What is to consume? To buy? To feed? To need? To Love? The introduction to the series by John Mcguner, a popular tennis player says so. And the four artist in this series are to raise questions through their art work about the things we consume everyday. And I keep looking for ‘consume’ all through.
The series begins with an opening at a gallery and the artist on display is Michael Ray Charles. Looking for consumption in midst of conversations and wine glasses, I observe paintings of the artist in background which look like posters. Lot of popular images, many popular quotes are strewn across these posters. Most important-all the subjects of the paintings are black. I begin to understand that his ideas must be political. Also a process of relating his work of art with some other ideas has begun in my mind. Cut to-the artist is talking from a studio filled with books and souvenirs of popular imagery-so is he a thinking artist? Charles seems to be interested where and how popular imagery of’ blacks’ is born. This is an investigative interest. But his work deal with only products of the popular culture. Showing an image of a vase from 6th century BC, Charles points out to details and tells us how the Greco-roman images were appropriated by early American illustrators for purposes of marketebilty. The artist derives inspiration from everyday experience and products of popular culture which depict the black. When he is painting over the image of a popular calendar, or painting the Classic- Modern series, his understanding and research seem to give many more layers to the art work. He says, “Concepts of past still linger” and we know that is true by nature of how these images are used especially in marketing and advertisements. We cannot blame the artist’s evident cynicism. The artist explains this with a children’s game ‘Tarzan-the wild and the leopard man’. We scorn along with the artist- Tarzan is a white handsome male ‘very much like Elvis Presley’ while the villain is a savage and a black. How naturally and unquestioningly such toys,’ barbies’ and other popular culture products neutralise many prejudices and concepts in our minds. ‘What is ugly is also beautiful ‘, he says.
When I see Charles’ naked Elvis Presley with a black face, and the coin with Abraham Lincoln on it covering his shame, I am reminded of an Indian artist, who also puts together or quotes from popular imagery, a lot- Atul Dodiya. I kept wondering throughout, if Charles’ intends his art ‘to change the society’, and I was right. The series ended with Charles saying “I want to make a change and a difference.” He says if his painting manages to evoke someone, he has achieved his purpose.
The next work I saw was of the sculptor, filmmaker and performer, Mathew Barney who has been working on his Cremaster film series since 1993. There was violence and it was sexually driven. The opening shot was brief-of a performer swimming in a pool of balls/bubbles. Snapshots of another work had rotting horses running a race at the race course. The work was abstract and symbolic . Well, I was looking for consumption. Were the rotting horses a symbol of it? The cut open lips? I found a lot of his imagery like the surrealists. Prosthetics, make-up, unreal decay.
Barney’s work was the one in the series I could relate to the least. And I tried to understand why so. Is it because the work showed a lot of violence? Is it because it was too abstract? Or is it because I saw very less work. Like most of the artists shown, this art 21 series also showed the artist at work and did not discuss his art alone. However, the artist meticulously working to put up a work of art, took much more minutes than the work of art itself. The film-maker shows the artist’s obsession with details, hence we see many anecdotes of his work…but do not see any work in totality to grapple and understand Barney’s art work. Also the film has shots at Guggenheim in Bilbao, where the artist performed and filmed for his series. Richard Serra performed for him as a chief mine worker. Here Barney, dressed in prosthetics (make-up for his role) directing the shots seemed to me like a conductor of an orchestra or like a sharp businessman.
Seeing Mel Chin’s work was an illuminating experience. What can be art! Mel Chin picks up by products of our capitalist/consumerist economy, ‘re-consumes’ and transforms them giving them a new value. All his projects are functional and they are art. His art sits within the quiet neighbourhood, the toxic land in outskirts of suburb or the space of a video game. They all seem like scientific projects, but they are much layered than that. They make a social comment.
In houses abandoned and decayed by fire, in a neighbourhood, Chin changes its image by re-cycling and re-using decayed parts of the house to create a vermiculture pit, which can be used by the fishermen of the neighbourhood. The burnt house has immediately been reclaimed as a part of the community. But my question is what about the ownerships? Am sure these things though not discussed must have been figured out. Chin’s another major concern is of the culture of tribes which are dying ‘after existing 1000s of years’. With them their exclusive cultural products-like the tribal carpets. Chin designs a video game where you travel through 36 tribal carpets. Cashing onto prevalent the video game culture, Chin hopes people question where did these patterns come from? Chin’s video game looks like a muti-layered environment. Here I understand that part of art is to create a form, a form like video game.
The last project Revival Field seemed like a cross between a sculpture and bio-regenerating science project. Chin has planted a species of plants which are hyper accumulators in a toxic earth, the wastelands of a factory. These plants cleanse the system and the vegetation can survive on this land again. Birds and animals follow. This renewed ecology as work of art.
The last artist. And the one in the series I related to the most. Curiously dressed in a red dress and red lipstick is Andrea Zittal, as she talks about products we consume are all aspirational symbols. They include from the way we modulate our spaces to what we wear. Similar to how a painting or sculpture is also forms of representation of an idea, Zittal’s work in a new form showing the everyday is an interesting work of art. Most of her art work comes from her subjective relation to the world and her own real life experiences. Her parents like most of the middle class Americans aspired for a country home; this aspiration is what translated into her making the island home-in the middle of nowhere. The image of this island home floating in the water first looks beautiful and exotic. Every one always wants to run away from the problems of an urban life, to the country home to relax. This project takes the idea further. If there is no return from this exotic island, then it is not a momentary escape, but a cast away, leading to certain emptiness. Is it the emptiness of our aspirations? What seemed like a playful idea is full of dark humour.
Her ‘Living unit’ is storytelling through forms. This is one her works which she says has been influenced by the places she has lived in. The desk which turns into a shelf and into a seat, the bed which packs itself under the tea-stool , the neat categorisation of all the products we use daily in the bathrooms with interesting labels like tools and implements (housing tooth brush, mirror, scissors etc), addition (cosmetics) and contraptions- all categorised like a science lab. Of course, this where the personalities are experimented with- in front of the mirror. She says each of these forms can be traced to a certain circumstance she had to deal with.
Like people buy expensive dresses and yet don’t like to repeat them, clothing is also an aspiration. She comments on this by wearing one garment per season- her one good dress. Also she experiments by making her own clothing. Beginning with wearing rectangles-a basic form of dressing, now she uses crochet to make her clothes.
Zittal lives art. There is no moment when she begins to do art. All her work though seems introverted are all social commentaries. In a culture of ‘consumption’ where we are told what to eat, what to dress, what to aspire for- cultures are dying, ecology is being hurt and people prefer fantasy to the real experience often, all in attempts to liberate oneself. When the film ends with the scene of Zittal knitting her new exquisite crochet dress, the scene continues to haunt me. The movie said, that sometimes thing which are meant to free you, ones you acquire to free yourself often confine you. I remembered a dialogue from a Hollywood movie by Guy Richie, Fight Club, ‘Things which you own start owning you in the end!’