The practice of defacing public art has been going on for hundreds of years. Take the Great Sphinx of Giza. This great totem of the ancient world allegedly had its nose ripped off in 1378 by tyrannical overlords, in a bid to maintain order in a society still worshipping the old gods. Of course, we don’t actually have any evidence for this – it’s just one of many theories as to why The Sphinx is missing its snout. But the bigger question is: what would Marcel Duchamp say about it?
In 1957, the great artist and forefather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, presented a paper titled ‘The Creative Act’ to the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, Texas. In it, he declared that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone, the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution.” Art was therefore deemed incomplete without the contribution of the public experiencing it.
It was an idea that changed modern art, promoted audience interactivity, and heralded the onslaught of performance artists like Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovich. It also changed the status of public art. Suddenly, what we thought about objects, even those on the street, mattered, because we were part of it.
Desecration: the sincerest form of flattery
Duchamp also loved to deface things, doing so as part of a larger political statement. Adding a moustache to a postcard of the Mona Lisa in his 1919 piece ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’ wasn’t really aimed at Leonardo personally, but at the lionisation of artworks in general. The title, when sounded out, sounds like ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, or ‘She has a hot arse’. He had disgraced the Louvre’s most precious painting and simultaneously added something to it, contemporised it.
The defacement of public sculpture, telephone boxes and shopping trollies says more about us than previously thought. It can be done in protest, as in the case of Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, a print of which was vandalised beyond repair by Christian protesters in 2011; as an expression of rebellion as in ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’; as a political statement, as in almost everything produced by Banksy; or just to piss people off, as in the Chapman brothers’ defacement of etchings from Goya’s celebrated ‘Disasters of War’ series. But since Duchamp made these statements in the 1950s, it seems that now more than ever, with graffiti on the rise and becoming increasingly acceptable, the public’s contribution has become very physical indeed.
In some cases, the contribution to an artwork becomes such a part of it that the work appears naked without the addition. Take Oscar Wilde’s Père Lachaise tomb for example, designed by Jacob Epstein in 1912. The tradition was to kiss it with lipstick-slicked lips, so that up until barely three years ago (when it was covered over with glass), it could be seen decorated in hundreds of vibrant red kisses, as a physical signifier of our still powerful identification with the great writer more than a century after his death.
And in the same cemetery, Jim Morrison’s grave so frequently experienced vandalism that seeing it now, bare and plain and cordoned-off with those ugly metal barriers you see at music festivals, no longer seems to do justice to the man lying underneath. It was better with all the crap the cigarette butts, bottles of whisky, vandalised bust and memories of a million couples fucking over it in some sort of bizarre fetishistic ritual which connected them to their erotic deity (albeit rather unsuccessfully).
This ‘vandalism’ said something about how society felt about these men; it is an expression of their posterity. As Duchamp said in ‘The Creative Act’, “Millions of artists create; only a few thousand are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.” With the removal of the public’s physical contribution to their graves, Oscar and Jim seem deader than ever.
Thank God, then, for Glasgow. The Wellington statue in the Royal Exchange Square has, for the past 30 years or more, had an orange and white traffic cone perched atop its head. Every time it’s removed by authorities, the traffic cone reappears – within days or even hours. The authorities have given up. Part of the public’s insistence on keeping the cone is because Glaswegians look at this sculpture, made foolish by its traffic-cone-hat, and manage to identify with something that really signifies England. They have made it theirs by mocking the ridiculousness of celebrating an English hero in a defiantly Scottish city. Like Duchamp, Glaswegians have humorously overthrown the representation of something that no longer serves them or their culture, if indeed it ever had.
Marrying the Eiffel Tower
But never has more been contributed to public works of art than by the eccentric Objectum Sexuals. This group of people demonstrate their love of inanimate objects through public declaration and, in some cases, wedlock. It began (at least publically) with the case of Swedish-born Eija-Riitta Eklöf, who married the Berlin Wall in 1979. Since Ella coined the term ‘Objectum Sexuality’, more people have came forward and declared their love for famous monuments including the wall, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.
In a deeply uncomfortable, highly exploitative (but absolutely addictive) 2008 Channel 5 documentary entitled Married to the Eiffel Tower, Amy Wolfe is seen lying beneath her beloved ‘1001 Nacht’ fairground ride, rubbing her face with its lubricating grease, while whispering tenderly, “You smell good. God you smell so good.” Elsewhere, Erika Eiffel consummates (really) her marriage to the Eiffel Tower, one year after their wedding. Frankly, it’s all a bit much.
What would Duchamp have to say to all this? Probably something like, “Whoa… guys. WHOA. Not that kind of creative act.” In all fairness, Marcel, you did wank over a piece of silk and give it to your girlfriend as a ‘present’, so less of your noise. (For those interested, check out Paysage Fautif (‘Wayward Landscape’)). Marriage aside, what Duchamp has given us is the opportunity to make public art ours, whether planting it with red-stained kisses or popping a traffic cone atop its head. And isn’t that what public art is all about? Aren’t we just contributing our own identities, to make a whole? Which is all well and good, I’m sure Duchamp would agree, but maybe don’t go out there and try to shag the Eiffel Tower. I don’t think that’s what he meant.
Projects of note
In orbit by Tomás Saraceno
Saraceno collaborated with engineers, architects and arachnologists – experts in spiders and webs – to create this three-tonne German installation intended to give people the sensation of weightlessness.
Yobosayo (Hello) by Yang Soo-in
Mayor Park Won-soon made a pledge that his administration would listen to Seoul’s electorate, so installed Soo-in’s eight-foot sculpture outside City Hall. The big ear’s function goes beyond symbolism – it ‘hears’ the complaints and ideas spoken into it, and plays them over speakers in the citizens’ affairs bureau. Motion sensors time how long people stand underneath the speakers; statements attracting audiences for long periods are preserved; unpopular messages are piped through a computer algorithm and turned into background music.
Takino Rainbow Nest by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam (pictured)
MacAdam was more than 20 years into her career as a fibre artist when two rule-defying children clambered onto one of her crochet installations, permanently changing the direction of her work. She refocused her creativity, setting up organisations in Japan and Canada to create multi-coloured crochet playgrounds.
Freya Herring is a writer, curator and creative living in Sydney, Australia. She wrote her MA thesis on Marcel Duchamp and is a regular contributor to publications including Vogue Living and Art Guide Australia.