The Art of Appropriation: The Ready-made through the Eyes of Matt Kayem
Art has always been associated with making things, and has been defined as ‘to do’ in some cases. But there is someone who flipped this ideology and not only turned a porcelain urinal upside down, but the whole of art. In 1917, Henry-Robert-Marcel Duchamp formally submitted a toilet component into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition under the pseudonym, R. Mutt and named it Fountain. The artwork consisted of a porcelain urinal propped atop a pedestal, and signed “R. Mutt 1917”. To cut the story short, the item wasn’t accepted as a work of art and therefore not exhibited. Duchamp collected and put together many of these kinds of artworks and called them the “ready-mades”. He disregarded traditional methods of producing art and opted to choose and present industrially produced utilitarian objects as a means of conveying his desired message.
Whether Duchamp was anti-art or not, that is a discussion for another time. One thing is for sure, his ideas and techniques have surely left a legacy and inspired a myriad of other artists starting from Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol; to 21st century giants like Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Richard Prince; African artists like El Anatsui, and our own Donald Wasswa, and so many others not forgetting the one typing this.
Richard Prince’s exhibition New Portraits at the Gagosian gallery in July 2015. The work he showed here is a good example of appropriation art as he sourced photographs from Instagram users’ accounts and printed the screenshots.
The Oxford English dictionary defines appropriation as the act of taking something that belongs to somebody else without permission. In simple terms, it can be equated to stealing. Moma.org (Museum of Modern Art) gives a more arty definition and says it is the intentional borrowing, copying and alteration of pre-existing images and objects. As an artist, this is how I understand the concept and therefore allow me to break appropriation in art into two, the ready-made and the found object. The ready-made is the artificial manufactured product, one initially crafted and made by human hands or machines, while the found object is that which exists naturally. A branch, leaf, or rock could be grouped as a found object. There are other areas that make up appropriation that I won’t talk about now as I’m more interested in the notion of the ready-made at this point in time. Other sources, however, refer to “ready-made” as a term for Duchamp’s early work and a few other works produced before 1930s of this nature, and “found object” for anything after Duchamp.
Why am I interested in the technique? you might ask yourself. In the 20th and 21st century, with industrial and technological boom, why would an artist still have to make art with all these machines around? They are faster and more efficient to begin with. So an artist has to get accustomed to, or compete with the crazily dynamic new environment. This is how and why appropriation was born.
It makes everything look easy but it requires an eye for aesthetics, and a creative mind to choose an item to speak volumes. The process of selection is a tedious one as the artist has to think and look for an object that will best represent and communicate their concept.
I have used appropriation in my art and will continue using it. The most recent example is with my installation exhibited in the second edition of the Kampala Biennale (September 2016). The sub-theme of the exhibition was “virtual mobilities” and in that artwork I tried to show how the digital era has influenced our movements as people of this century.
In this artwork, the chair fixed into some soil bares a burnt marking of a person’s bottom, indicating that the sitter has been there for too long to the point that their buttocks have singed the surface of the chair. Grass is growing on the lump of soil indicating that the sitter has been there for a long time. Bicycle parts seem to be decomposing in the soil showing that those old means of physical transportation are no longer needed. The footprints in the soil indicate the traveler’s presence. The outdated monitor and keyboard tied together with banana fibers are the traveler’s luggage in that matter with the gourd representing Uganda’s drinking habits. The traveler could be a Ugandan who wouldn’t go without their drink.
The work as seen from different angles. Photograph by Timothy Erau.
The work borrows from the ideas from surrealism in that I’ve tried to juxtapose indigenous items from Uganda with 20th century objects to create a new aesthetic appeal and to create an element of surprise to the viewer. My installation work is built on three major concepts, which are composition, juxtaposition and appropriation.
Now, I never made any of the items in the installation, I just selected them and made a composition that would tell the story. You can say that that looks easy but did you think of it? Do you even ever think every day simple objects can be made to talk, that they can form allegory, that they can be given a voice, that they can be seen in a different angle? A local art critic approached me sometime after seeing the work and told me the work is too literal!!? That the scene is something that would appear anywhere, behind somebody’s backyard. That may happen but since I chose the items and presented them in a gallery, they achieve a new status under the title I have bestowed upon them. The artworks that I will be creating in this manner, I will call them composites.
So my artist friend, free your mind, open up and go and appropriate, produce masterpieces.
Matt Kayem the writer of this essay is a contemporary artist, art critic and writer living and working in Kampala, Uganda. He can be reached via email, email@example.com.