Duchamp's La Boite en Valise is the center piece of the UCCA show. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/William Wang]
by William Wang
Marcel Duchamp's name is revered in modern art society, his influence somehow still forcefully impressing itself into the ideas and works of contemporary artists today, abroad and in China no less.
The largest exhibition of his work in China to date has built up a considerable amount of anticipation. The DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA exhibit at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art includes a collection of Duchamp's works, each notable in and of itself, though his most important works are all notably absent.
The surprisingly small exhibit is held in two of UCCA's modest-sized halls. Their contents are works by Duchamp as well as by Chinese artists whose work dialogues explicitly or implicitly with his. The end result is a bit murky: viewers all fastidiously check the notes to verify a piece's creator before deciding how much time to spend dwelling on its deeper meanings.
The number of original Duchamp pieces is much smaller than visitors expect, and ironically, the exhibition's focus is basically a collection of miniature art replicas. Duchamp's works consist of his Boite-en-Valise (Box in a Valise) miniature representations of his collected seminal works, magazine covers that he designed, roto-reliefs he designed, an aquatint and a collotype of his painting Bride, and various prints of posters by or about Duchamp. Art reproduction is an unintentional and unfortunate theme of the exhibit.
The exhibition focus, Boite-en-Valise, is one of three hundred "portable museums" completed by Duchamp, the last of his art projects. Each is executed with an eye to detail, as evidenced by the R. Mutt signature on the miniature Fountain urinal, each box questioning and reinterpreting our relationship with art.
Duchamp's works are weaved in with works by Huang Yongping, Song Dong, Ai Weiwei and others. Duchamp pioneered the concept of "ready-made" art, and pieces such as a bicycle and an EMS package demand that viewers question how such objects have been positioned as art, and why.
A video of guerilla artists Cai Yuan and Xi Jain Jun is the lowbrow / highbrow highlight of the show: in London's Tate Modern gallery, they drop their pants to urinate on Duchamp's iconic urinal, as onlookers giggle and applaud. (Perhaps security stepped out for a bathroom break.) "The urinal is there - it's an invitation," said Cai, in conversation with The Observer. "As Duchamp said himself, it's the artist's choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it."
The curators of the DUCHAMP and/or/in CHINA show have also successfully added layers of meaning to augment an exhibit which would otherwise be sorely lacking in terms of the artist's hand. Of course, even the most skeptic visitors can almost hear Duchamp's whispers floating through the room. "Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it," he once said. So some people perusing the collected works will be completely entranced, and some won't.
However, in addition to the Duchamp exhibit, the UCCA has other concurrent noteworthy exhibits. Hong Kong artist duo MAP Office explores agriculture and economics through their Oven of Straw installation. And the deserving winners of the Multitude Art Prize showcase a spectrum of the best new art from across Asia.
All current exhibits at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art continue until June 16. 1 2 3