Anything that moves

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: How a reject became the most influential artwork in the world

The porcelain urinal was thrown out of a 1917 New York exhibition, but its recreations now find pride of place in leading museums.

A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp, a French artist domiciled in New York, paid the entry fee for an exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp’s contribution to the show, titled Fountain, was a porcelain urinal he had purchased on April 2, 1917 and signed with the pseudonym R Mutt. When the show opened on April 10, 1917, Duchamp found his entry hidden away by scandalised organisers. Afterwards, the piece was lost, probably chucked out with the garbage. Although he protested the treatment meted out to his art, the episode was soon forgotten and he faded into relative obscurity.

Four decades later, Duchamp’s concerns found echoes among a new generation of artists looking to break away from dominant conventions. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others, drew on his example in their own work, and by the time of his death in 1968, he had become a celebrated name within a small community of avant-garde visual artists, musicians and film-makers. His reputation has continued to grow since then, and when the British Broadcasting Company asked 500 leading artists, critics and historians to rank the most influential works of modern art, Fountain placed first, ahead of seminal paintings by Picasso and Matisse like Guernica and The Red Studio.

Modern art presents many obstacles to the lay public. A lot of it seems absurd, or lacking skill, or designed merely to shock. Duchamp’s Fountain was all of these. Understanding how it went from the garbage heap to the top of the art pile is a good way to comprehend debates surrounding contemporary art as a whole.

Painting from the margin

The exhibition in which Fountain was included before being excluded derived from a tradition that originated in Paris in the 1860s. Among the must-visit events in the French capital in those years was an annual salon sponsored by the emperor, featuring major creations by the nation’s leading artists. The orthodox taste of the jury clashed with the experimental mood among practitioners, leading to contributions by figures like Gustave Courbet and Eduard Manet being vetoed. In 1863, an alternate exhibition was mounted, consisting of paintings and sculptures that had failed to make the cut for the grand salon. This “Salon des Refuses”, or Exhibition of Rejects, was initially sponsored by the state but soon became an independent enterprise, and the premier showcase of what came to be called Impressionist painting. Impressionism was a cogent revolt against the conventions of realism and soon grew massively popular with the public.

The success of the Salon des Refusés revolutionised the way artists viewed the audience. For millennia, and across cultures, artists and artisans had cultivated patrons and sought widespread popularity. When their vision was at odds with the taste of buyers, it caused bitterness and often self-doubt. In the modern era, artists began to see rejection not as a sign of failure but of originality, of being ahead of their time. They wore it as a badge of honour, convinced that history would vindicate them. If their work was immediately liked by collectors and viewers, it was cause for concern rather than celebration, for it suggested their work was too easily assimilated. In recent decades, the upside-down attitude to rejection has gradually righted itself as the art world has become more receptive to innovation, but it still survives in pockets.

The exhibition organised in New York by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 was democratic in the manner of the Salon des Refusés, allowing works of art to be exhibited without a jury screening. Even such a liberal format could not accommodate Duchamp’s Fountain. What greater proof could there be of a work’s revolutionary nature, of being ahead of its time, than to be rejected by an exhibition of rejects?

Recreated versions of the Fountain, and other readymades, were made to Marcel Duchamp's specifications in the 1960s. (Image credit: tate.org.uk)
Recreated versions of the Fountain, and other readymades, were made to Marcel Duchamp's specifications in the 1960s. (Image credit: tate.org.uk)

Image versus concept

What precisely was revolutionary about Fountain? Let’s go back to the Impressionists and trace Duchamp’s path from that point. For centuries until the 1870s, the primary form of representation in Europe involved single-point perspective, which mimicked the way the human eyes see the world. It’s the style many lay viewers wish had never faded away. From the late 19th century, the conventions of perspective painting began to be questioned, first by Impressionists like Édouard Manet and Claude Monet, and later by artists linked with a welter of movements like Pointillism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism. The revolt against realism was triggered by a complex mix of events but one that stands out is the invention of the camera. Once the way the eye sees could be mimicked mechanically, it felt redundant to attempt the same manually. Painting shifted to exploring ways of representing three dimensions in two that did not involve creating an illusion of depth. Art increasingly focussed on subjective perception instead of attempting to simulate objective reality.

Duchamp’s early paintings displayed the influence of many of the art movements I have mentioned, but he soon grew dissatisfied with all of them. Painting may have broken away from trying to mimic the eye, but the form was still, in his view, “retinal”. Art communicated with viewers primarily through visual means, while he wanted it to be about the brain at least as much as about the eye. His first move in that direction involved taking a bicycle wheel and fitting it onto a stool. Although both wheel and stool were familiar objects, combining the two involved the artist’s intervention. Later, he reduced his role to choosing the object, placing it, and sometimes writing a title or signing it. A bottle rack, a snow shovel, a chimney ventilator, and a dog-grooming comb were among the objects he nominated as artworks, calling them “readymades”.

By divorcing an object from its utilitarian function and presenting it in a location where it would be scrutinised in a very different fashion, Duchamp was making explicit the contextual nature of meaning. He was also questioning the nature of art. If this was art, what was art? He greatly expanded the domain of art, while also considerably narrowing it. He expanded it by effectively proclaiming that art could encompass absolutely anything. All definitions based on mediums, styles and skills were consigned to the dustbin of history. At the same time, understanding art post-Duchamp became more than ever about understanding the history of art. This widened the gap between initiates and the general public. Furthermore, the conceptual turn threatened to develop into a form of navel gazing so arid that it made conventional retinal painting feel refreshing.

The double edge

The dual nature of Duchamp’s legacy is appropriate for a man whose every statement was filled with paradox, whose every work points in two directions at once, whose tongue was perpetually in his cheek. A number of commentators have referred to his creations as “anti-art”, as nihilistic or anarchistic, but none of those definitions fits in my opinion. In the 1930s, he carefully created miniature versions of all his major works and sold these to the small group of collectors that had supported him down the years.

Marcel Duchamp's miniatures. (Image credit: www.christies.com)
Marcel Duchamp's miniatures. (Image credit: www.christies.com)

In doing so, he profited from the market even as he satirised the nature of packaging and consumption. In the 1960s, versions of the lost readymades were recreated to his specifications in limited editions. Many now find a place in the world’s leading modern art museums. They may have been bought from a hardware store initially, but were carefully handmade later by skilled artisans. In a paradox that he must have enjoyed, the original required no skill, the copies needed a lot.

If you go to Duchamp to find certainty or answers, you will draw a blank, but his slim body of work orchestrates a play of ideas unprecedented in the history of art. It is funny, mocks conventions and takes the piss (rather literally in the case of Fountain), while also being challenging and profound.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.