Smashing the Image

By Samuel Wells


In 1993 a Frenchman by the name of Pierre Pinoncelli calmly approached one of the most important works of Art produced in the 20th Century, unzipped his fly and let loose with a stream of piss that spattered the million-dollar commodity and created an international outcry. He was arrested and charged by the French authorities but has since become an underground folk hero. Recently, Pinoncelli attacked the same work of Art with a small hammer while it was on display in Nice, and again was arrested. In the Spring of 2007, the 78-year-old vandal was convicted, fined $186,000 and given a three-month suspended sentence.

His defense? The urinal has been "trapped" and should be released back into the wild of its original purpose and function; its utility as a tool to explode the possibilities of perception through Art has degenerated into cliché and meaninglessness. It is after all, Pinoncelli argues, only a place to piss.

Marcel Duchamp's signed and pseudonymous "readymade" pissoir invites such attacks, of course: if, as Duchamp meant to imply, all physical objects can be viewed as magnificent and capable of providing insight into human consciousness and perception1 then the act of "freeing" those objects through destruction of their commodity-value is just another form of liberation through a destruction of officially sanctioned “meaning”.


Another modern conceptual artist who understood this concept quite well was Gordon Matta-Clark, who founded the movement still known as "Anarchitecture", based on the simple pleasures of destruction and the concomitant “fuck off” to authority that hides just beneath its surface. Matta-Clark once attacked an abandoned suburban home in the middle of the night with a chainsaw, splitting it down the middle. The result, a "house divided" along an arbitrary axis, is still featured in graduate-level texts for architecture students as an example of how Art can transform the commonplace into Joyce's "aesthetic arrest". One of Matta-Clark’s favorite distractions was the simple pleasure of using a slingshot to fire ball bearings through the windows of deserted buildings; as any juvenile delinquent can tell you, vandalism is one of the most enjoyable forms of instant art available.

Poet-composer John Cage spent his life creating concerts where the only sound arose from the audience, poetry that explored the generation of random acrostics and other formations; he has posthumously had a musical performance piece begun in Germany in 2002, the entirety of which is scheduled to last 639 years.

Other artists have answered Duchamp's challenge in similarly outrageous fashion: one British bloke once destroyed everything he owned in a public ceremony, others have encased dissected animals in plastic, and in 2002 Pierre Pinoncelli, the man who would free the pissoir, amputated the top half of his little finger in protest against a political kidnapping in Columbia.

If the crisis of representation that stimulated the explosion into Expressionism, Surrealism and Dada at the beginning of the 20th Century has any meaning left for us poor wretches at the dawn of this next, blood-filled epoch, it is that hope lies in our ability to shatter the monopoly of representation through radical action and artistic creation.  William Blake spoke of exactly this course of action against "single vision and Newton's sleep". He stood in sharp opposition to the "Enlightenment" ideals of the possibility of righteous control and the glorification of the domination of the natural and imaginal worlds. Blake, as did the latter-day Situationists, embraced the concept of Radical Subjectivity and its power to explode the control of the human psyche. Like Milton’s fallen Angel, Blake knew quite well it is better to rule in hell than serve in a second-rate industrial Heaven.


The museum-fetish readymade has failed to reach its revolutionary potential for the same reasons that its musical descendant, the art-brut of punk, has degenerated into stale cliché and commercialized drivel – a willingness to allow it to become petrified, categorized and raped of authentic meaning.  Duchamp’s urinal is now as safe and unthreatening as commercial radio, and has just as much potential to stifle discourse. Pinoncelli, like these other saboteurs, anarchitects and propagandists of the deed2 are the true children of the revolutionary readymade: they have confronted the ennui and rapacity of hyper-capitalist spectacle with a violent, obsessive presence.

WB Yeats, stunned by the crudity of Alfred Jarry's groundbreaking play Ubu Roi (or King Turd), which is about an idiotic dictator who rises to power by poisoning any who stand in his way with a used toilet brush, spoke with disturbing foresight about the rise and dominance of fascism when he proclaimed "After us, the Savage God". Yeats had little idea how disgustingly accurate his prediction would come to be, but artists like Duchamp, Cage, Pinoncelli, Matta-Clark and others have shown us the road to liberation and continue to reveal its path every time we study their work or dare to create and destroy our own meaning systems-- shatter the image, destroy it utterly, rebuild it, and shatter it to dust once more. Shatter, rebuild, and repeat. Again and again, until we bring the Savage God to his knees once and forever.


1 One cannot help but be reminded of the famous quotation from Robert Rauschenberg, the man who perhaps more than any other was able to incorporate Duchamp’s ideas into a life-long career and success (especially if success = recognition), when he mentioned his pity for people who can find no magic or beauty in the quotidian world.  It is this level of awareness, this ecstatic vision, which dies when allowed to stagnate into irony & advertising.


2 A concept with an admittedly troubled history.  David Sweetman has argued convincingly that despite these violent banalities, the idea moved many fin-de-siecle’ artists and writers toward radical perception, including Lautrec.