‘Duchamp Man Ray Picabia’ at Tate Modern

The exhibition is subtitled ‘The Moment Art Changed Forever’ and the poster is illustrated with Duchamp’s Fountain, the famous work that just consists of a urinal signed with the name ‘R. Mutt’. In 2004 Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the C20th, presumably for having sharply and clearly established the principle that art is whatever the artist says it is. So I can see why the Tate is emphasising it; but in fact those kind of ready-mades make up a fairly small proportion of the show; which is probably just as well because they are pretty one-dimensional. Sure, it was a gesture worth making, and Duchamp did it well, with a good choice of object and title and so on; but I wouldn’t want to see a whole exhibition of them.

Other stuff in the show includes paintings and sculptures themed around the body, sex, machines and movement, including familiar pieces like Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) which is in the Tate anyway; there are paintings as well as photographs by Man Ray. Picabia was the artist whose work I knew least about beforehand; lots of the Duchamp and Man Ray has been in previous exhibitions about Dada and Surrealism. Picabia was also probably the least interesting, but some of his paintings were quite fun.

Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia

I can’t say I was wildly excited by the show, but if it’s the kind of thing you like it’s certainly worth checking out. The most covetable objects are mainly Man Ray photographs and Rayographs (made by placing objects on photographic paper and briefly exposing it to light), though there were some small, very abstract late paintings by Picabia, just a few dots of colour in thick paint on a plain coloured background which I would also quite like on my wall.

On thing I would say is: don’t waste your money on the audioguide. The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old; so that was deeply irritating. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself. You can actually hear some of the audio tour on the exhibition website (this page, for example) if you’re curious.

On top of the tour itself, the controllers were also a problem; instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed. This is a machine which people are expected to just pick up, use for about an hour and hand back; there’s no time for a learning curve. So make the controls large, use standard icons for play/pause etc, and if necessary label the buttons with text. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

» The painting is Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia, from the exhibition website.

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