The Metamorphosis of Junk


In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and declared it a work of art, baptising it Fountain. Before patenting his own shade of blue (International Klein Blue), Yves Klein (see above) went one step further than Duchamp by adding his signature to the sky itself. The atmosphere was his ready-made. One of the problems we have, if we have a problem, with Found Art is an inability to trust the artist who has set himself or herself up as a trickster or a charlatan. We don’t mind being fooled but we don’t want to be told in advance. In this sense, it’s not the object we have the problem with in some tight-arsed philistine sense of “that’s not art.” What unsettles is the thought that the object isn’t the focus of attention and credulity but rather we are. We are feeling the anxiety of what Lacan called the Gaze.

Here are three works of art that do not exist as such except in my head. A series of circles and arrows spray-painted like mysterious arcane hierogylphs onto the tarmac of a border road, marking the site of wreckage where a joyrider spun out fatally into a tree, a scene onto which I stumbled late one night. The second is a series of grubby playing cards scattered on every detritus-strewn street of Phnom Penh, a city where gambling is banned and therefore omnipresent. The third is a former girlfriend’s home video holiday footage, as personal, charming and innocuous as any, except the setting of the upper floors of the World Trade Centre is no longer there and never will be again, what fills those cubic metres of space, the corridors they walk down, the people they walk past, all gone.

You need not be an artist to see that context, and our awareness of it, has done something to these things. Some process of metamorphosis, some alchemy has taken place. Circumstance has created art from ephemera, junk and private keepsake. Walter Benjamin was too pessimistic is assuming the age of mechanical reproduction will destroy or at least degrade the ‘aura’ of things as he called it. It’s still there. We just need a more discerning eye to detect it.

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5 Responses to The Metamorphosis of Junk

  1. feralstate says:

    As a teacher I did some performance art pieces and intervention sculptures with kids around the school. I asked people to give feedback and realised that people had become confused about what was and wasn’t supposed to be art to the extent that they were giving me feedback on just ‘ordinary junk’ around the school or ‘events’ they’d seen happening, thinking they were a work of art…I thought that was a pretty interesting process in itself…once opened up to the idea that any object can be art people started seeing art eveywhere

    • I love that idea, it changes your perspective of the world. inspiring and kind of maddening at the same time given it could potentially never end. I think people get annoyed with Marcel Duchamp for opening this Pandora’s Box but they don’t see the glint of mischief in his eyes as he did it.

  2. …And putting into words the images you have in your head changes them still further…

    My mother used to work at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and she had an argument once with, agh, it wasnt Duchamp but someone similar–who claimed that if he signed a drawing it became a different drawing. Mum thought he was a pompous ass.

    Really thoughtful post, Darran.

    And I’m honored that you followed my blog, and it was a tipoff to me that my Gravatar hadn’t been updated.(now fixed) My blog has moved, and hopefully after I post this the correct link will be there.

    • I have some sympathy with your mother’s view as it does tend to encourage the self-conceit of more pompous artists, much in the way poets claim they are somehow saints or superhumans anointed by the muse and tuned to frequencies ‘ordinary’ people can’t access. but it can be a liberating outlook too given it can be used to cut through privilege when it’s used with a healthy dose of self-deprecation and humour. after all, if Duchamp can do it, what’s to stop a deadbeat like me?

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