Contemporary Art

Marcel Duchamp Goes to China

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

BEIJING - Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), arguably along with Andy Warhol the most influential Western artist on contemporary Chinese art, finally arrives in China. Despite his far-fetching influences on the development of Chinese art since the 1980s, “DUCHAMP AND/OR/IN CHINA,” currently on view at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, is the first comprehensive survey of Duchamp’s works and his influences in China.

DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA, installation view

To use today’s terminology, Duchamp did not become a true “influencer” in the Western art scene until the 1960s and 1970s, towards the end of his life and posthumously. In China, he was virtually unknown before the Communist takeover in 1949, which ushered in a freeze on Western cultural influences. Only in the 1980s did he became a direct inspiration for Huang Yong Ping, Wu Shanzhuan and the like, as Chinese artists started to engage with the Western art history. Huang Yong Ping, who founded Xiamen Dada in the mid-1980s before he emigrated to Paris, considered the impact of Duchamp’s view of art on his own state of mind a “revolutionary and irreversible change.”

DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA show is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue written by curators Francis Naumann and John Tancock, which looks like a Mao’s Red Book

Ai Weiwei, who discovered Duchamp in-depth during his sojourn in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s, and who has paid an ongoing homage to the French master through his dynamic works, once declared that “[a]fter Duchamp, the existence of any art, its value, is entirely conceptual. Duchamp brought a new concept to modern art.”

Ai Weiwei, Hanging Man (1985) (Photo: Courtesy of UCCA)

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Duchamp lived through the works of another generation of Chinese progeny, including Yan Lei, Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen and Zheng Guogu.

How do we explain Duchamp’s lingering influence on the contemporary Chinese artists that is beyond dynamic sculpture, conceptual art and performance art?

First of all, insofar as Duchamp’s art was a disruptive move shattering the previously acceptable concepts of art, its theoretical underpinning must have resonated a great deal with the Chinese vanguards who had just emerged from the historical disruption of the Cultural Revolution. After the Cultural Revolution, it took many years before art students could experience Western artworks first hand through international travels or touring exhibitions.

“One of the distinctive features of Marcel Duchamp as an artist is that it is not always necessary to see the works in person to fully appreciate them,” observed John Tancock who co-curated the UCCA show with Francis Naumann. Duchamp’s “ready-made” practice, by taking ordinary, often utilitarian, objects and transforming them or simply renaming them, thus re-defining the scope of art, has also made him an easy target for re-appropriation, as seen in Wang Luyan’s Altered Bicycle (1992), despite that Wang denied any connection with Duchamp, Zheng Guogu’s 2000 AD and Rusty for Another 2,000 Years No. 11 (1999-2008), and Huang Yong Ping’s Large Turntable with Four Wheels (1987).

Huang Yong Ping’s Large Turntable with Four Wheels (1987); Wang Luyan’s Altered Bicycle (1992)

Zheng Guogu, 2000 AD, Rusty for Another 2000 Years No.11 (1999-2008)

I also believe that Duchamp provided the Chinese artists with a refreshing perspective to sidestep the decades-long ideological debates predicated on a dichotomy between traditional ink painting and Western oil painting and sculpture, without committing themselves to any particular stylistic affinity or level of technical proficiency.

Fountain (lost original dated 1917; replicas of different dates), a porcelain urinal bearing the signature “R.Mutt” and Duchamp’s most iconoclastic and iconic piece, has become one of the most frequently quoted motifs in contemporary China art. Included in the exhibition catalogue but not in the exhibition, Shi Xinning’s Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, 2000-2001, depicts a fictional event where Mao Zedong and four other Mao-suited men inspected Duchamp’s Fountain with great amazement as well as amusement. By juxtaposing two iconic images – one of the Communist China and the other of the modern art – Shi was inviting viewers to re-consider the relationship between icons and iconoclasts.

Shi Xinning, Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, 2000-2001 (Photo: Courtesy of Sigg Collection)

Fountain became synonymous with Duchamp in Yan Lei’s Duchamp (2001), which recasts, in a glaring Maoist red palette, the Fountain as rendered on the cover of a Taschen monograph.

Yan Lei, Duchamp (2000) (Photo: Courtesy of UCCA)

Duchamp’s iconoclastic play with Western canon, such as drawing a mustache and a goatee on a cheap postcard reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. the objet trouvé (1919), and a later “shaved” version in L.H.O.O.Q. rasée (1965), provided a conceptual framework for Song Dong and Yin Xinzhen to rethink art history and personal history in their New Bottle – Old Wine, part of the husband-and-wife team’s Chopsticks series (2002- ) series. One standing box encases a copy of Mona Lisa/L.H.O.O.Q. titled Shaved Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q. that Song Dong painted in 1990 on one side, with a grid mirror on the other side. The other standing box, shaped like a suitcase, alludes to Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (literally, a “box in a suitcase”), a “portable museum” consisting of 69 miniature reproductions of his key works, and Yin Xiuzhen’s long-standing uses of worn clothes and textile to wrap around suitcases.

Song Dong + Yin Xiuzhen, Chopsticks: New Bottle – Old Wine (1990-2013: Song Dong; 1994-2013: Yin Xiuzhen)

Song Dong + Yin Xiuzhen, Chopsticks: New Bottle – Old Wine (1990-2013: Song Dong; 1994-2013: Yin Xiuzhen)

By the 1980s, Duchamp’s artistic legacy had become varied and pervasive. Many Chinese artists have also come to his “orbit” through the re-appropriations by other Western artists. Eventually, Duchamp arrives in China because the concept behind he works stays relevant to the sensitivity of contemporary Chinese society.

Marcel Duchamp, From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise) (1936-41/1966)

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
798 Art District
Beijing, China
26 April – 16 June 2013

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

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