in flats, houses, impromptu spaces and derelict environments that were built for other purposes. The exhibiting of work within this context is dictated by conditions of presence and being. By adapting to the surroundings, the rhetoric of this work mirrors the atmosphere and ambience of its surroundings conforming to its positioning outside of the white cube whilst carefully using remaining associations with the white cube to solidify its position as artwork, often via curatorial desire. This convenient paradox allows the work to function in its interior environment and as a result, triggers the elements present in the presentation of an artwork placing more emphasis on them. For example, a video work requires a collection of objects to work in tandem to successfully realise its potential of being played and exhibited. The objects needed for this to happen include; a DVD player, monitor, plinth or surface, plug adapter and DVD. These items all are needed for their functionality and without them the artwork (in this case the created and edited content on the DVD) would not achieve its objectives of being exhibited. In the interior setting however, the success and display of these elements become an intrinsic part of the artwork, much more so than if positioned within the white cube.
The spatial and overall inherent relationships between object and environment do have wider significance when viewing the artwork in both the white cube and the unorthodox venue. These modifications affect the reading significantly, the functionless relying here on systems perpetuated by the curator and/or overriding objective of the exhibition. When these objects are taken into a flat or house, the context of their display is naturally shifted. The atmosphere of these interiors and their temporal reclassification as venues of art drive the exhibition in cohesion with its ambiguous position between dwelling and gallery. The success of the works depends of the pre-existing knowledge of the rules of the white cube and the already existing relationship between the domestic abode and the commodities that already inhabit it. The presentation and exhibiting of the video within the flat would immediately create two intertwining strands which the work would feed into. If no attempt is made to hide the wires and connection between television and DVD player and they both stand upon a plinth which happens to be white but is adjacent to bookshelf – then the connection naturally becomes implicated in the reading of the work. The stand that the DVD player sits on empowers the work with an authoritative and functional purpose, supporting the equipment while insinuating a traditional artistic mode outside of it.
While the reason for these choices, which obviously vary from exhibition to event, range from curatorial to financial to stylised, the relationship to their immediate environment is fundamental. With works of art being positioned next to household items within this amalgamated context, the framing of work partially shifts from the recognised cognitive artistic arena to the ‘atmosphere’ borne of out functional choices that Baudrillard evaluated. The rejection of this coarse rhetoric by larger institutions and the necessity for smooth white walls and veiled wiring is mostly driven by the overburdened adherence to health and safety and risk assessments, as well as the duty to the all consuming wash of the white walls. Technical reasons often supersede the aesthetic qualities of objects in both these circumstances however. These smaller independent exhibitions, while often fatally raw, frequently propose taxing questions in terms of objecthood and presentation when compared to their institutional relations.
(1) Jean Baudrillard Le Systéme des Objets, Gallimard 1968, republished by Verso 1996
This essay was published in Issue 2 of the Liverpool Art Journal – edited by Tracey Eastham – 2009.