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Pierre Pinoncelli: This man is not an artist

Pierre Pinoncelli is a retired seed merchant. He is also a performance artist who, in his latest 'happening', took a hammer to Duchamp's famous urinal. John Lichfield reports

Monday 13 February 2006 01:00 GMT

To be "fined" €200,000 (£140,000) for vandalising a lavatory seems a little harsh. Admittedly, Pierre Pinoncelli is a repeat offender. Admittedly, this was no ordinary lavatory.

Or rather (and this is where things become complicated) the lavatory in question was a very ordinary lavatory, so ordinary it had become famous all over the world. It was a replica of a depressingly banal men's urinal, "signed" by the revolutionary conceptual artist, Marcel Duchamp in 1964.

The urinal, entitled Fountain, first exhibited by Duchamp as a joke in 1917, has become one of the great icons of modern art. According to the museum service of the French state, its version (one of eight) is now worth €2.8m.

On 4 January, Pinoncelli struck and slightly damaged the French state's urinal with a small hammer at the national modern art museum at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

This was his second assault. In 1993, while Duchamp's "masterpiece" was exhibited in Nîmes, Pinoncelli peed into it and then struck it with a somewhat larger hammer. This makes him, one could argue, a piss-artist. Pinoncelli, 76, is, in fact, a performance artist in the Dada tradition, an anarchist and a follower of the ideas of Marcel Duchamp. He is also a retired seed merchant with a comfortable home near Avignon, a charming, no-nonsense wife, three children and nine grandchildren.

He is also, according to the French state, a blasted nuisance. In the past 40 years, he has performed more than 70 "happenings" or artistic provocations. In 1967, he sprayed the French novelist, and then culture minister, André Malraux with red paint. In 1975, he robbed a bank in Nice with a sawn-off shotgun and escaped with 10 francs ("I intended to ask for one franc, but there was terrible inflation at the time so I decided to ask for 10").

In 1994, in Lyons, he appeared as the ancient Greek ascetic thinker Diogenes, who lived naked in a barrel. Unlike the philosopher, Pinoncelli chose to stand outside the barrel. In police custody, he was upset to discover that he was one of 41 "exhibitionists" arrested in the greater Lyons area that day.

In 2002, at a "performance art" festival in Cali in Colombia, he chopped off the tip of his little finger to protest against the violence of the Farc guerrillas holding the Franco-Colombian hostage, Ingrid Bettancourt. His finger-tip is in the Cali art museum, making him the only artist in the world to have part of his body on permanent exhibition.

Pinoncelli is a short, jovial man with twinkling blue eyes, a grey beard and a grey handle-bar moustache. When not wearing his trade-mark eye-patch, he could pass for Santa Claus in civilian clothes. He did, in fact, once appear as Santa Claus outside the Nice branch of the Galeries Lafayettes department store. He emptied a sack of toys on the pavement and smashed them to protest against the commercialisation of Christmas. Children burst into tears. Their parents pursued him down the street.

"If they had caught me they would have beaten me up. I quite understand how they felt," he reminisced. "That was one of my finest performances."

When you enter his neat villa on the edge of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, all seems rather ordinary at first. Then you see a painting of a green cow with real, military medals pinned to its chest. The caption reads "kill all the cows".

His wife, Marie-Claire, a startlingly youthful septuagenarian like her husband, is very welcoming. She smiles a wearily indulgent smile. "I am an admirable person, admirable," she said. "I put up with him." In truth, Marie-Claire, who was Pinoncelli's childhood sweetheart, dislikes most of his performances. She hotly disapproved of the toy-destroying Santa and the chopped finger-tip. They have been married for 50 years this month.

So, why his obsession with the Duchamp urinal: a work which he describes as "a great white whale ... a golden calf, a holy grail"? Pinoncelli says he attacked it last month, not to damage it but to rescue it from "the institution". By the "institution", he says he means, first of all, "the world of money-obsession and official violence in which we live".

Most of all, he says, he means the "museum bureaucracy and art establishment, with its snobbery and its cliquishness and its shiny invitations and champagne receptions and art-denying money values".

When Duchamp first exhibited the urinal in New York in 1917, it was precisely that: a urinal, bought from a plumber's merchants and signed with a fictitious artist's name, "R. Mutt." His intention was to make people laugh but also to satirise traditional artistic values and "museum art". Duchamp once famously said that "Rembrandts should be used as ironing boards".

The urinal was the beginning of the "ready made" movement: the belief that any ordinary, banal object can become a work of art. An artist has only to choose an object and declare it to be artistic.

Duchamp's other celebrated works include a print of the Mona Lisa, with a scribbled-on beard and curly moustache. This is known as a "rectified ready-made". Duchamp called it L.H.O.O.Q which sounds in French like "Elle a chaud au cul" or "She has a hot arse." The "Ready Made" movement was a branch of the Dada movement, which began in Switzerland as a rejection of the prim and self-satisfied Europe which accepted, and glorified, the mass slaughter of 1914-1918.

According to radical "neo-Dadaistes" and "Duchampistes" like Pinoncelli, the art of such art does not reside in the object itself. The art is the creative act of the artist, the "spirit of derision, of rejection, of provocation, of humour".

By turning the urinal into an icon, an art commodity, with a multimillion-euro price tag, the contemporary art establishment is missing the joke, he says. Worse, it is suffocating the spirit of Duchamp by absorbing him into the mainstream values of the "art bureaucracy".

The original New York urinal disappeared and survived only in photographs. In 1964, Duchamp allowed eight replicas to be made, which he signed in various ways. By doing so, Pinoncelli believes that his hero betrayed his own principles, permitting "the institution" to turn his original, anarchic, mocking idea into another institution.

One of the 1964 copies - the one attacked by Pinoncelli - belongs to the French state and is kept at the Centre Pompidou. Another can be found in the Tate Gallery in London.

In Pinoncelli's view, his hammer attack on the French copy - and his liquid assault on it in 1993 - were not assaults at all. They were attempts to free the spirit of Duchamp from the gilded cage of museumdom.

Since the Dada movement prizes the random, the accidental, and the absurd, Pinoncelli believes that the damaged urinal is now more valuable - as a work of art - than it was before. "My hammer blow was symbolically the auctioneer's hammer, coming down on a new work of art," he said.

This, in any case, was the defence he made when he stood before the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris last month, accused of "damaging a monument or object of public utility". In his counter evidence to the court, Alfred Pacquement, director of the national museum of modern art, dismissed Pinoncelli as a "vandal" and a "would-be artist". He said , rather pompously, that damaging the Duchamp urinal was "as grave an act" as damaging a Michelangelo statue.

The court came down on the side of "the institution". Pinoncelli was given a suspended three-month jail sentence and ordered to pay €200,000 "moral damages" to the French museums service (a percentage of the alleged value of the urinal). He was also ordered to pay €14,352 to repair the small hole that he had caused in the sacred porcelain.

How, one might ask, could it cost €14,352 to repair a urinal? The French museums service is obviously using the wrong plumber.

Pinoncelli hopes, somewhat optimistically, that his "act of creative destruction" will be better appreciated by museums elsewhere. He would like to make an appeal, though the columns of The Independent, to the Tate Gallery.

Since the damaged version is now more "original" than the others, he says, why not offer to swap your boring, pristine version for the French state's broken, but more interesting one. Such a wheeze should, he suggests, appeal to the British art establishment which could put "one in the eye" of the French art establishment.

Or maybe not ... Even the favourable mention of such a swap in the British art world, Pinoncelli believes, might help him with his appeal against conviction. The €214,352 is a lot to pay, even for an act of "creative destruction". When a much smaller "fine" was imposed for his first attack on the urinal, an ad hoc organisation called the "Friends of Pinoncelli" raised the money. Pending his appeal, no such appeal has yet been made.

The question inevitably arises: IsPinoncelli bonkers? The British woman who lives next door to him apparently believes so. She has objected, formally, at the Saint-Rémy town hall, to the colourful and provocative tags which cover Pinoncelli's "bunker-studio", a concrete structure beside his home. Over her tall hedge, she can see a large mural of Mickey Mouse putting up his finger in an abusive manner.

The French state officially regards Pinoncelli as bonkers but only mildly bonkers. After his paint attack on Andre Malraux in 1967, he was ordered to visit a psychiatrist. The doctor diagnosed Pinoncelli as suffering from "hypomania", in other words bouts of "euphoria" and "fits of creativity".

"If that is what being crazy means, I wish the whole world was as crazy as me," Pinoncelli chortles.

Having spent an afternoon with the patient, my own non-clinical impression is that Pinoncelli is one of the sanest and most naturally happy people I have ever met. We sorted through the scores of canvasses in his studio, most of them created in his pre-performance period in the 1950s and 1960s but some of them painted more recently.

Pinoncelli, who was a child during the 1939-45 war, is much possessed by childhood, war and death. He is especially obsessed with the Holocaust, which is a constant theme in his art, both plastic and performance. One of his more disturbing paintings is called: Mummy, is Auschwitz beside the seaside? Pinoncelli is a jester but like many jesters - like the Fool in King Lear - he asks pertinent questions. You may think that Pierre Pinoncelli is absurd or violent, he says, but look at the rest of you. It was not me that invented the trenches or the death camps. I didn't say that a urinal is the same as a Michelangelo and worth €2,800,000.

Unlike his hero, Duchamp, Pinoncelli does not think that Rembrandts should be used as ironing-boards.

"I would never attack a Rembrandt, or a Van Gogh. That would be vandalism. They represent a different ... more traditional kind of art. But there should also be place for the Duchamp kind of art. The true spirit of Duchamp."

You, dear reader, may ask, "If Pinoncelli is a performance artist, then who are his audience?" The answer is: "you are and I am". In his official catalogue of works, he lists press cuttings. He regards media coverage of his "performances" as an important part of his art. Critics, including some other performance artists, suggest this proves that he is a vulgar self-publicist. Since I have never been part of an artistic performance before, I prefer Pinoncelli's version.

Before I leave, he offers The Independent a scoop. "I would like to announce that the incident with the urinal was my last performance," he said. "I am 77 in April. It is time I stopped. In any case, I have to be good. I am on a jail sentence, suspended for two years..."

Marie-Claire seems sceptical. "You've said you're stopping before," she said. "But at your age, you know, you really should stop. You can't be a performance artist in a wheel-chair ..." Was that a gleam in Pinoncelli's eyes?

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