Huws of the "Word Vitrines" Brings Duchamp to (Forest) Life
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 03-17-11
So just create Duchamp's artworks again!
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"Piss Off I'm A Fountain," read the eponymous "word vitrine" of Bethan Huws's 2008 London exhibition. The text was laid out in white-on-black on an announcement board, the kind you'd see at a post office or a university auditorium. It's actually kind of hilarious spoof on Duchamp's ultimate art-world spoof: the urinal that called itself a Fountain and put itself forward as art. The defiance of the statement "Piss off..." reminds me of the critic Wayne Anderson's contemptuous statement, quoted in Tout-Fait by Francis Naumann, that "modern art...ends its second fifty-year phase with a urinal pretending to be a fountain while asking to be pissed in" ("Wayne Anderson, Duchamp, the Failed Messiah," Tout-Fait, 10/2010).  Yet, perhaps "The Fountain" isn't asking to be pissed in, but just the opposite: it's indignantly forbidding it! Huws's piece jocularly suggests this sentiment, while producing another Duchampian provocation: framed text exhibited in a museum. And even though it's meaningless, somehow I can't shake the sound association between "vitrine" and latrine.

Of course, there is no relation. A vitrine is a glass case, usually used for displaying valuable objets d'art. "Word vitrine" then, means a case for displaying words. Just to clarify, it never means somehow using a word as transparent casing to display something else, which would be interesting in its own right. So, I am behind the gesture: words are valuable. One of Huws' classic word vitrines says simply "Hollywood." Hollywood is a very valuable word indeed.

The neo-Dada wit animating Huws'  project should be getting clearer. This pedigree in itself is not distinguishing for a conceptual artist. But Huws is also among the select group of contemporary installation sculptors outlandishly indebted to Duchamp, if not precisely in the tank for him. A note of critique and destabilizing intent, even challenge, is evident throughout Black and White Animals, her new show at Centre International d'Art et du Paysage.

The exhibit reconstructs several of Duchamp's works, incorporating them in novel formations. In Forest, for instance, she arranges a thicket of bottle racks, referencing the readymade of the same object, in a pattern recalling the conifer woods in the sculpture park on the island of Vassivier, where the Centre International is located. This poetic and paradoxical evocation of landscape in microcosm shows up Duchamp's fairly brusque stab at the form in Etant Donnes, even as it relies on its predecessor for some of its allusive punch. Here is anxiety of influence at its most productive, though perhaps it is the late Duchamp who should be the anxious one.

Then, Huws' fairly straightforward yet still unsettling take on Duchamp's major installation itself, titled Etants Donnes, is actually just a disembodied arm, which, like that of Duchamp's splayed nude, holds aloft an electric lamp. Here, Huws simply seems to be playing with signification, as well as themes of embodiment and disembodiment. This perhaps befits an artist who removes figuration entirely in favor of verbal shadowboxing And in fact she is again up to her usual tricks with the vitrines. One here reads "Et Duchamp? c'est un trou normand." Time to get out your French dictionary...beware of false cognates though. And did you know that Duchamp was a Norman?

Through June 19th.

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