The fountain to the pen

Filmed by Preetha Jayaraman

When Marcel Duchamp bought a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J L Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue, hauled it back to his studio on West 67th and wrote R Mutt 1917 on it, he didn’t know that his readymade toilet fixture would become the most influential artwork of the 20th century. He called it The Fountain and entered it in an exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists, and after much deliberation whether it was art or not, the board banned it from the show. It didn’t take long for the piece to gain notoriety, and soon, the porcelain urinal wasn’t just an ordinary article of life but became an artistic representation of a new thought for that object.

Talking of urinals, I’m reminded of the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. He was the kingpin of the 2005 Avignon Theatre Festival, and everyone from a waiter at the Fourchette to a professor at the Fac had an opinion about him. His play, Histoire des Larmes had audiences tongue-tied and like the Emperor flaunting his new clothes, Jan Fabre’s lead character strutted his stuff and pissed on stage while the front row (those with the pricier tickets and a clearer view of the puddle) applauded. I sat in the magnificent Palais des Papes, disgusted and sleepy (it was an awfully boring production too) and wanted to scream, “Mais il fait pipi!”

I could forgive Fabre his pipi, but it is his legendary Bic art that I cannot. Here, he goes to the Chateau du Tivol in Mechelen and covers it with his ballpoint scribble. We’re talking about ginormous amounts of scribble here, not to mention ballpoints and paper, that he used to wrap up the chateau like a Christmas present. He then went on to make a 16mm film of the work: a speeded-up recording of the castle over the course of 24 hours, filmed from a single angle. I saw the film and I have to confess that it blew my mind. The royal blue ink reflected the sunlight in myriad ways as dawn slowly merged into dusk, but I was appalled all the same. Coming from a country where I was taught not to waste paper from the day a pen was thrust into my wobbly little hand, it piqued me more than it pleased me.

Art, it certainly was, but at what cost?

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