Tuesday, November 1, 2011
The Readymade and the Female Gaze
Duchamp is famous for taking typical objects from everyday life and changing their meaning by putting them in the gallery space. The first, and by far the most famous, was the urinal, “Fountain.” However, for most women, there is nothing everyday about a urinal. There are a number of instances where a woman might see a urinal… you could be cleaning the bathroom at work, have accidentally walked into the men’s washroom in search of the women’s washroom, have darted in to bypass a long line for the ladies’ room, or have snuck in to engage in some elicit act.* In each case, there is something forbidden about the experience of seeing the urinal. Women only see urinals when they have accidentally stumbled somewhere they are not supposed to go, when we are flouting convention, or when they are working and, I wager, meant to be invisible (this could also include any women who work at urinal factories). This is a significant facet of “Fountain,” since it means that men and women are likely to view the piece in radically different ways. After all, Duchamp could have chosen a toilet, which westerners of both genders use, but he didn’t. While men may find a urinal banal and everyday, for women the object has a certain aura of the unusual and unfamiliar, the elicit and forbidden. For women, the mechanical reproduction of urinals has not made them ubiquitous or bland, because urinals are still displayed in a space where we are forbidden to go. The urinal in the gallery then becomes a commentary on the different relationships of men and women to art. Do women, formerly excluded from the world of high-art, find art more curious, appealing, or thrilling than men do, since men are allowed to participate? Is modern art just a male pissing contest that women are supposed to be impressed by since they themselves piss differently? There are many possible interpretations, but in any case, the gendering of objects is significant when considering the implications of the readymade.
* There are also a few other conditions worth mentioning… Today, there are gender neutral bathrooms available in certain buildings and bars, though these are still relatively rare, and I’m not sure how many have urinals or not. To this list we might also add those who are passing as men and prefer to use the men’s washroom, though this may not be an appropriate assessment since these individuals may not wish to identify as women. Finally there are doohickeys designed to let women pee standing up, but as far as I can tell, these aren’t terribly popular.