Taking familiar household items and reforming them as art? Marcel Duchamp showed us that was possible with his revolutionary Fountain (1917) and subsequent ready-mades. Reforming familiar household items and scrap heap metal as art? Robert Rauschenberg did that, with his combines in the 1950-60s; proving that any item you deem only fit for the dustbin could have infinite potential amongst the highest echelons of Fine Art.

Grayson Perry made the interesting observation that putting everyday items in the context of the art gallery is a “lame excuse for an artwork” – an artwork, sure, but lame nonetheless. He asks: could you really put your brand-new Ferrari in a gallery and call it art? And it cannot be denied that to some extent he has a point. Whilst a Ferrari may embody masterful engineering, slick design and an enviable paint job, how would it fair alongside the great masters of art? There exists a grey area as to what could be deemed fit for display in an art gallery: in this context can we say that this piece of industrial manufacturing is ‘lame’, yet this ready-made object is revolutionary?

It largely comes down to the alteration of the spectator’s vision, as well as cultural context. The respect we would have for, say, a Ferrari, is as much down to its status as a hugely expensive luxury item as its elegant design, and seeing it in a gallery would immediately suggest to one that they were in a car showroom. However, in the case of Duchamp’s series of ready-mades, the viewer’s preconceptions of the objects are altered. He removes a urinal from the bathroom; he attaches a bicycle wheel to a stool; and suddenly the object is rendered utterly useless, thus leading the audience to appreciate it purely on an aesthetic rather than a functional level.

So it is true that you can’t have just anything masquerading as art on the floors of the gallery, and so I wonder what is it that makes Sheyda Porter’s sculptural collages of everyday items a valuable use of gallery space?

She hasn’t just displayed them in their original form – she has redefined their aesthetic, creating machines which, when looked at merely as an outline, are nearly unrecognizable. As the exhibition title suggests, she has created machines to ‘generate ideas’ and thoughts, which again links back to the idea of taking these familiar objects and altering the way in which the spectator views them, separating what the object is understood to be used for and what it could be used for. All of Porter’s sculptures depict different apparatus, forced on the same level by all sharing one colour, linking the objects; pieced together so they are all now seemingly working to an unknown yet uniform goal. What is so provoking is how these tools, these implements are masquerading as themselves; much like Duchamp’s ready-mades or Rauschenberg’s combines, there is little or no disguising exactly what the artworks are built from. They haven’t changed form, yet have been reduced into ‘useless’ shapes; fulfilling that well-known axiom that art is, in fact, useless.

This is disputable though. The recent purchasing of the original Emoji set by the Museum of Modern of Art, New York, has taken something of mundane use and given it an honoured place on the walls of this prestigious establishment. This pictorial language, used worldwide, often for the most trivial of communications, does however mirror Porter’s artwork: the digital images have been extracted from our smartphones and been rendered useless upon the walls of the MoMA. Is that what makes any everyday item an artwork? Removing it from its functional milieu just to render it useless? In a way, yes. As we can see with Porter’s Idea Generating Machines, the work becomes dependent on provoking a transformed perception of the objects in the mind of the observers. This could however challenge the idea that objects must be rendered useless in order to be art: activating and even manipulating people’s concept of what they’re looking at serves to create a particular yet valid kind of aesthetic use.

Porter also uses her artwork to project the ordinariness of art; taking everyday articles as a visual reflection of how art making is as commonplace ‘as reading, or shopping.’ Again, this refers back to what has been discussed above: an idea of repetition, that items with a formerly utilitarian function can repeat life as something else entirely.

This idea of repetition is supported by philosopher and writer Maurice Blanchot and his belief that everything has been done before. Everything you see or do has been done before and will be done again. Blanchot says the everyday is “fleeting ... yet perpetual”, it is there when it’s not. No wonder the everyday is such a source of inspiration for the last century of art. Look at Porter’s sculptures – you know what they are made from, you see their components every day, yet you do not see them in this pared-down, reduced form, no longer carrying out their everyday routines. It’s almost as though art turns its back on the world, only to come face to face with the reality of the commonplace.

Rosie Minney is an artist and at the time of writing is studying for a BA Hons Fine Art degree at Newcastle University.

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