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Conceptual Art

Duchamp’s ‘hot arse’ (L.H.O.O.Q)

By Conceptual Art, Duchamp, Elevenses, Talking art

Marcel Duchamp is perhaps most famous for submitting a urinal signed R. Mutt for display in an exhibition in 1917 but this work comes hot on its heels. A cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa complete with a scribbled in moustache and a goatee and the letters L.H.O.O.Q written beneath it.

LHOOQ Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with added moustache, goatee, and title, 1919, Private Collection, Paris

What does it mean???

Firstly, Duchamp was playing with phonetics; when you read the letters quickly in French it sounds as though you are saying ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or to translate, ‘she’s got a hot arse’, although Duchamp himself gave a loose translation as ‘she’s got a fire down below’.

There are several ways that this can be interpreted.

  1. The feminist reading

‘She’s got a hot arse’, or ‘she’s got a fire down below’ are undeniably sexual comments that invite allusions to the male gaze which isn’t great. It empowers men and objectifies women. Women are reduced to becoming the passive objects of a man’s desire. So the poor Mona Lisa is a dignified woman who is now merely reduced to a sex object.

But that doesn’t really account for the moustache and goatee.

  1. The school boy reading

Duchamp’s work does often have more than a whiff of the playground about it. It’s such a juvenile thing to do to whack facial hair on a sedate lady – he did this in pencil but then added some word play which is admittedly pretty witty. The thing is that then Duchamp passed the work off as an original work of art. He called these works objets trouvés or found objects; basically every day things that he modified in some way. So, yes, playful and silly but there’s thoughtful intent behind his actions… so not totally school boy.

  1. The anti-establishment reading

Let’s just talk about the fact that he chose to ‘enhance’ a postcard of the most famous painting in the world. He may have had his friend Apollinaire in mind when he chose the Mona Lisa. Apollinaire had wrongly been accused of having a connection to the theft of the painting in 1911 but was later acquitted.

Whatever his motive for selecting this work, he’s taking the world renowned masterpiece down a peg or two. He’s poking fun at something sacred! That’s no slight to the lady herself but more of an insult to the madness of the art world and to the swarming masses who blindly worship certain works because it’s the done thing. He’s also, I think, making a little point about the merit – or not – of cheap reproductions.

That would be quite a reasonable reading of LHOOQ but there’s more.

  1. The Freudian reading

With her moustache and beard the Mona Lisa looks more than a little masculine. Duchamp argued that she doesn’t become a woman disguised as a man here but that she actually becomes man. Freud had something to say on the subject of the original work declaring that he believed da Vinci to be homosexual (what a bombshell!!!!) and that there is always male within his portraits of women because he couldn’t identify with the feminine. Essentially their femininity was a flimsy veneer. At the very least he was working with androgyny mused Freud. So, Voila! Who knew that the Mona Lisa was actually a man until Duchamp stuck a moustache on her?!

Duchamp did like playing with gender. He had an alter-ego called Rrose Sélavy, pronouced ‘Eros, c’est la vie’ (‘Eros, that’s life’). I think this was more about exploring ideas of identity and representation than trying to trick anyone or illicit cheap thrills.

Marcel Duchamp_Man Ray 1920

Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1920© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Whatever his motive in choosing the Mona Lisa, Duchamp was probably aiming, rather successfully as it happens, to pick apart and challenge everything that art represents. Actually, he dedicated a career to that. With this work he’s also elevating a banal reproduction to something that others wanted to copy in their own right. Duchamp himself also made several replicas, including one that he adapted from his friend Picabia who was so eager to publish a version in his magazine that he knocked a version out himself forgetting the beard. Duchamp later added the goatee and labelled it ‘Moustache par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp / avril 1942’.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Janine Antoni’s ‘Gnaw’

By Conceptual Art, Installations, Talking art
Gnaw Janine Antoni with Lynne Hanley eating chocolate

Janine Antoni, Gnaw, 1992, installed at Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York

Random person eating chocolate is NOT part of the work!

When I first heard about ‘Gnaw’ Janine Antoni’s 1993 installation I have to confess that I thought she had basically eaten as much chocolate as she could and whacked the remaining (huge) block of it on a marble pedestal.

I was so wrong!

Gnaw began life as a pair of large cubes, one of chocolate, one of lard, each weighing in at 600 pounds. Antoni literally then gnawed away at each but, and this disappointed me slightly when I realised, she didn’t actually eat the bits that she’d managed to extract with her teeth (I was in awe of her eating lard and perhaps a little jealous of the huge block of chocolate). The finished work comprises of the two tooth and face marked blocks, now elevated on marble pedestals, and 27 heart-shaped packages of chocolate made from the chocolate removed and chewed from the cube and 130 lipsticks made with pigment, beeswax, and the lard removed and chewed from that cube. These are displayed in cabinets near the sculptures. This part of the display is called Lipstick/Phenethylamine Display.

What is phenethylamine and how do you pronounce it? Phenethylamine is a stimulant found in chocolate and is also produced in the body when we fall in love. Don’t listen to the corresponding Elevenses with Lynne to find out how to pronounce it though!!

So it’s clear that Antoni has a message here, and to me she’s asking questions about what it means to be a woman both with desires and who is, and wants to be, desired.

Janine Antoni, Lipstick/Phenethylamine Display, 1992, detail

The little by-products are either desirable (the empty chocolate box – so desirable all the chocolates have ‘gone’!) and a red lipstick that might aid in desirability, but there is a distinctly undesirable element to the way that they have been produced, unless perhaps you happen to be Antoni’s lover. Would you want to put something chewed by a stranger in or near your mouth? Perhaps not?!

But think about babies! They want to put everything in their mouths because it’s a way of discovering the world. That one bite of the apple was what got Eve and womankind into all manner of trouble but it also gave knowledge. The desire to know. What is the relationship between seduction, desire and knowledge? I’m not sure the work promises answers but it definitely asks questions.

It also rather marvellously references and then somewhat trashes the distinction between two hitherto disparate art movements from the 60s and 70s. Works by artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris were all about the cube. Minimalist, machine cut, intellectual in tone and above all, clean, they had no relationship to the messy, visceral performance art that was generally the domain of female artists often with a feminist agenda. Until Antoni came along and started taking chunks out of those perfect cubes with her teeth.

If you wanted something to ponder once you have the pronunciation of phenethylamine perfected, ‘Gnaw’ is definitely food for thought.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Hard Candy

By Conceptual Art, Elevenses, Installations, Talking art

Today we are talking candy as the Americans would say. Hard candy, actually. I’m not American so I’m going for sweeties. Art made of sweets. Sweets in art.

I might be breaking new Elevenses ground here by going for an installation crossed with conceptual art. The truth is that when I think of sweets there are two works that immediately come to mind and both are installations. I’m posting about one today and the other will find its way into a post at the start of June.

I remember hearing about this particular work 30 years ago and when spoken about it always came accompanied by a huge eye-roll. ‘What makes it art?’ people cried. ‘I could have done that – look I’ll do a little version of it now’ they said as they emptied a packet of glacier mints into the corner of the room (where, frankly they could stay in my opinion; not my favourite by a long shot).

The installation that I’m talking about is this one, or one like it, by Felix Gonzales Torres, a gay Cuban born American artist who did a series of works (19 in total) in 1990 /1991 using wrapped sweets. He would put a pile of them in a corner of a gallery AND you were allowed to eat them. As many as you wanted. And then you could go back the next day or the next week and eat some more. That is the part of the artwork that, unsurprisingly, I remember the most!!

Felix Gonzales Torres Candy Spill

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Candy Spill or Portrait of Ross in L.A., 1991, Art Institute Chicago

This work relies on people like me wanting to eat the sweets. Gonzalez Torres was quoted as saying that he needed the public to complete the work. The installation depicted here, consisting of a pile of sweets placed in the corner of a gallery, is called ‘Candy Spill’ or more poignantly ‘Portrait of Ross’. They represent his lover who died of an AIDS related illness. The weight of the installation should ideally be 175 pounds or 12.5 stone, Ross’s ideal weight. The shrinking pile of course represented Ross’s own weight loss as he lost his life to the disease. The audience is therefore acting as the AIDS virus as they deplete the pile.

There’s more.

One of the conditions of a gallery displaying the work is that they are obliged to replenish the pile every day. If we stay with the metaphor of the sweets representing Ross’s body, the fact that it was forever replenished grants him everlasting life which in turn raises the notion of transubstantiation. This was absolutely something that was in Gonzales Torres’s mind when he created the work. He said:

‘You put it in your mouth and you suck on someone else’s body, and in this way my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies. For just a few seconds, I have put something sweet in someone’s mouth, and that is very sexy.’

Add all that to the layer of meaning that comes in when you consider how often we give sweets as gifts, all those boxes of chocolates as declarations of love, and you get a very poignant and rather elegant work.

Felix Gonzales Torres also succumbed to AIDS at just 38 years old in 1996.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.