There is far too much reliance – even in 2016 – in artistic practice and discourse (and this is something which is still being drilled in art schools) on an idea which can best be expressed as “Duchamp said so.” It stands as testament to Duchamp’s innovation that much of the reasoning of artists hinges on the Duchampian question, yet it nonetheless condemns us that a century after the event we must still retain him as a crutch. Like a speech impediment, the student stammers “Duchamp” and is rewarded with praise. It is as though to merely grasp the idea of proto-Conceptual Art is considered an artistic statement – a statement which expects no exponential discourse or elaboration, and on which the student can declare Terra Firma.
An “artist as conceptualist” (or, as I prefer to think of it, “as thinker”), is the artist who has learned to take responsibility for his or her own works. To have abstract thoughts is the predicate of sentience, and abstract thoughts which remain in abstraction are thoughts as they are normally experienced and expressed. Artists do not have the quotidian luxury of passing thoughts off as tangential experience to be communicated or kept private according to their whims, but must channel those thoughts into their works – indeed, this happens whether the artist chooses it or not. By extension, to keep that work to oneself is precisely the same thing as the everyday thought which is kept private because, as has been axiomatically repeated throughout art history and philosophical enquiry, art is only Art when it arts. It has to communicate an idea in order to function. When a work is kept hidden it is nothing more profound than an object containing no more meaning than its perfunctory intention. We must modify, by degrees, the world around us; question the linguistic framework of all of our social apparatus. To do this the artist has to analyse the first-person understanding of the individual and compare it to the third-person meaning of the object, and by this I mean pick apart the meaning-value in signs themselves. I can think of a train station – not a major train station, which is staffed constantly by an army of individual first-persons, but a small train station which may or may not have one individual sat behind a glass screen. The station is teeming with signs which have been manufactured somewhere else and whose meaning has been placed in them – more often than not – decades previously. Think of the “High Voltage” and “Trespass” signs. These signs are not of that particular station at that precise moment, but are third-person signs generated to remind the subject of dangers which have remained constant throughout a larger period of time. The sign has the same value to the person abiding by their meaning and the person who transgresses the explicit threat. What differs is the first-person reception of meaning, and this meaning is entirely malleable: the abiding person sees the sign as representing authority (the greater organism) threatening legal action (by the organism) and death (by the technology used by the organism) if the station’s signs are not obeyed. The transgressor might see the sign as representing a solution (an easy-way-out for the depressed or suicidal), and in this instance the sign does not represent authority or any greater organism. In each case the signified belongs to vastly different third-person meanings. The sign itself belongs to a greater expansion of time, meant as ideological imperative (the vast majority do not wish to endanger their lives or risk punishment from the courts), which runs throughout the station’s time. At an earlier point in history the sign would have carried the same imperative, even though the peculiarities may have differed (in the early Twentieth Century, there would have been no risk of electrocution, for instance, although the dangers of trespassing on the tracks would have been the same), though this does not mean that the sign has intrinsically changed for the greater organism still compels itself to demand obedience. The sign in the station is merely a microcosm of the larger Capitalist sign which exists as psycho-geographical marker, deterritorialised from the larger Capitalist organism to localise the wider imperative of non-transgression.
When we take this idea of the sign and apply to them Duchampian method, we inevitably invoke the notion of option: the option to take a sign at face value or to manipulate its potential for duality of meaning. This is arguably how Contemporary Art still functions: as a concentration of deterritorialisation. What we have ceased to do, however, is question the dualities or their exponential expansion, to focus on what forces (linguistic or otherwise) create these dualities. One can argue that the Duchampian method was last used to real effect by Joseph Beuys, and there would be a degree of truth in that argument. More precisely, Beuys should be seen as a Postmodern Duchamp in that the ideas begun by Duchamp were applied to both industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Duchamp would have taken a section of track and displayed it in the gallery, whereas Beuys would have uprooted the track and created a deviation outside of the given track’s route – he may well have even retained its functionality by returning the train to the re-routed track. Who is a contemporary Beuys? There are few artists today who have expanded on this linguistic deterritorialisation, which is surprising given the weight given to both Duchamp and Beuys. What we have are re-iterations of the same, or a broadening of the vocabulary to accommodate accelerating technology, but the process is the same: re-route the linguistic origins of a sign from the greater organism to propose a potential for difference. John Armleder plays a much subtler game by exposing the materiality of the dominant linguistic frameworks of culture. An orange and black sunburst pattern is used coterminously on the canvas and an electric guitar (Zakk Wylde II, 2008), while the same Albers-like colour schematic is explored in black and red by a simple translation in form, using the same two opposing objects (Guitar Multiple (FS 164, 1987). Throughout his lengthy career, Armleder has perpetually been investigating this material dialogue, while others exploring the same thing have abandoned the simplicity of this dialogue in favour of the spectacle, in the assumption that the same idea on a grander scale will intensify the meaning. It is not the scale or audacity of the work that expands meaning, but a reassessment of the linguistic principles themselves