Sunday, July 5, 2009

Readymades, Reproductions and Repetitions

Deyan Sudjic’s comments on design and art in The Language of Things slides over into the old argument regarding the original and the copy, the readymade and the altered object and on and on.

There is either no more to be said on the topic, or entirely too much, depending on the medium and the history under discussion.

Duchamp’s original readymades may have been altered only by changing their placement and giving them a title, but it seems more than possible that they were as individually fabricated as his later handmade copies of the originals. Apparently there never was a commercial snow shovel designed like the one exhibited as In Advance of the Broken Arm, and apparently no one has ever found another bottle rack quite like that one…and no such French window…which leaves Fountain. But the picture is thoroughly muddled.

Maurizio Cattelan, if I read the newspaper story rightly, has advanced the cause of the readymade substantially by producing an edition of 500 sausages that are indistinguishable from any other sausage of the day’s production run. All that permits their identification is their inclusion in a Venice Biennale gift bag with appropriate identification, not attached to the sausage.

As with the Oxford University stonework that is replaced every century or less by new copies of the now worn-down original, presumably the Cattelan sausages could be replaced by counterfeits bought from the same manufacturer, so long as the paperwork was the original and the design of the label hadn't changed (whether subsequent printings of the label would be identifiably different takes us into the realms of collectibility described by Sudjic with regard to mass-produced objects of design).

And given the dilemmas that a collecting museum is having in figuring out how to acquire and preserve the sausage, Cattelan’s commentary on the cult of the collectible edition is raising issues as provocatively as Damien Hirst’s shark, which already has had to be replaced by another shark.

It is, of course, not raising new issues by any means. Practitioners of relational aesthetics, most notably in such now-classic acts as Rirkrit Tiravanija's cooking food for gallery visitors, have often tried hard to overcome the infinite regress of commodification by providing nothing at all that could be successfully commodified (unlike, say, the now enormously valuable matchboxes or other would-be throwaway multiples that constituted the unsuccessful attempts of earlier generations at defeating the art market).

Cattelan ups the ante by providing, if I have understood the story correctly, a simple commodity, and one that requires refrigeration. Like Joseph Beuys' famous fat corner, it challenges museological preservation techniques and requires a meticulous record of provenance to determine authenticity, and is highly likely to be discarded by an overly zealous cleaning crew.

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