Duchamp’s Ghost

Self Portrait as Reclining Nude - Nat Essdee - 1982

Marcel Duchamp has put in a number of ghostly appearances in my reading of late; no great surprise, I suppose, since he haunts so many corners of contemporary art.  His ghost is in this image, my latest in the Portraits series; but I’ll come back to that.

One of his manifestations was in a two article series in Hotshoe magazine (Autumn and Winter 2014) by A. D. Coleman, on Photography and Performance Art.  Coleman discusses the photographic documentation of performance art and staged or directorial photography, and he questions whether there is much, if any, distinction any more.  He moves on to include the idea of ‘performance’ in life and/or the ‘amateur’ creation of photographic/film records of ‘performances’ – raising the question of how we distinguish between artists and non-artists.  He makes the comment that performance of the self has become a staple of contemporary art (which, unsurprisingly, struck a chord in the context of my own work), as has the theatricalising of just about everything.  It’s at this point that Marcel makes his appearance.  Coleman says that both these, we could say, “spring from Duchamp” – his refusal to paint representing symbolic action and a heightened awareness of self as actor in the field of ideas in art.  I wondered, briefly, about the theatricality of my self-portraits here, when writing about Thomas Demand, and Coleman makes me wonder again. Are these actually photographic records of my performances in the roles of particular characters?  At one level, the answer to that question must be ‘yes’, because that is, technically and in ‘reality’ what they are.  It’s back to intentionality.  The images, at a base level, record only that I took a photograph of myself playing a particular role.  In a series, though, supported with text, presented in an ‘art’ context, they may have new significance.

Which brings me to a second Duchampian haunting.  Rosalind Krauss’ Notes on the Index were written in 1977 and were reflections on American art of the seventies; but her consideration of indexicality discusses photography, and Duchamp lurks everywhere.  The ‘empty sign, or ‘shifter’ requires a physical relationship to establish meaning.  She uses the example of pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’, which have no meaning unless used in relation to, say, a particular speaker or object of speech.  This is the category of sign termed the index, and it includes cast shadows, for example.  So she discusses the cast shadows of ‘ready-mades’ in Duchamp’s “Tu M’ “.  The ‘ready-mades’ themselves were signs arbitrarily extracted from their Symbolic significance and given new meaning by Duchamp; and in that painting, their shadows are the indexical signs – except that they aren’t, because it’s a painting, so they’re actually representations. Krauss credits Duchamp as being the first to establish a connection between the index and the photograph (including work with Man Ray, for example), and we get the assertion that every photograph has an indexical relation with its object.  But this is more than a technical issue based on the marks left by light on a sensitive surface.  The photograph isn’t the object it shows; it’s an empty sign detached from that object, symbolic only of the photographer’s act until the viewer is ‘pricked’ by something that goes beyond the merely Symbolic and enters the Imaginary, touches the Real.

OK – a lot of theoretical, psychoanalytical stuff there!  Blame goes to Contextual Studies!  Actually, it’s another declaration of how CS informs and supports what I’m doing in this Body of Work.  There are many strands in those last paragraphs which can be applied to both of my projects.  And, as I’ve already said, there is the spirit of Duchamp in so much of it.  Which brings me to the latest ‘self-portrait’.  It’s entitled “Self Portrait as Reclining Nude 1982 Nat Essdee.  The ‘back story’ is this:

The only evidence of this work by the late American artist Nat Essdee is a scanned version of a photograph taken by his partner, British photographer Stan Dickinson.  Essdee died of an AIDs related illness in 1989 and it was never clear whether the work was lost, destroyed or sold to a private collector. Dickinson, who died two years later, had claimed that the piece was his idea and was actually a portrait of him.  The only surviving print of the photo is owned by the Dickinson family, who have allowed Tate Modern to scan and use it in publicity for their forthcoming Essdee retrospective.

So, there is a nod to Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ in the use of sieve, nuts and bolt; reference to the photograph as evidence; a question about authorship; and maybe even a small observation about the workings of the art market.  And that is to say nothing of the mingling of traditional photographic methods with digital images, implied by the scan of the print – presented digitally, here, of course.  A bit ambitious, perhaps, thinking I can get all of that into a single image!!  It’s what comes of so much background reading and study!  The brain becomes soaked in all that theory and creativity; hardly surprising that it seeps into the output.  (It is a scan of a print, by the way! Must have an authentic process.)


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