Last Sunday, I took a rather whimsical trip. I got on a train and travelled for two hours to Stockholm with only one destination in mind – the Modern Art Museum, which is hosting a Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp exhibition, He Was Wrong (what a delightfully ambiguous title, isn’t it?).
Now, you may not know this about me, but I love modern art. I don’t know exactly why, I just like staring at it. But this exhibition unexpectedly provided me with a bit of an insight into that, actually.
I must confess that I was slightly disappointed at first, seeing the proportions of the exhibition, which was comprised of two rather small chambers – one for Picasso and one for Duchamp. The reason for the smallness of the Duchamp section became clear to me when I read his quote on a wall: “I only made thirteen of them [readymades] during my life, so it’s not much of an occupation”. And I actually ended up spending two hours in those two small rooms, circling back to my favourite pieces multiple times, staring at them for ten minutes at a time, glad that I came alone, because I wouldn’t have felt well knowing that my companion was getting bored. So, there you go.
A cause of another slight rush of disappointment came when I noted that most (if not all) works of art in Duchamp’s room were labeled “replica”. However, the guide explained how most of Duchamp’s works had been either lost or destroyed, as apparently sometimes even the author himself didn’t consider them art. Also, Duchamp himself actually didn’t mind replicas of his works exhibited around the world.
Then I spent ten minutes staring at the replica of the very first readymade he ever constructed – an upside-down bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. It was fun – I had to keep restraining myself from turning the wheel (a small sign read “Please do not touch the artwork”) and it kept occurring to me that I wasn’t looking at a wheel or a stool – both of those things had lost their original functions.
At some point, I realised why I like it so much – because it’s almost like science. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I like science so much because it’s almost like art. I doubt I’ll ever know. Anyway. A scientist analyses a little part of the world and then s/he can either record it or s/he can go a little further and try and find if s/he can use something already in existance to make something new. For instance, we can make tiny boxes out of DNA to put drugs into them and deliver to the parts of the body that are sick. DNA exists to help pass information about organism structure to new generations, but people take it and make it serve a new purpose. Similarly, an artist takes a wheel and a stool and by attaching the first onto the second he makes something new.
There will be people who will just walk by or even scorn that they had to pay to see something they could’ve made themselves. But the point is that they didn’t. The idea occurred to Duchamp. It doesn’t even matter that it’s only a replica. It’s still his idea. The execution isn’t that important to Duchamp (according to the guide). So, when we look at a weird bottle rack, we aren’t looking at a bottle rack (it’s not used to put bottles on it), we aren’t even looking at something Duchamp made (again, it was only a replica), we’re looking at an idea that occurred to Duchamp. I love it even more, now that I realise this.
I’ll spare your time and stop here. I’ll continue my thoughts from the Modern Art Museum next week, when I’ll already have left Sweden and will probably be swamped by mundane to-do lists as I try to catch up with the life I left at home three months ago,