A urinal for a masterpiece? Find out what this author really thinks

As a lecturer in the department of archaeology and history of art at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, Robert Kilroy recently published his book – Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain: One Hundred Years Later – where he re-examines a classic and controversial work of art. Features writer Camille Hogg sits down with him to talk upturned toilets, the art of interpretation and the rise of digital art.

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You recently published a book about what is considered to be a polarising piece of art. Can you tell us more about the topic?

Last year was 100 years since an artist called Marcel Duchamp created what has now been recognised as the most influential work of art of the 20th century. He helped establish the Society of Independent Artists, and they put on a show where any artist could exhibit – there were no rules.

He decided to test the principles by submitting a toilet, turned upside down, signed, dated and given the title of ‘Fountain’. It caused a huge controversy. Some people thought it had to be accepted, because they stood by their principles of freedom of expression, but there were those that thought that if they exhibited it, it would open the door for anything to become a work of art.

My thesis is that Duchamp was playing a very complicated game with the art world, using this object to expose the levels within it – such as the role of the artist, the gallery in displaying it and the viewer in experiencing it.

What can Duchamp’s piece tell us about how we can learn to interpret art and see it as a spectator in galleries here?

[Duchamp] was challenging the idea that art had to be something produced by your hands, expressed through the artist into the canvas; all he was trying to do was understand images.

We live in an image-based society, and we could benefit a lot from looking again at some of these great works of art, art history and our relationship with images.

A lot of people are daunted and intimidated by artwork. My goal is to demystify in a sense, by bringing understanding and the possibility of really appreciating what it is by experiencing it.

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When you’re trying to appreciate art, try to look at how the painter allows you to see the work – how has he used architectural structure or created harmony?

It’s almost like we need to return to a childlike state of vision first. A child will just see the forms on the canvas, the paint and the colour in any work of art.

I always try to advise people if they want to appreciate art that you need to try to look at how the painter has allowed us to interpret the work.

The rise of social media has brought new creativity in a pixelated form. How can social media give us a different appreciation of art in the digital age?

We never say it explicitly, but you are an artist who takes a photo, exhibits it and tries to create an experience for your followers, and you hope they’ll comment on it as if they’re a critic of your work.

Art history is a story of images and human beings, and a social media network provides an even bigger framework onto which you can upload your identity – and it’s okay to change [your photo] stylistically with filters or themes.

What are you thinking about when you do that? An online audience. That’s an important shift. The experience you have of a canvas has been transplanted into that experience of other people’s lives. We’ve turned our life into a work of art.

To find out more about Robert’s book, visit: palgrave.com

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