Personal De Gracia. Digressions and Subversions of the Ready-Made
[Curatorial text of the exhibition PERSONAL DUCHAMP. Derivas y subversiones, Argentinian Contemporary Art Museum, Junín, Buenos Aires, 2012].
In September 2011, artist Silvio De Gracia wandered the streets of Thessaloniki, Greece dressed in black with a balaclava on his face, carrying along the way a urinal painted in red. The action, performed at the “Third Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art”, aimed at disorganizing the agreements of standardized rules that regulate transit and everyday routines, by means of a kind of intervention that transferred the venue of Marcel Duchamp’ s ready-made away from the artistic space into the wide realm of the city. Silvio De Gracia’s performance called Walking with Duchamp introduced digression as a micro-political strategy that challenged the urban fabric in its disciplinary layout in order to disturb it by means of the disrupting gesture of an action the artist himself deemed as an “interference”. If the ready-made put forward its critical tenor in the twofold operation of displacement and re-contextualization of an industrial item, away from its current space and placed it in an exhibition room, in a counter-strategy, Silvio De Gracia’s provocative performance reversed the terms by returning the item to its everyday realm. Thus, Walking with Duchamp disputed its disruptive projections in the reversal of the ready-made operation, in a gesture that , at the same time, updated a kind of intervention that partakes the ideas of Alberto Greco’s Vivo Dito and Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s “signaling”.
The reference to Vigo, more specifically his first signaling of October, 1968 called Bunch of Traffic Lights, appears to be implicit in the first version of Walking with Duchamp, performed in La Plata a year before the one in Thessaloniki which was also projected by De Gracia in October (1). Accompanied by two friends, De Gracia wandered the streets of the city of La Plata carrying, in this instance, three urinals painted in red, yellow and green in reference to the three colors of traffic lights. In 1968, with a summons addressed from a newspaper and a radio of La Plata, Vigo set forth a disalienated appropriation of the dailiness of life by means of the simple action of pointing at a common city object, a traffic light located in the junction of two avenues. For Vigo, the “revulsive” potential of art did not lie in the production of “works” but in the potential of banishment triggered by poetic digression, which may transform our naturalized relationships with the environment and encourage the invention of new creative and vital spaces (2). Silvio De Gracia’s performance seems to revive the critical options of this project; furthermore, he entangles them with the wandering perambulation of the ready-made. As in Vigo’ s signaling, the “traffic light” digression evoked in the sequence of urinals of Walking with Duchamp, breaks up the instrumental logics of the object, its function of ordering the flow of vehicles and bodies within the city. The traffic light ready-made becomes a device of poetic drive. With the lack of predictability of its open itineraries, the action of wandering the streets disrupts the rationalized order that the regulated fabric of the city sets forth and rules by means of the bureaucratic layout of its limits and in the disciplinary arrangement of its flow, with a mechanism of power that, at the same time, controls a applies sanctions concerning the circulation of bodies. Hence, Silvio De Gracia’s action is poses a disrupting gesture that intervenes in the city fabric in its naturalized order with the purpose of warning about the power tensions that organize and regulate it, tearing the stability of its framework. In “ the rationale of its design and the regulation of its areas of traffic, work, relax, leisure” the city, De Gracia writes, “imposes an overwhelming and totalizing logics of sense and compliance on the daily flow of activities” (3).
Walking with Duchamp is etched in the development of an “aesthetics of disturbance”; De Gracia‘s critical approach aims at opening “a rupture or a tear, even if it be small and ephemeral, in the framework of social conditioning”(4). An “interference” in De Gracia’s words, that breaks with the macro-political demands of traditional activism, whose goal is to have a bearing on daily micro-politics through a poetics of tearing and breaching. The interference aims at “shaking the inertia of trivialization of human behavior” yet, not “to transform the reality but to create fissures in it, to open breaches and `parasite’ its rational and constricting fabric” from a tactical mobility that makes use of “nonsense, incongruity, delirium, surprise”(5) so as to pose a challenge.
The idea of interference as a parasitic activity refers, once again, to Duchamp. How can the ready-made be deemed but as a parasitic intrusion of an ‘already-made’ object in the institutional fabric of art? For Duchamp, the strategy of the ready-made had implied infecting the suspicious neutrality of the museum by introducing into the artistic space an object that, far from been presented as a work, tried to highlight the regime of power /knowledge of the institution. Nevertheless, the recognition of Duchamp’s artistic gesture as art, carried out by the very institution whose logics the ready-made attempted to disturb – to break up its legitimacy- its fetishized inclusion in the museum exhibition rooms, neutralized the revulsive potential of this strategy. In the series Subversions , De Gracia introduces the urinal back into the artistic institution but he displays not one but five urinals with different interventions that make up a series of installations: Camouflage, Self-Referential, USA for piss, Holocaust, Death. The set is completed with a sequence of three photographs where De Gracia replicates the 1995 action of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei – also displayed as a three-photograph series, in which he drops an antique Han Dynasty vase that is shattered against the floor. In Silvio De Gracia’s version the wrecked object is, of course, a urinal.
The Subversions knot and mobilize a complex and disturbing weave of references, by means of a setting up of strongly connotative images and materials, ranging from the American flag and army camouflage to the use of beef, urine and crucifixes. Likewise, the series introduces a quotation or wink to other artists’ works, namely those of Leon Ferrari, Piero Manzoni and Andres Serrano. In its exhibition at the museum the set constitutes not an appropriation of Duchamp’s gesture but an attempt to disorganize the mechanics of power of the artistic institution itself. Ready-made of a ready-made , Subversions challenge the meek confinement of the urinal as object- fetish, the appeasement of Duchamp’s gesture with its un-submissive, revulsive potential within the institutional cloister. However, the sequence of interventions displaces the sole questioning concerning art discourse ad lays down its critical options in the successive chathexes of the object, close to the strategy of the “objects of conscience” of the group Escombros; thus, within the genealogy of Latin American Conceptualism.
Subversions may be interpreted as a counterpoint of the performance of Walking with Duchamp. Hence, if the latter returned the object to the territory where Duchamp took it from, Subversions, in a new reversal of the ready-made place it back within the artistic institution, In their complex tension, both interventions bring to the fore the issue of the boundaries between the inside and the outside of the museum: if the digression aims at overflowing the institutional fences of art in order to intrude into the dailiness of life, the exhibition of the object implies a counter-operation, entering the artistic domain so as to affect it from the inside. It is a twofold strategy that steps back on the critical path of the ready-made , in the latent and reverberating sense of Duchamp’ s gesture, in order to question its bearing in current politics. Perhaps it is in the series of photos in which – quoting Ai Weiwei’s action – Silvio De Gracia shatters a urinal against the floor, where the artist seems to provocatively focus on its critical implications, a plea to challenge Duchamp’s institutional authority by means of the action of dropping an object, as a way of keeping up to date the voltage of the ready-made.
1] De Gracia started his performance in La Plata and a year later, together with the aforementioned presentation in the Biennale of Thessaloniki, he did it again in Lisbon in the event Epipiderme, encontros a volta da performance and in Athens. Thus, Walking with Duchamp was conceived as a work in progress by the artist, who stretched the descentralized action of digression of the performance due to its repetition, also decentralized in different cities.
2] Fernando Davis. “‘Revulsive’ Practices. Edgardo Antonio Vigo in the fringe of Conceptualism” (“Prácticas ‘revulsivas’. Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo”) In: Cristina Freire and Ana Longoni. Conceptualism of the South. (Conceitualismos do Sul), Sao Paulo, Annablume, USP-MAC y AECID, 2009.
3] Silvio De Gracia. Aesthetics of Disturbance (Estética de la perturbación) Buenos Aires, El Candirú, 2007.
5] Op.cit. De Gracia defines his aesthetics of disturbance as close to Vigo’s concept of revulsion.
Fernando Davis is a researcher, freelance curator and professor at the National University of LaPlata (UNLP) and the National Institute of Arts (IUNA). Currently leading a research project at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the UNLP. Among other exhibits, was curator of Subversive Practices. Art under Conditions of Political Repression.60s-80s /SouthAmerica/ Europe (co-curator, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, Germany, 2009), Juan Carlos Romero.Cartografías del cuerpo, asperezas de la palabra (OSDE Foundation, BuenosAires, 2009) and Luis Pazos. “El fabricante de modos de vida”. Acciones, cuerpo, poesía (1965-1976) (Document-Art Gallery, Buenos Aires, 2012). He is co-author of the book Romero (EspigasFoundation, BuenosAires, 2010)and he has published writings in Conceitualismos do Sul/South Conceptualisms (edited by Cristina Freire and Ana Longoni, São Paulo, Annablume, MAC-USP and AECID, 2009) and in De la revuelta a la posmodernidad (1962-1982) (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2011).