14 May 2021
Elevating the Everyday
We explore the innovative and radical world of readymade art. Looking at the work of Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst and Cornelia Parker to name a few.
The exchange between objects and people is an intriguing and historically cultivated relationship. The way in which humans relate to objects has fascinated cultural historians and artists for centuries. The French-American artist Marcel Duchamp is one of the most well known for taking objects and renaming them as artworks. The rise of the readymade technique is often coined as being the beginning of conceptual art, as a whole. Readymade art offers a re-thinking of the everyday, a process where recognisable objects are elevated. It is the decisive re-shaping of the traditional usage of the language of art that makes the readymade.
The readymade has been a focus of modern art since the early 20th century. The first ever readymade can be traced back to an early work of Pablo Picasso, named ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’. In this case, Picasso used magazine imagery and actual chair caning for the piece. The magazine image of the chair caning represented the seated surface in the image. The repurposing of found objects soon became a phenomena within the art world, soon being used by artist Marcel Duchamp. The dada ideals in his work commenced with his 1913 work ‘Bicycle Wheel’. This work was just the beginning for Duchamp, who subsequently continued to repurpose objects as artworks for the duration of his career. Important to note, Duchamp was the artist who coined the term ‘readymade’.
Prior to the phrase ‘readymade’, the term ‘found object’ was used by many. This derived from the French word ‘trouvé’, most often used to describe works which were modified but undisguised objects. All in all, the readymade has become a staple medium of art production. It has been used by countless artists, however it never loses its ability to shock and surprise.
Artist Marcel Duchamp’s first ever readymade was his 1913 piece ‘Bicycle Wheel’. In this example, he used a bicycle wheel fixed on to a stool as the the artwork. His re-thinking of these everyday objects became one of the most famous examples of a readymade ever made. However, at the time it was made, ‘Bicycle Wheel’ received a huge amount of critique from the art world. As well as this, his 1917 piece ‘Fountain’ elicited an equally similar response. Critics of the works considered them to be both indecent and immoral.
When describing his famous work ‘Fountain‘, a white porcelain urinal signed with ‘R. Mutt’, Duchamp said “he took an ordinary article of life, placed it so its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.” In this case, he decisively re-shapes the traditional use of the language of art, defining the readymade.
“Can works be made that are not ‘of art’?” Marcel Duchamp
The readymade crucially defied the idea that art must be aesthetic and beautiful. Duchamp claimed to have chosen these particular objects “based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste”. Consequently, Duchamp’s experimental work paved the way for the conceptual art. The conceptual art movement gave more importance to the idea of an artwork, rather than the finished art object.
Artist Pablo Picasso’s ‘Bicycle Seat’, was displayed at the Salon d’Automne in Paris together with another 78 works in 1942. However, the artwork deeply shocked visitors and the artwork was removed from the exhibition. Notably, the work is hugely respected for its simplicity and incredible use of objects to create form. Picasso’s ‘Bicycle Seat’ became an example of a found object standing as visual representation of another form. When discussing the piece with artist George Brassaï, Picasso said “One day, in a pile of objects all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull’s Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together”. The piece is now regarded as one of the most renowned readymade works.
As well as this, Picasso created relief constructions which he began in 1912. These works in many ways, elaborate on the traditional visual imagery of still life compositions. In particular, for his work ‘Still Life’, Picasso appears to show a table top with a knife, beer glass and various foods on top. By incorporating found objects, Picasso gives a freedom to the piece. By using real upholstery fringing, Picasso establishes a sense of radical creativity.
“Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.” Pablo Picasso
Artist Joseph Beuys creates his 1969 artwork ‘Sled’ as a result of a rescue which was lead by nomads when his plane was shot down during the Second World War. In this case, they rubbed animal fat into his body and wrapped him in felt to keep warm. ‘Sled’ depicts the recognisable structure laden in survival supplies, ready for an emergency. The flashlight represents the sense of searching and orientation, the felt symbolises protection, and the fat is for food. In this readymade work, Beuys portrays a sense of hope in this personal and emotive portrayal.
Like earlier readymade works, Beuys chooses everyday objects and elevates them in a contrasting setting. However, Beuys embeds a personal and inspiring narrative into the seams of these works. By exhibiting these works, Beuys evokes curiosity amongst viewers through the narrative of the objects. He includes a theatricality in each work, showing that objects can always go beyond their original function. Beuys is first and foremost known as a conceptual artist, using the readymade as part of his wider practice. As an artist, he saw the readymade as a way in which to reimagine the role of the artist. With this purpose in mind, he attempted to prevent the commodification of artworks and break down barriers.
British artist Damien Hirst has been using everyday objects in his artworks since the beginning of his career. He often used glass-fronted medical cabinets found in various hospitals, full of pharmaceutical drugs as his subject. For these works, he arranged the drugs on the shelves in form of the human body. In particular, he would place medicines for the head at the top, medications of the stomach in the middle and feet medication at the bottom. In his practice, Hirst focuses on death as a theme and what it represents in much of his work. He famously made a readymade series of artworks from dead animals. These include a shark, a cow and sheep preserved in formaldehyde.
In a similar vein, Hirst made his work inspired by a readymade work of the readymade pioneer Duchamp. This particular work is a commercial landscape print with two drops of colour painted on by Duchamp. For him, they evoked coloured apothecary bottles generally seen in pharmacy windows at the time. He became influenced by the artist Joseph Cornell’s assemblage works, made in the 1940s and 1950s. Cornell often comprised his work of lined up bottles and medicine chests. Hirst’s readymade works represent narratives and above all, depict his love for objects.
‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ is an artwork by British artist Cornelia Parker, made in 1991. The work shows a blown up classic garden shed, exploded by the British Army at the request of the artist. After this, Parker suspended each of the surviving pieces of the structure. She depicts the shed in their suspension as if held mid-explosion. Although the work is not a conventional readymade, Parker’s piece depicts a remaking of a recognisable and domestic object. She demonstrates an apocalyptic tone in her work whilst simultaneously demonstrating a concern for the environment. Like Duchamp, she shows the more insidious effects of industry and consumerism.
The objects included within the readymade installation range from children’s toys and tools to domestic ware. Mostly, the objects were collected at car boot sales and markets and re-used for the experimental artwork. As an artist, Parker is known for her large scale and monumental installations. In her work, she focuses on reconstructions and re-shufflings of what is around her. In many ways, a sentiment to the history of the readymade.
“I like to take man-made objects and push them to the point where they almost lose their reference, so that they become something else, take on other alliances.” Cornelia Parker
Above all, artist Tracey Emin creates conceptually driven artworks. Without a doubt, one of her most intriguing pieces is her 1998 piece ‘My Bed’. The work depicts a bed she stayed in for four days after the end of a romantic relationship. She transforms her works solely through placing it in a gallery environment, an intervention by the artist. In a similar way to those discussed, the work transforms in its chosen environment. Important to note, Emin doesn’t intentionally make this as an artwork but it was eventually named one. The artwork consists of an unmade bed, surrounding by dirty sheets, underwear, vodka bottles, cigarettes and condoms.
Emin has created an ideal example of a contemporary ready made. Emin’s ‘My Bed’ becomes a self portrait, created outside of all conventional art making. Emin’s work visibly harks to Duchamp’s readymade concept, however she stretches this to its outer limits. All in all, she makes a setting out of domestic objects, emitting a warmth typical of her work.
“Most people don’t do something seminal. I’ve done it twice: with my tent and my bed. Picasso did it with Cubism.” Tracey Emin
On the whole, for many artists the readymade became a direct conversation with industry and manufacturing. Through the use of mass-made objects, in many ways readymade artworks act as commentary on these industries. Undoubtedly, by elevating them and placing them in new contexts, the viewer is forced to view them in a different way. Eventually, in this new setting, most define a readmade as art. What’s more, readymade artists question the very process through which anything becomes art in the first place.