“Objects are terrifying, because they stand in our way”
Sara Cwynar Soft Film
Two concurrent exhibitions: Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers at MoMA PS1 in New York City, along with We Are The Centre of Curatorial Studies at the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, attempt an evaluation of our fractured relationships to objects, both as consumers and through a cultural realisation that enacts transcendence from obsolescence. There are similarities between the two exhibitions through efforts at assessing the affect of objects on users as well as upon culture, materiality and immanence, and their subsequent representation through images. Many of the works presented are the result of accumulation and excess, whilst others poetically examine the consequence of objects through the residual marks left upon an individual, a space, or upon a culture.
We Are The Centre… is ‘Phase I’ of a three-part exhibition program curated by Paul O’Neill at the Hessel Museum of Art. Pedagogy is central to the practice of each of the exhibiting artists, and the Hessel Museum is itself a part of the Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Many works within this exhibition present a critical assessment of the function of objects through value systems that are culturally specific (the Museum), consumerist, or both. Sara Cwynar, Falke Pisano, Elizabeth Price, and Grace Weir share, through their works in We Are The Centre…, an interest in ideas of object-ness and the means by which objects are exalted in status either as an artistic cultural proposition, or through capitalism’s reach vis-à-vis desire and utilitarian purpose. Focusing on this selection of artists, I want to interrogate the museum as a site that conflates and complicates the idea of Object, and draw analysis via artworks to the function of objects through capitalist systems of exchange.
Mark Leckey’s Containers and Their Drivers at MoMA PS1 exists as an apposite example of the confluences of image and object representation within contemporary practice, addressing the complexities of object both within, and outside of, public museum contexts. Leckey works through cultural references; art historical; disco; the internet, and from an interest in repurposing imagery – still and moving – toward new purposes and actualities.
Included in the expansive retrospective is Leckey’s 16mm film: Made in ‘Eaven; an ostensible 360 degree tracking shot of Jeff Koons’ iconic sculpture, Rabbit, 1986, positioned within Leckey’s London apartment. As the camera pans the object, we witness the lustered, pristine surface of the Koons sculpture, but it is what we do not see that becomes confronting. There is no reflection on the mirrored object representing the filming process, no camera or lighting equipment which we expect to see, just an empty, nondescript apartment devoid of any objects other than the Koons on a plinth. The 1-minute 30-second looped projection presents a simulacra of an object, a Computer-generated image transferred to film that hyper-realistically mimics what was never there – nor could be. Leckey gives the already reified Koons Rabbit domestication and we see (for myself the first time) Koons outside of its natural habitat: the Museum. Within a private environment the object’s function is repurposed from one of exalted-object fetishisation to private consumer ownership. I am aware that Koons’ objects can be and are privately owned, but within the modest setting of Leckey’s apartment a schism occurs between what is accessible as an object of desire for the overly-rich, versus an owned commodity for the rest of us.
A desire to locate objects within a physical proximity to the artist is also present in Sara Cwynar’s Soft Film, 2016. Cwynar’s 7-minute 16mm film explores objects through the ubiquity of online shopping as a determining property between immaterial browser states and their palpability as objects that take on personal value. In the video FedEx delivered parcels take on museological equivalence, first interrogated by their smell and tactility, the packaging reveal objects that resemble thrift-store mainstays, steeped in 50’s nostalgia. There is a chromatic taxonomy to Cwynar’s eBay collecting, and as we move from web-browser to tangibility, a performed apathetical resignation toward their accumulation becomes clear. The artist’s performed gestures applied to newly acquired items is exaggerated, relying on advertising tropes, soothing over the unremarkable purchases. The mass of stuff becomes the physical traces of the artist's browser history; a tangible manifestation of the digital immaterial through Cwyner’s accumulated purchases over the internet.
Made in ‘Eaven and Soft Film exist as attempts to own that which presents itself as immaterial. Koons’ Rabbit is after all as far from tactile; its object-ness belies its materiality; usurps it for the purpose of exaltation. It is even modelled off a balloon; an object void of interior substance, functioning as surface. A shimmering Koons has no fingerprints or smudges, no material viability, and, opposite to a painting in a museum, where we can perceive and imagine ‘touch’, Rabbit exists antithetical to tangibility. So too with the online space, unless we consume. Cwyner consumes to get close, to hold and caress objects that seem impervious to us outside of their allotment as pop-up adverts. To hold this thing is to take it outside of internet space; force it through physical systems of distribution and effort, channels of maintenance and danger, to a location the artist inhabits as an actuality.
Leckey probes objects – images, files, “things” – to the point of exhaustion through inverse strategies that are initiated through web-browser negotiations. Their potentialities as “real things” are exploited through a form of resurrection as diminished meta-objects. Here we encounter objects of desire and cultural significance; Samsung refrigerators; Felix the Cat; Disco subculture, or ubiquity; the many redundant “dumb objects” that are the 3D printed manifestations of Leckey’s accumulated digital archive. What is necessary within this system is the Museum as an aggregator and vital accomplice in the validation of Leckey’s things so that we may ruminate on their thing-ness outside of the mass of stuff in the world, but particularly outside of web-based locations. The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things presents the work of other artists, pop-cultural ephemera, and Leckey’s own creations through a series of curatorial programs that dually function as an ‘Mark Leckey’ solo-exhibition. Dominant within these projects are the varying iterations of objects that Leckey gives form through 3D printing. Outside of a Google-image search and its digital equivalent stored on the artists computer, these crude, rudimentary objects retain an aura of cultural value (‘Singing Gargoyle’ (circa 1200), for example), but are simultaneously rendered moot through repetition and juxtapositions. And the materiality itself; these 3D stand-ins belie efforts at reproduction, and exist ‘in-real-life’ as rough, unloved vestiges of materiality. What remains through all this Leckey simulacra is a shadow; recognisable, but flat and exhausted; museologically presented, but uncategorised and un-revered.
The opposite can be said of artist Elizabeth Price’s installation in We Are The Centre…: The User Group Disco, 2009, and WELCOME (THE ATRIUM), 2008. The User Group Disco directs its lens between museum objects and lowly items of the world that would be inconsequential outside of their designated usage and Price’s treatment of them in the artwork. Filmed against a black backdrop, objects mesmerizingly rotate and move across the screen, in and out of focal range and detail. Coloured text in varied fonts appear intermittently across the black and white imagery, conflating our understanding of the objects and our relationships to them. At times the work breaks into sound, resembling a music-video, which extends the allure and accessibly of both works in the space through pop-music; providing an aural layer, and converging artistic languages. We are distinctly aware in Price’s video that these objects are no longer things to be used, only revered. There is importance in Price’s treatment of these objects purely through the attention to detail and produced mimesis of advertising tropes; where they are desired purely through the forms presentation. As viewers we are coaxed into value judgements through aesthetic means prior to receiving an object's form or totality.
Presented as a second projection within the installation: WELCOME (THE ATRIUM), we see a hypnotic structure resembling some shiny black and chrome futuristic monument, slowly pulsating and producing a fountain of unknown, oozing liquid. Also filmed in black and white , intermittent details through close-up shots reveal individual components of the structure; car parts; ice-cream dispenser; air-conditioning duct, accumulated into a complex network that interconnects to create the whole system. We recognise the familiarity and the ubiquitousness of the sum parts, and again, as with The User Group Disco, a fracture occurs between what is presented and preserved and the actual nature of the individual elements, as they become seen. Through Price’s installation, we are tacitly aware of the slippages that arise between systems of value, and those of mere pragmatic function. In viewing everyday items as objects of museological worth, we question if everything can potentially exist within the museum, and what then is the value of those that currently inhabit these spaces.
In Grace Weir’s 21-minute video: A reflection on light, 2015, the viewer is led through what appears a single-take across temporalities and multiple locations. The work commences in the apartment and studio of the late Irish artist Mainie Jellett, with a leading shot of a Dublin street through a window that pans into the interior space, the image obfuscates as the camera moves from one scene to another. Through this strategy the viewer becomes aware of the act of looking. Detailing architecture, images and objects, Weir reconstitutes a lost history of Modernist painting, ruminates on the properties of light and physics, alighting on the hanging of Jellett’s painting Let There Be Light, 1939, which is located in the School of Physics, Trinity College, Dublin. Narrative intersects with imagery and objects as Weir entangles events, both real and speculative, with the spaces and objects that Jellett occupied and collected. Weir’s project ascribes potency to objects as the receptacles of real experiences, feelings, and events, whilst informing the viewer to the work of a largely forgotten woman Modernist painter. Objects in A reflection on light exist as gatekeepers, and we are reminded further of the currency of culturally significant objects, such as paintings, and the value inherent to objects that make up the nuances of day-to-day existence, developing their own, alternative kind of puissance.
Falke Pisano’s Chillida (Forms and Feelings), 2006, is a two-channel video that addresses objects through the mediated format of an artist monograph, from the position of Pisano’s own experiences and feelings. Filmed in black and white and presented on two cathode-ray televisions at the Hessel Museum, a hand turns the pages of a monograph on sculptures by the Basque artist Eduardo Chillida, whilst the artist delivers an emotive narrative on Modernist sculpture that sits antithetical to the descriptive language that usually defines them. In a stream-of-consciousness voice over Pisano describes the forms being looked at, followed by a rumination on what she feels when viewing the objects, and a subtle resignation that the sculptures cannot do the things Pisano requires of them. Pisano doesn’t care much for the work throughout the book, nor broader discussions of the work’s quality, but through the experience of viewing images is an affirmation of the sculpture’s cultural significance, guided by the artist's relationship to Chillida through this mediated relationship and her personal feelings. Pisano’s narrated text does away with institutional and structured modes that describe objects of value. Chillida (Forms and Feelings) alludes to the idea that objects of cultural significance are ascribed importance though artist’s books and photographic images, reminding us of the power museums possess in substantiating cultural products. In Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement, rationalism is recognised as supreme over the corporeal, whereas physical feelings and emotion are seen as secondary. Chillida (Forms and Feelings) places feeling and emotional responses at precedence over learned knowledge, and the work seeks us to absorb ourselves within the nuances of objects where they are least defined or described.
“In Chillida’s sculptures there is nothing to discuss, there is only a relation to be established between myself and the sculpture, and then the sculpture will always be the stronger one, but this will not push this in any way. The sculptures have enough with only themselves and their environment, they do not relate back to me as a spectator, they only provide a presence.
In this way I try to describe my feelings, without defining or altering my position towards the way the photographs and the sculptures affected me. How could I limit my reflection and stay away from reflecting on reflection.”
Falke Pisano Chillida (Forms and Feelings)
Pisano’s video exists at an interstice between the strained Leckey objects; this outcome is less a relationship to the objects printed or utilised, than an acknowledgement of their existence as filtered through the internet, where a fatigue develops through their volume; a physical Tumblr-feed of stuff. Nor is there the acquiescence of an object's potency or value, as with Price or Cwyner, for example. Pisano seems to leave it up to us, the consumers; cultural and capitalist, by suggesting that objects have significance through our own experiences and emotional responses to them. The idea that we interact with and interrogate objects on our own terms, outside of ascribed systems of cultural and capital currency, places us at the centre of things. But if we are not there, present, it is then the museum, eBay, society – others – that determines the value of things. Pisano provides an attitude that places more importance on how we receive things innately, over prescribed understandings, which then has the potential to shift our attention from an object as a product, to how it operates not only in the world, but within our own.
Special thanks to Stella Rosa MacDonald, Amelia Wallin and Paul O'Neill
Written with support from Firstdraft Gallery, Sydney, through their Writers Residency Program