When Brian Eno & Other Artists Peed in Marcel Duchamp’s Famous Urinal

Ask the man on the street what he knows about the work of Mar­cel Duchamp, and he’ll almost cer­tain­ly respond with some descrip­tion of a uri­nal. He would be refer­ring to 1917’s Foun­tain, a piece whose unusu­al con­tent and con­text you can get a sol­id intro­duc­tion to in the three-minute Smarthis­to­ry video above. In it, Dr. Beth Har­ris and Dr. Steven Zuck­er dis­cuss how and why Duchamp went down to the plumb­ing store, pur­chased a plain, sim­ple uri­nal, turned it on its side, signed it, titled it, and sub­mit­ted it to a gallery show.

“He made it as a work of art, through the alche­my of the artist trans­formed it,” says Zuck­er on this piece of what Duchamp described as “ready­made” art. “One of the ways we can think about what art is,” says Har­ris, “is as a kind of trans­for­ma­tion of ordi­nary mate­ri­als into some­thing won­der­ful. It trans­ports us, and that makes us see things in a new way. Even though he did­n’t make any­thing, he is ask­ing us to see the uri­nal in a new way: not, nec­es­sar­i­ly, as an aes­thet­ic object, but to make us ask these philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions about what art is and what the artist does.”

And what does anoth­er artist do when con­front­ed with all this? Bri­an Eno, musi­cian, pro­duc­er, and visu­al artist in his own right, decid­ed to treat Foun­tain not philo­soph­i­cal­ly, but rather lit­er­al­ly. At Dan­ger­ous Minds, Mar­tin Schnei­der writes up the sto­ry as heard from a 1993 inter­view on Euro­pean tele­vi­sion. See­ing Ducham­p’s by-then-sacred uri­nal on dis­play at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in New York,

I thought, how ridicu­lous that this par­tic­u­lar … pisspot gets car­ried around the world at—it costs about thir­ty or forty thou­sand dol­lars to insure it every time it trav­els. I thought, How absolute­ly stu­pid, the whole mes­sage of this work is, “You can take any object and put it in a gallery.” It doesn’t have to be that one, that’s los­ing the point com­plete­ly. And this seemed to me an exam­ple of the art world once again cov­er­ing itself by draw­ing a fence around that thing, say­ing, “This isn’t just any ordi­nary piss pot, this is THE one, the spe­cial one, the one that is worth all this mon­ey.”

So I thought, some­body should piss in that thing, to sort of bring it back to where it belonged. So I decid­ed it had to be me.

Schnei­der also quotes from Eno’s descrip­tion of the inci­dent in his diary, A Year with Swollen Appen­dices, in which he describes exact­ly how he pulled this oper­a­tion off. It involved obtain­ing “a cou­ple of feet of clear plas­tic tub­ing, along with a sim­i­lar length of gal­va­nized wire,” fill­ing the wired tube with urine, then insert­ing “the whole appa­ra­tus down my trouser-leg,” return­ing to the muse­um, and — with a guard stand­ing right there — stick­ing the tube through a slot in the dis­play case, “pee­ing” into “the famous john,” and using the expe­ri­ence of Foun­tain’s “re-com­mode-ifi­ca­tion” as the basis of a talk he gave that very night.

But Eno isn’t the only one to have used Ducham­p’s uri­nal for its orig­i­nal pur­pose. Accord­ing to Art Dam­aged, “French artist Pierre Pinon­cel­li uri­nat­ed into the piece while it was on dis­play in Nimes, France in 1993,” and at a 2006 exhi­bi­tion in Paris “attacked the work with a ham­mer” (lat­er, and under arrest, describ­ing the attack as “a work of per­for­mance art that Duchamp him­self would have appre­ci­at­ed”). In 2000, “Chi­nese per­for­mance art duo Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi uri­nat­ed on the work while it was on dis­play in Lon­don,” though they could make a direct hit only on its Per­spex case. “The uri­nal is there – it’s an invi­ta­tion,” Chai explained. “As Duchamp said him­self, it’s the artist’s choice. He choos­es what is art. We just added to it.”

The list goes on: in 1993, South African artist and ready­made enthu­si­ast Kendell Geers peed on anoth­er one of the Foun­tain repli­cas in cir­cu­la­tion, then on dis­play in Venice; in 1999, Swedish stu­dent Björn Kjelltoft sim­i­lar­ly befouled anoth­er in Stock­holm. “I want­ed to have a dia­logue with Duchamp,” said Kjelltoft. “He raised an every­day object to a work of art and I’m turn­ing it back again into an every­day object.” That quote appears in “Piss­ing in Ducham­p’s Foun­tain” by 3:AM Mag­a­zine’s Paul Ingram, a piece offer­ing details on all these inci­dents, and even pho­tos of two of them. “These acts of van­dal­ism, almost con­sti­tut­ing a tra­di­tion, might be imag­ined as an accom­pa­ni­ment to the unend­ing stream of crit­i­cal com­men­tary on this work of art, to which [this] case study makes its own con­tri­bu­tion.” The pee-ers, per­haps, have by now made their point — but the phi­los­o­phy con­tin­ues.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds/Art Dam­aged

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Anémic Ciné­ma: Mar­cel Duchamp’s Whirling Avant-Garde Film (1926)

Jump Start Your Cre­ative Process with Bri­an Eno’s “Oblique Strate­gies”

Bri­an Eno on Cre­at­ing Music and Art As Imag­i­nary Land­scapes (1989)

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • rhan says:

    this sto­ry is absolute garbage and miss­ing the point entire­ly and entire­ly tonedeaf — this is 100 per­cent bri­an eno “tak­ing the piss” any­one who sees this as either appro­pri­ate or remote­ly true is one who com­plete­ly has no busi­ness near a dis­cus­sion of art and art history.…it is inflam­ma­to­ry, it’s com­plete­ly a joke by eno and yet it spreads like wild­fire amongst trump (or eno) and his super­fi­cial view of the world

  • j says:

    Just saw this inter­view ref­er­enced on Twit­ter…

    Eno’s views are not only super­fi­cial, they are inac­cu­rate as well. In his inter­view (Arad) he states that Duchamp made (select­ed…) Foun­tain in 1913—instead of 1917! Must have con­fused the date with Bicy­cle Wheel on a Stool.

  • Lycos ceramic says:

    Excel­lent post. Thanks for shar­ing this.

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