This text was commissioned by Dexter Sinister for The Serving Library. It was originally delivered as an iChat “lecture,” from a studio in Manhattan to a library in Banff, Alberta, on 11 August 2011 at 12:32 PM Mountain Time.
I am a handle, writing you with the same software that is writing me.
When I carry one idea over to meet another, it’s a metaphor I’m making.
One of the things I’ll be attempting to do this year is to extend the number of the voices included here beyond simply my own. When I got the following note from artist and writer Angie Keefer in response to my previous post about Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack,” I asked if I could share it here in its entirety. I was grateful for Angie’s agreement. — RG
Angie Keefer writes:
During freshman and sophomore years I did my work-study at the Yale Art Gallery, in Operations. I helped to install the shows, change the lightbulbs (a full-time job in itself, as there are thousands of incandescent bulbs in that incredible ceiling, at least a few of which fizzle out on any given day), and prepare artworks for loan. The first big shipping project I handled on my own was the packing of the 1945 snow shovel [known as “In Advance of the Broken Arm”], part of Yale’s collection. I spent a week’s worth of work-study time outfitting a very expensive crate with layers of foam specially formed to secure the shovel during transit. When the time came to populate the little coffin, I was required to wear latex gloves, lest the oils from my fingers mar the precious specimen. Though I considered myself well-paid at the time, the joke seemed to be on me, all the same. I remember thinking then that my absurd performance, and all the similar performances that have no doubt accompanied In Advance of the Broken Arm over the past many years, add a layer to the narrative of the readymade that is often, if not always, overlooked. The rituals attending and attesting to the rarity of the object don’t fall off at the threshold of the gallery space. It’s a serious business, maintaining select snow shovels and bottle racks in the style to which Duchamp’s blessings have made them accustomed. To keep the faith, significant money and effort is expended on an ongoing basis, behind the scene. Rather, there is no behind the scene—circulation is as much the work, as is the object. That’s the point of the readymade, I think. Said point is only half expressed by the emphasis usually placed on re-contextualization and the role of artists/institutions/critical texts in endowing an object with cultural and economic value.
I’m interested in Marcel Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack” from 1914.
“Bottle Rack” is thought to be Duchamp’s first unaltered readymade. He purchased the kitchen tool at a bazaar near Paris’s city hall and left it in his studio for several months trying to figure out what to do with it. He remarked to his sister Suzanne that he considered it a sculpture “already made,” which is where we get the term “readymade,” though Duchamp wouldn’t use that exact term himsef until “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” a snowshovel given to him by his friend Jean Crotti in 1915. Both the snowshovel and the bottle rack were subsequently lost. The bottle rack was thrown out by Suzanne and legend has it that the shovel was mistaken for a “real” shovel at a show in Chicago and used to clear the winter sidewalks during the afternoon before an opening.
With the readymades, Duchamp has removed design objects from their context as functional objects and recontextualized them as objects of art. If design and art were the same thing, Duchamp’s swap would be impossible, because these contexts would be interchangable. He shows us they are not, and usefully so. “Bottle Rack” never lost its ability to dry bottles, it simply lost its ability to be available for bottle drying or even to represent its own availability for bottle drying given its new context. In effect, Duchamp took the bottle rack out of circulation in one context and put it into circulation in another.