ÊTRE CONSOMMÉ . JACINTO LAGEIRA
As we all know, or so we should, half of the world population lives on less than 2 US dollars a day, while 80 per cent of the planet’s wealth belongs to only 20 per cent of the population. Meaning, us, the West. The majority of our products, as well as the advantages and the pleasures which they provide, derive from the miserable work carried out by that other miserable half which is paid in a practically symbolical way. The money with which we, in the West, buy a t-shirt, a pair of shoes or a microwave would sustain for several months the workers of the other half; the ones who belong to that gigantic and flourishing venture called Globalisation. But, as we also know, if the market is global the profits are entirely local; or more precisely, Western. We live well because we shamelessly exploit the other half, who survive as best they can. One could say that this introduction would seem far removed from Joana Vasconcelos’ work, because this is not the type of reflection which her pieces give rise to; it is not what we see in them. On the other hand, if we imagine for a moment the objects of which she makes use in the places they are usually placed – stores, supermarkets, work places or homes –, that is also not what we see in them. One has only to turn them inside out and read the labels which indicate their origin, and that famous “world vision” of which the actors of the little milieu of contemporary art boast about, will reveal its true origin: the consumption of the bodies of millions of human beings by way of their labour, exploited and bought for a pittance.
Perhaps it may be painting too gloomy a picture, to be dramatizing the situation, to be holding an outdated discourse. But it will, in the meanwhile, have the merit of contextualizing a work of which the least we can say is that to place it only and mainly in the tradition and in the line of the Ready-made, of Pop Art or of Post-Modernism seems to me insufficient and at the very least, ineffectual. In the same way as placing all other contemporary art work which resorts to the objects of consumerism, the themes of cultural industry or mass society, in the sequence of the good old days of Pop or New Realism, would be to apply, in an inadequate way, obsolete analytical models to aims quite different to those which existed some twenty years ago. Even some very pertinent considerations on the relation of consumer society and art have become, lately, particularly outdated,1 in an inverse proportion to the permanent youth of Capital. The world changes, and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to develop new approaches and update the methods of aesthetical interpretation, in tune with the complexity of our societies.
The dominant Modernist analytical grid, a feature of the Formalist current in the manner of Clement Greenberg and that clearly opposed Avant-garde Art to kitsch, can only be, in fact, applied to the period from the 1940s to the 1980s, revealing itself blatantly outdated when aiming to consider current mass culture and contemporary art. The fact that Joana Vasconcelos subverts, quotes or reclaims several characteristics of both popular arts and popular culture, combining commonplace objects, garish images and settings worthy of any supermarket’s “this week’s special”, does not mean that on one side of the fence there is Greater Art (“contemporary”, by all means), and on the other side perfectly execrable things, which we regard with an air both amusing and desperate while asking ourselves how it was possible to invent such horrors. Every lover of contemporary art exercising a bit of his critical spirit in the fairs, biennales, foundations, art centres, museums and other privileged locations of aesthetical thought, might equally appreciate in them horrors in great quantity. To decree that horrible works of contemporary art are still, in spite of all, works of art, while kitsch objects cannot aspire to this status, is only to delay the problem which consists of developing and producing judging criteria that will allow us to perceive what is of quality, mediocre or poorly achieved. To affirm that all kitsch, popular and mass-produced products do not hold, a priori, any value, nor have they the possibility of becoming potential art objects, is to judge them and to apply conceptions, or better still, preconceptions before carrying out a legitimate and absolutely necessary work of critique. In «Avant-garde and Kitsch»,2 Clement Greenberg does not proceed otherwise, since he never presents any argument that justifies the condemnation with out appeal of what he perceives as a decadence, in the sense that it does not derive from the “real culture”.
Zealous of its artistic autonomy, the dominant modernist current — the traits of which are perfectly discernable in the more recent works of, among others, Haim Steinbach, Bertrand Lavier, Cady Noland or Lisa Lou — takes for granted that one cannot mistake elite art and popular art, major art (high) and minor (low); art destined for the happy few and art for the masses. It’s still necessary to demonstrate all of these prejudices, to argue and advance criteria of evaluation which justify such a categorical segregation. To realize that the lovers of a contemporary elitist art are the same ones that admire, in cinema, the most indigent and empty films and are the greatest fans of insipid music, calls for reflection on the norms by means of which they distinguish higher art from art for the masses. Thus, the work of Joana Vasconcelos will not pose this kind of problems when it comes to comparing it with popular productions, since she subverts and attributes other functions to the doilies in lace, to the hair-dryers, the mirrors, tights, chairs, statues of the Virgin, toys or knitting. Even because Vista Interior (2000) recalls in a way Claes Oldenburg’s vitrines or certain works by Tom Wesselman, and A Noiva (The Bride, 2001) is by all means a wink at Duchamp’s famous work, La Mariée Mise à Nu Par Ses Célibataires, Même (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even). These almost inevitable, and nevertheless ironic, references to the great masters are, among others, the signs of the link between Joana Vasconcelos’ attitude and the logics of modern art; which is too short an explanation. It seems, on the contrary, that this mocking reminder is created in order to highlight the aging of a figure of speech. The Bride made with OB tampons in opposition to the cold, abstract and bodiless The Bride of the Grand Verre is, in this concern, one of the most explicit. The issue is no longer one of regularly creating segregations between these seemingly irreconcilable extremes of an avant-garde art, eternally guiding society in the path that ought to be taken, and minor arts which are to be found at the rear-guard, in the sense that every object, whether of art or not, which strives for an aesthetical plastic value, has to be submitted to judgement. It is henceforth necessary to understand that the modernist model of interpretation, closed in on itself, restricted in its autonomy to better perceive reality, is incapable of understanding the current contexts of Globalisation with its considerably transformed socio-economic and political challenges.
The impasse in which this art that strives for both a socio-political and an aesthetical legitimate commitment finds itself, was clearly expounded by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in what they referred to as an “artistic critique” and a “social critique”, two models by means of which one can understand our societies. The artistic critique “highlights the loss of meaning and, particularly, the loss of the meaning of the beautiful and the grand, which result from the standardization and the generalized commercialisation that not only reaches everyday objects but also works of art (the cultural mercantilism of the bourgeoisie). And it insists on the objective will of Capitalism and the bourgeois society to arrange, dominate, to submit Man to imposed labour [...] to which it opposes the freedom of the artist, the rejection of the contamination of aesthetics by ethics...”.3 And as far as social critique, it concerns “the selfishness of private interests in bourgeois society
and the ever-growing misery of the lower classes in an unprecedentedly rich society [...], the social critique rejects, sometimes even violently, the immorality and the moral neutrality, the individualism, even the selfishness and the egotism of the artists.”4 The authors then insist on the fact that “albeit the dominant inclination of each of these two critiques both towards reform and towards an escape from the capitalist regime, one notices that each possesses both a modernist and an anti-modernist aspect [...] the artistic critique is anti-modernist when it insists in the disenchantment, and modernist when it is concerned with liberation. [...] social critique is rather modernist when it insists on inequality, and anti-modernist when, siding up with the notion of lack of solidarity, it develops as a critique of individualism.”5 The most astonishing, and unfortunately the most logical thing, is that the capitalist system has been able to make the most of the criticisms which have opposed it, by resorting to successive displacements in order to perpetuate itself. For instance, as the authors highlight, it reshapes in the form of artistic critique – “autonomy, creativity, authenticity, liberation” – the socio-economic structures that give rise to that which today triumphs everywhere: flexibility.
This digression was necessary in order to well understand that the modernist avant-garde – when even it was using and subverting elements or whole parts of kitsch culture – considered in its perpetual critical and autonomous development, has had its time and it is henceforth necessary to resort to other methods, concepts and definitions. To give art, and its practices and its reception, pure autonomy leads to a fatal dichotomy between the evaluation of facts and the evaluation of values.
One of the first consequences of the context of Globalisation is the fact that we no longer consume the products of industrial culture in a more or less conscious and distanced form, but it is them that consume us. We no longer consume popular mass culture; we are instead consumed by this culture that is entirely subjugated to the neo-liberal system. A big part of Joana Vasconcelos’ work reveals this sort of addiction in regard to bad taste, kitsch and junk. And, above all, it brings into view the subjacent political project; because there is one. To inundate the global market with millions of debilitating objects is not only about making money, but also of taking things further in reducing individuals to the status of “clients” alone, and remove from them all the velleity of conceiving themselves as citizens. Is it not a bit hasty to confer a critical spirit to works more often than not ludic, easy to grasp or manipulate, and which, due to this, would not possess the power of denunciation that one attributes them? This would be, on one hand, to return to the previously mentioned Modernism (only a Great Work of Art is able to carry out a radical critique), and on the other, not become conscious of the fact that the neo-liberal system precisely kitschifies our ways of life in a ludic manner. In assuming the feebleness of her pieces, Joana Vasconcelos acts as the reed, bending under a weight or under the force of the wind, but never breaking.
This should be made clear: the majority of works of popular mass culture are abominable, weak and even backwards and reactionary (one often notices Hip Hop bands to be sexist, homophobe or even openly anti-Semitic). But it should also be made clear that a great number of contemporary artworks, supposedly representing the height of reflection and of intellectual progressivism are equally hopeless in their lack of quality, of pertinence and of significance. When an oeuvre like that of Joana Vasconcelos reaches the limits of good taste in opposition to a certain current of contemporary art which claims for itself alone the right to lay down the truth to the world, the traditional dichotomies no longer hold, and it is necessary to come up with different ways of thinking, of acting and of criticising the state of things. And what is immediately striking in this oeuvre is its imagination, at the same time funny and ferocious, comical and virulent, which the popular arts do not share in the risk of losing their public and, therefore, their place in the market. The titles are often imbued with a sharp irony, such as Ópio – football being the new powerful narcotic that enchants the masses at the same time it stupefies them – or www.fatimashop – another type of opium which definitely erases the memory of the vendors of the temple that a
certain Jesus had already given chase to. Her works are sometimes so striking in their drollery that despair is never far: it is the same world which simultaneously produces Valium (Cama Valium – 1998) and these frantic consumers buying neckties, plastic roses or Tupperware, whose consumerist compulsions are appeased by means of the first. A perfect world.
If most of the objects which Joana Vasconcelos uses have little market value, their symbolical Capital value largely exceeds their material one. In contemporary societies, including those in which some 3 billion individuals struggle for survival, the symbolical value of everyday life digs its roots in the junk. Objects which are nearly worthless, either for their monetary value or for their materials, are mass-produced and mass-distributed in order to compensate for the real emotional, social and intellectual deficit in our lives. Viewed from this standpoint, her works seem less inclined to bring out a laugh or a smile. It certainly is amusing to see a sofa covered in Valium blister packs, design-chairs which spin as in a merry-go-round or hairdryers that start working as in a parody of an interactive work; but take a look around you, and above all take a look at yourselves: is it really that amusing? The substitution of literally inestimable values, such as a good life, an ethics of respect or a fully balanced affectivity, for millions of kitsch objects which are both morally and physically restraining, does not seem enviable. And yet so it is; in the absence of symbolical values, the “clients” aspire to the generalised discount. A life on sale.
Like modern primitives we are fascinated by the glass beads, the fakes, the imitations, the copies. For their inventiveness, their charm, their immediate access, Joana Vasconcelos’ works resemble those foreigners appearing from who knows where, offering their bazaar merchandise and their trinkets in exchange for what we possess in such an abundance that we no longer value: our own selves. One then understands that her work is not so much the copy or the imitation of everyday life, even if one is inevitably led to think so, rather than the unveiling of this inescapably uneven barter of symbolical values for commercial ones. It is not so much about directly disclosing the great struggles between Capital and those who suffer it, but rather of the consequences in the bottom of the scale, of the people who haven’t the possibility of creating their quotidian, subject to an aestheticization of sales of a world that they do not anyhow want to see, being as ugly as it is. Because we are familiar with all and even use some of the objects which the artist resorts to, we are immediately drawn to, taken in, enlisted against our will even, in a double process which Joana Vasconcelos presents with the violence of the evidence: the (supposed) construction of subjectivity and the (real) deconstruction of this same subjectivity. One of the lessons of the neoliberal spirit, which we learn at our own expense, is that our subjectivity, believed to be entirely ours and inalienable, has become in its turn a product among so many others. And this is one of the strengths of Joana Vaconcelos’ work who, in the guise of something pleasing, nice and funny dismantles this mechanism of the acquisition of a fake conscience of the subjects by way of vulgar and impoverishing aestheticizations.
More than enriching our everyday existence, the accumulation of, more often than not, useless objects (which thus contribute towards the autonomous accumulation of Capital) lived through the transferral of symbolical and cultural values – traditionally linked to the individual, the citizen, the person – to commercial values, succeeds in legitimizing itself by leading the clients to believe that they fulfil themselves whilst free and autonomous subjects, when in reality they are but the instruments of the global circulation of abstract Capital. This well-known observation, originally expressed by Marx – but one of which we must acknowledge its extraordinary renewal which consists in presenting itself as the normal functioning of societies –, should therefore be rethought within artistic practices and aesthetic notions in general, because it means that this notion of a “subject” perceiving itself as a lover of art is equally to be entirely rethought. Until what point is our aesthetical and critical relationship with art objects modelled by or subject to these new cultural and socio-economic data which are, in the end, inseparable? At least for a consistent art lover.
This is also the case with the previously mentioned notion of “beautiful”. Joana Vasconcelos’ works are clearly not in this category; neither in those of pretty or sweet. This is due less to their “disturbing strangeness” than to that type of false reconciliation they systematically lay bare. And this is not really a formal characteristic, in as such that the works would be created in an absolute form by the artist, which confers them with, not beauty, but a plasticity even though we cannot deny the emergence of original and unique assemblages. By looking at the artist’s works and what they are made of one realizes they are more rearrangements, misappropriations, reassemblies than complete creations or productions, but at the same time the result clearly reveals formal plastic intentions. This is only a paradox in appearance, because if the majority of the objects lose part of their original plasticity or, on the contrary, gain plasticity due to an unusual integration, they owe it not to an aesthetics which came before or after the artist’s intervention – the hairdryers, the tights, the statuettes, the Tupperware, the tampons are always presented for what they are –, but to the role which is attributed to them as art. We are acquainted with many experiences that can be aesthetical – starting with the perception of Nature – without being artistic at all, or the other way around, as such is the case here. Beauty and plasticity do not matter, in the sense that these objects do not truly generate an aesthetical experience even though they acquire here an artistic value. But, as if by an act of rebellion, it quickly seems that these objects and installations refuse the experience of pleasure, of emotion, of affection which are still the signs, often the only signs, of a comprehensive relationship with works of art. And if such is never the case, it is because one reveals pernicious taste or an empathy which has failed to release itself from the original contents and proposals of the subverted objects. The absence of an aesthetical relationship, or this kind of aesthetical relationship, does not restrain them from engaging in an artistic experience.
One could conclude that Joana Vasconcelos’ attitude takes on the opposite of beauty or good appearance by claiming an aesthetics of ugliness. If such a problematics has always developed as in opposition of or in parallel to all idea or notion of beauty and was actually one of the elements of reflection of a certain aesthetics of the Romantic period6, Joana Vasconcelos’ position is not simply reactive in relation to a tradition and its contemporary practices, which would consist in systematically proposing the unaesthetical. This would come down to only creating objects and installations devoid of any possible artistic pertinence but for their negativity in face of that which is considered pleasant, plastically attractive and valued according to these or those criteria. Now, what the artist is trying is to establish a connection between artistic issues, subjective evaluations and social issues. Why do we appreciate such an object, can it aspire to an artistic status, does it value our subjectivity when we value the object, can one plastically value an object while ignoring the socio-economic practices from whence it came, is an aesthetic evaluation or devaluation of the objects politically neutral? That kind of mirror of the socio-economic reality which Joana Vasconcelos puts before us reveals something different altogether: the formal arrangements of her works are the invisible part of the non-recognition of subjectivity which, at last, sees the light. This type of hole, of omission, of gap felt in the presence of these incredible settings only emerges because subjectivity is not present, is not reflected there. When all of these objects – which when considered separately, are, so to say, codified and personalized in order to be better sold and distributed -, are reconfigured by the artist, she de-subjectifies our relationship with them, in order to show them for what they really are: decoys, deceptions, yet another operation of brain-numbing.
Only rarely do the “clients” perceive all this when they buy such objects, for everything is made so as to persuade them that they are constructing their subjectivity while buying them, as if each new object were an element that supported and enriched that construction...almost endless, because deception always follows the attraction, but only to set off again in search of the individual perfectibility promised by the objects. In a certain sense, Joana Vasconcelos explores the same modalities in some works, for instance in this curious metallic duct connected to electric cables which releases smoke (Aladino – 1999), the functioning of which is explained by the caption, placed under a button: “peça um desejo” (make a wish). In fact, everything is there at your disposition; all you need is to ask for it. But that which Joana Vasconcelos points to is not so much the inauthenticity of the objects, of their roles and their functions, as much as the inauthenticity of the receiver, when he no longer feels the effects which supposedly accompany the experience of a work of art. To carry on believing that the work of art, purportedly real, will be liberating contrarily to the objects of the consumer society, that it is a refuge protecting us from the socio-political and individual evils is to react with the same inauthenticity that we attribute to these objects. If we can no longer make this distinction it is because they consume more of us that we of them. To the opposition advanced by Claude Lévi-Strauss between society- thought and societylived, we might currently need to add the notion of society-consumed. In the latter, the individuals are not only thought or lived by their culture instead of living and thinking their culture, they are also consumed by it. And this is beyond doubt a new philosophical concept: the “consumed being”.
It would be nothing more that a simple joke if the contempt for kitsch, for the garish, for bad-taste, the popular were not equally, by way of these objects, the contempt for those who buy them and, above all, for those who produce them. To find these objects revolting does not, by any means, allow us to despise their users and their producers. That would be once again a proof of inauthenticity and, at the same time, to criticise on the aesthetical and on the plastic level that which we do not criticize on the socio-economic level when confronted with the same objects; although certainly in different contexts. Such a critical attitude would have been acceptable in the triumphant age of the ready-made and that of its neo-made and post-made avatars, but it is no longer acceptable when we know perfectly well that in this “consumed being” which we have become without really acknowledging, it is mainly the other which has become the “consumed being”. We are consumed by objects through which we literally consume the others: their labour, their material life, their time, their family, their existence.
With her works, Joana Vasconcelos does not invite us to lament our fortune or to snivel over these poor people. This would have no interest at all, neither artistic nor critical. But it is also not an issue of giving up, of abandoning oneself to the fatalism of a commercialisation so generalised and omnipresent that every critique would be, necessarily, integrated in a predicted and predictable recovery. To the continual displacements of the systems and of the state of affairs that one rejects, that one finds unjust, unequal, unacceptable because they convey suffering, moral and material misfortune, artistic intentions must oppose their own displacements, to continually readapt their signifying and formal proposals. Joana Vasconcelos manages to subtly operate this type of displacement – subtlety and delicacy are of a high degree of importance if one wishes to avoid producing “capitalist- realism” –, sometimes only slightly changing the objects (Plastic Party, 1997; Airflow, 2001; Spin, 2001), but in the majority of times juxtaposing or opposing objects in a violent fashion, even if at first sight one perceives a simple incongruous and joyous assemblage. The artist’s over-flowing imagination must be admired, because it is, precisely, of a great formal inventiveness from disparate, poor, common objects. Contrary to that which declares the current dominant ideology, to create and invent forms still remains one of the fundamental challenges of art. It is through forms that the problematics pertaining to both the signifier and the material are posed, which cannot be replaced by any discourse, or any other form or matter. It is this object, form or material which is evaluated and no other. Here also, while courageously tackling this paradox or this contradiction – how to create quality out of the uninteresting and kitsch – Joana Vasconcelos contradicts more our aesthetical expectations than the artistic process itself.
The pieces produced nowadays provoke and give rise to such reactions, that these can go as far as embarrassment or aversion. Under the guise of the ludic there hides a malaise. Thus, Menu do Dia (2001) seems at first sight perfectly anodyne, since nothing truly shocking, or even strange, appears. And for this piece, as well as for all others, Joana Vasconcelos has the gift of provoking in the viewer unexpected extrapolations. One thinks, by all means, of the cold we protect ourselves from with the furcoats, then (with some help from the title) of the meat of the animals conserved in the refrigerator, and immediately after of the slaughter of these animals, of the useless massacres with the aim of obtaining their furs. The “menu of the day” is therefore as much a vain consumerist diet as blind carnage. In another register, Flores do Meu Desejo is a sort of visual pun relating both to minimalist sculpture as well as shop windows, replacing the feather duster for flowers, as if women’s deepest desires were those of housework and not, for instance, the creation of works of art. The display case of Small World (2001) contains children’s toys that merrily spin and twirl around just as if in a funfair, despite the fact that it is not really an issue of fun at all. They are singled out by the artist in function of the educational usefulness conferred by society: to learn how to operate the tools of one’s trade. A mise en scène such as this one might seem naïve or faked because they are but simple toys. All over the world there is no shortage of examples concerning the conditioning of these future worker-consumers which children are. When one learns, for instance, that in Peru the labourers in a brick factory offer their three or four year old children little carts with which they amuse themselves by carting little bricks, so in two or three years time they can move on to working with real carts and real bricks, one immediately understands that to “play at working” is no more than a step towards social misery.
One can argue that all this is but a complete exaggeration, a ludicrous vision of our societies, and that it does not correspond at all to the humorous, comical and ludic traits of Joana Vasconcelos’ works. But, from too often seeking refuge in these categories, which are really to be found in her work, one rather seems to be protecting oneself of the fact that “the ugly changes beauty into the comic”7 that one does not pursuit the ultimate consequences of the real comic, which continuously inverts the values, belittles and downgrades what it holds. To laugh with and of Joana Vasconcelos’ works because the world which they refer to is then perceived as derisive, grotesque, commonplace, vile, ordinary, crude, should not be valid as the only possible interpretation, remaining thus as a mere superficial vision of them, in the sense that they should also make us question our own laughter. After all, why make permanent fun of hundreds of objects which we consume non-stop? Would this laughter absolve us from our nature of “consumed being”? Are we really the people we claim to be or to which we aspire when we contribute towards the production of the ludic that ridicules us? The subtlety of Joana Vasconcelos’ works resides in this continuous self-derision which we voluntarily accept, but only when it concerns the others.
1 K. Varnedoe and G. Adam (ed.), High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, New York, MOMA; Art & Pub, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990.
2 Cf. Clement Greenberg, «Avant-garde and kitsch», Partisan Review, VI, No. 5, 1939.
3 Luc Boltanski/Ève Chiapello, Le Nouvel Esprit du Capitalisme, Paris, Gallimard, 1999, p. 82-83. Cf.
Especially, concerning our explanation, chapter 7, «À l’épreuve de la critique artiste», pp. 501-576
4 Ibid., p. 83.
5 Ibid., p. 86.
6 Cf. Karl Rosenkranz, Esthétique du Laid (1853), Paris, Circé, 2004. An interesting detail is the fact that the cover of the French edition displays a reproduction of Jeff Koons’ sculpture, «Ushering in Banality» (1988), in which a pig is being ushered by little angels.
7 Ibid., p. 42.