The attempts to keep art special become increasingly bizarre. This was a theme of a talk I gave at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the HIGH ART/LOW ART exhibition.
Looking around the show during the day, I noticed that Duchamp’s Fountain — a men’s urinal basin which he singed and exhibited in 1917 as the first ‘readymade’ — was part of the show. I had previously seen the same piece in London and at the Biennale of Sao Paolo.
I asked someone what they thought the likely insurance premium would be for transporting this thing to New York and looking after it. A figure of $30,000 was mentioned. I don’t know if this is reliable, but it is certainly credible. What interested me was why, given the attitude which which Duchamp claimed he’d made the work — in his words, ‘complete aesthetic indifference’ — it was necessary to cart precisely this urinal and no other round the globe. It struck me as a complete confusion of understanding: Duchamp had explicitly been saying, ‘I can call any old urinal — or anything else for that matter — a piece of art’, and yet curators acted as though this particular urinal was A Work Of Art. If that wasn’t the case, then why not exhibit any urinal — obtained at much lower cost from the plumber’s on the corner?
Well, these important considerations aside, I’ve always wanted to urinate on that piece of art, to leave my small mark on art history. I thought this might be my last chance — for each time it was shown it was more heavily defended. At MoMA it was being shown behind glass, in a large display case. There was, however, a narrow slit between the two front sheets of glass. It was about three-sixteenths of an inch wide.
I went to the plumber’s on the corner and obtained a couple of feet of clear plastic tubing of that thickness, along with a similar length of galvanized wire. Back in my hotel room, I inserted the wire down the tubing to stiffen it. Then I urinated into the sink and, using the tube as a pipette, managed to fill it with urine. I then inserted the whole apparatus down my trouser-leg and returned to the museum, keeping my thumb over the top end so as to ensure that the urine stayed in the tube.
At the museum, I positioned myself before the display case, concentrating intensely on its contents. There was a guard standing behind me and about 12 feet away. I opened my fly and slipped out the tube, feeding it carefully through the slot in the glass. It was a perfect fit, and slid in quite easily until its end was poised above the famous john. I released my thumb, and a small but distinct trickle of my urine splashed on to the work of art.
That evening I used this incident, illustrated with several diagrams showing from all angles exactly how it had been achieved, as the basis of my talk. Since decommodification was one of the buzzwords of the day, I described my action as re-commode-ification.