Everyday objects in fine art: The Liverpool Biennial
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal, scribbled ‘R. Mutt’ on it, and exhibited it as a piece of art. Ever since, it has widely been declared by critics to be the most influential piece of modern art ever created. From Duchamp’s Fountain to Andy Warhol’s ubiquitous Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), the use of everyday objects in art has a long-standing history. At Britain’s very own biennial in Liverpool this year, artists have shown that they continue to find inspiration in everyday things; by removing them from their intended contexts and transforming them into objects to be considered for more than just their use.1
In the Tate Liverpool’s Biennial show Thresholds, comprising of a selection of works from the Tate Collection, everyday possessions take on new meanings when appropriated for art.2 A series of colour photographs brought together by Simryn Gill, for instance, showcase the interiors of homes in all their domestic glory. The 260 rooms, photographed over two months in 2001 while the artist travelled across Malaysia, feature tables, chairs, chintzy curtains, rugs, plain white walls, and more. There is little that is particularly striking about them individually, yet as a collection the rooms turn us into voyeurs, for these are not spaces contrived for art’s sake, but rather homes that people actually live in. As we zoom into one, we observe someone’s most intimate surroundings. It is a bedroom with a bare mattress on the ground, dull brown walls, a television and a fan, a window and a basket of unidentifiable things; laundry, perhaps. ‘Who lives in a house like this?’, we wonder. Zooming out, we see it as part of an entire series. We are faced by room after room after room of people’s belongings; or lives, reflected in each humble, everyday scene. It is overwhelming, but enthralling.3
The work of Sophie Calle, displayed on the adjacent wall, also features objects that belong to people, this time combined with her personal observations. Calle, who cleaned rooms at a hotel in Venice in 1981, took pictures of the things that she found in guests’ rooms. In one room she found: ‘a handbag, a small suitcase, a plastic bag containing two pairs of slippers (size 26 and 41), two yellow sweaters and, lying on the staircase, a small hardcover notebook with the inscription: “Ricordo de matrimonio” (Wedding souvenir)’.5 Far from being mundane, these things implicate us in the artist’s, perhaps unhealthy, examination of her subjects. We want to rummage around to find out more, for we learn that our possessions, however ordinary, are a mirror of who we are.
Other artists showcased at the Biennial have taken everyday objects and redefined them as objects of display. At The Cunard Building, a group of artists known as Superflex have hung row after row of property signs across the room.5 ‘For rent’ and ‘to let’ they read, in various iterations of branding, shape, size and colour. Together, they retain their status as everyday objects, yet removed from their intended context, the street side, and placed in a gallery, they are a conscious visual reminder of the consequences of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the empty spaces in Liverpool’s financial districts and the economic downturn that Britain has faced for half a decade. In the same exhibition, Runo Lagormarsino has taken a statue of a macaw, originally belonging to a neighbour in Sao Paolo, and placed it adjacent to an idyllic tourism poster the artist found, according to the caption, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum.6
In the mundane reality of the everyday, most things which we encounter are valued for their purpose – whether as objects of function or of enjoyment – while in the context of a gallery they are given a new life. In an exhibition space, a photograph of someone’s ordinary home turns us into voyeurs; a “for sale” sign can be a political critique; and a sculptured macaw is funny, sublime and hideous, but at the same time a nuanced comment on kitsch souvenirs. This year’s biennial made me pause to think about everyday things, for they were elevated time and time again to the purportedly higher status of fine art. The exhibition space became a forum for perceiving them in a new way – as it so often is when it is used best. Pop artists used mass-produced objects to say something about capitalism’s new version of consumerism, while artists at the cutting-edge of contemporary art today seem to accept mass-produced items as a part of our lives, and use them to reflect on who we are. In doing so, they reveal that the inanimate nature of things does not take away their ability to reflect people’s most intimate thoughts and circumstances.