Room guide: The readymade and the double

Marcel Duchamp’s readymades…constitute the most important sculptural production of the twentieth century… On the one hand, they react against the accepted notion of art as a façade, preoccupied with representation, by presenting a ‘real’ object as art. On the other hand, they reduce the Modernist idea of art as materially self-referential to an absurdity, for it is impossible for these ‘real’ objects, once presented in the context of art, to maintain their ‘real’ status. As ‘art’, they dematerialise; they refuse to stay themselves and become their own doppelganger.

The categorical confusions raised by the readymade make them the father of all the time-based work that followed, the progenitor of everything that traversed the slippery dividing line between sculpture and theatre, between what is in time, and what is out of time. One need only think of Piero Manzoni’s – obviously Duchampian – act of signing live nude models as artworks in 1961. Here the problem raised by Duchamp is made evident. If real objects are going to be art, what are the rules and limits of this as defined in time. Duchamp’s readymades do stick to one historical convention of art making: they are in permanent materials; he can be credited with inventing sculptural still-life. Yet, their status as real objects problematises this reality; one wonders when they are a real object, and when they are an illusion.