In an interview with James Johnson Sweeny, Marcel Duchamp acknowledged, as his friend Henri-Pierre Roché had pointed out, that he was always careful to contradict himself in order to avoid repetition and thus the creation of habits - which in the end amount to taste. This was the reason for withdrawing - at least in appearance - from art-making after un-finishing The Large Glass, in 1923, and for insisting that the choice of Readymade objects was taken independently of their visual qualities. It is paradoxical then, to find examples of contemporary work and curatorial projects that, although they claim a sort of Duchampian legacy, reverse the above assertion by repeating past gestures, which are thereby
aestheticised, in a process that precisely contradicts all that Duchamp stood for.
Take, for instance, two exhibitions that opened in France at the beginning of the summer. The first, described as an 'unrepressed' exhibition of contemporary art, took place in Paris in a disused suite of linked offices transformed into 'erotic cabinets'. It was entitled 'Pour un objet dard' in reference to the name of Duchamp's sculpture of a bent phallus, and was subtitled the 'Dildo Show' in homage to Duchamp's erotic objects and his display of sexual ambivalence through his female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. Ten days later, a second show opened with the title 'Bruitsecrets', a wink at Duchamp's 1916 readymade Bruit Secret. Although it is highly unlikely that either curator knew what the other was up to, the mere coincidence of the two shows makes one wonder why both found it so necessary to appeal to Duchamp as an aesthetic guarantor.
Of course, the question of Duchamp's ever-present aura is more than a cliché in France, especially following the large Duchamp retrospective held at the opening of the Centre Pompidou in 1977, which provided the opportunity for a general theoretical and critical reappraisal of his art. More recently, but still at the Pompidou, the exhibition FémininMasculin took Duchamp as an emblem and displayed a series of contemporary responses to his work, ranging from a remake of Etant Donnés by Richard Baquié, to Sylvie Blocher's installation Déçue, la mariée se rhabilla (Disappointed, the bride put her clothes back on, 1991), a critical response to The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. Around that time, Thierry de Duve felt impelled to claim the existence of a 'post-Duchampian art-scene' in relation to which all contemporary artists should take a position. Even though this comment stemmed from an overly Duchamp-obsessed mind, it did have a certain currency in the mid-80s given the plentiful number of remakes, pastiches, quotations or allusions to Rrose Sélavy & Co. evident in FémininMasculin. Today, by comparison, it seems that Duchamp is no longer a matter for debate. Yet the exhibitions 'Pour un objet dard' and 'Bruitsecrets' suggest a different relationship to his legacy.
Several works in 'Bruitsecrets' had an unmistakable Duchampian flavour. For example, Serge Comte's wall inscription made of ear-plugs reading 'cash cash' (Cash Cash, 1998) echoed John Cage's card from the 'Czech Mycological Association', which was countersigned back in 1965 by Duchamp with the inscription 'Czech Check'. Boris Achour's urban furniture (Controle, 1997) cast in sanitary porcelain evoked quite plainly the first sculpture ever to be made in that material, namely Duchamp's 1917 Fountain. The problem with these two examples is that you don't even need to think about why the artists make reference to Duchamp. He is simply there, lurking in the background. Any object twisted away from its original purpose (Achour's piece also recalls the marbled sugar cubes of Why Not Sneeze, Rrose Sélavy, 1921), any visual or verbal pun made in a detached, off-hand manner, is part of an accepted readable vocabulary, which stems from a kind of automatic, empty mimetism, rather than from a critical dialogue. To a certain extent even Philippe Meste's rockets aimed at the aircraft carrier Foch, Attaque du Port de Toulon (Toulon Harbour Attack, 1993), merely transpose onto another level Duchamp's terse telegrams addressed to André Breton.
If aesthetics and critical dialogue no longer seem to be an exciting issue for today's artists, then invoking Duchamp is perhaps a question of strategy. By using Duchampian titles, both exhibitions inscribe themselves within a history of avant-gardism, and therefore claim to be aesthetically correct. Of course, 'Bruitsecrets' rather shoots itself in the foot by using such a historically grounded title when the aim of the exhibition is to expose 'new energies' stemming from an emerging generation of artists. And there is another paradox in this, which is that Duchamp is simultaneously an institutional guarantor and the object of attack by conservative factions for allegedly being the root of 'n'importe quoi' (anything goes) in contemporary art.
Even the established figurative painter Vincent Corpet seemed to have felt he had to give in and play his part in the 'n'importe quoi' game: in collaboration with Alberto Sorbelli he showed a porn video in which a heterosexual couple merrily fuck in the middle of a bedroom turned into a rubbish tip; in so doing, they actively destroy small self portraits of the absent painter. This iconoclasm, (perhaps an implicit comment on Duchamp's contempt for 'retinal Art'), the use of pornography (as in Etant Donnés, the viewer becomes the voyeur) and the replicas of his own paintings (an allusion to replicas of Readymades displayed in museums across the world) seemed, in the end, a more refreshing way of dealing with the Duchamp theme. At least it was funnier and more open to interpretation. After all, Les regardeurs font les tableaux.