Everything Must Go, according to its contextualizing material, aimed to explore the relationship between contemporary art, economics and value. The show’s title gestures towards the lower end of the market, being synonymous with bargain basements and the selling off cheaply of stock. This is not the retail space depicted in Eric Fischl’s oil on canvas Art Fair Exit (2014), one of two works by Fischl in the show. These figurative works were painted from combinations of photographs that Fishchl shot at different art fairs. They represent the upper end of the market, depicting both art works and their potential buyers. On the canvas the different spaces of fair interior and artwork are flattened, the representation of representations and the representation of the world collapsing into each other. If anything the art works depicted resonate most strongly with the viewer – they seem to stare out and confront us – while the art world insiders are oblivious to our presence. Fischl’s paintings have a fluid, casual style, with dripping paint and bold brush strokes; they announce their identity as artworks authoritatively, the hand of the artist is indexed. As commodities they will enter into the world of exchange where everything becomes comparable through the universal equivalent of money; they too will take their place in the art fair.
Reciprocal Fetishism by Ni Haifeng (2010) (the title brings to mind Duchamp’s note in the Green Box, ‘Reciprocal Readymade: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board’) references both the readymade and Minimalism. It comprises a variety of objects displayed on plinths, 3 rows of 6 in total. The things exhibited are pretty mundane, a snorkel, an old camera, a rice steamer, a pile of nutshells mixed with cigarette butts, a small teapot, and a very large bottle of Bordeaux. The text on the wall explains that they are objects, formerly owned by a Chinese Art collector –the association, then, with a collector provides a Midas touch that the name of the artist also provides, turning everyday objects into potentially priceless artworks. It is a work which demands reflection – it does not call primarily for aesthetic contemplation, instead it prompts consideration of the commodity. The gallery space makes the commodity’s ambiguity explicit: its oscillation between use value and exchange value is made emphatic. The readymade as a category of art production also serves to stimulate thinking about the nature of artistic work, and the artist’s signature as a kind of branding.
Lida Abdul’s Brick Sellers of Kabul (2006) is a short video piece depicting a scene of children standing in line, each waiting his turn to sell a brick to a man. After each exchange he adds the brick to a stack. The scene is accompanied by the sound of a howling wind, which gives the whole scene a dismal, despairing aspect. The film has a documentary look – casual, washed out, everything bleached by the sun and the wind. A subtitled piece of dialogue has the man asking a boy where he got the brick. ‘From the ruins,’ comes the reply.
Provenance (2013), a 40-minute film by Amie Siegel, adopts a different method. It is a stylish piece, composed of long, slow, meditative tracking shots, interspersed with static observational shots. It follows the movement of modernist furniture from a government building in Chandigarh in India to the minimalist inspired living spaces of the tasteful rich. It traces this journey in reverse from public to private, from the utopian ideas of Le Corbusier, who originally planned Chandigarh, to the quiet display of wealth. The film opens in London, stopping off in other European settings before a trip across the Ocean on a super yacht to the US. It’s all serene – not very many people to be seen – the rich are just like you and me, only less visible. Ostentatious display and conspicuous consumption are out. The camera glides over all this in an unhurried elegant way, its style mimicking the world it depicts. On then to a photo-shoot: we hear a photographer direct an assistant on where to place the model chair (designed by Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier’s cousin). The cinematic space becomes more populous the further back we move in production. At the auction house the chair is ‘sold for $60,000’, then it’s back to a workshop where restorers strip tattered, dilapidated furniture to the bone. The camera eye hovers over a cargo ship, a stock image. We are reminded that containerization is the major driver of globalization – amazing the difference the efficient stacking of boxes has made to international trade! Then we see the modernist building – utopian dreams guarded by a few soldiers, monkeys climbing the structure, it looks beautiful in the bright sunlight. There are now more people, on computers in little cubicles, with bright modern furniture. We see a painting of ‘Corbusier the Great Master’ – an image of artistic authority that the film’s title, Provenance, attaches to the origin of the furniture. And so demand is fuelled. This film is paired with a short film called Lot 248 (2013). This documents the sale of Provenance at auction – paired together these works attempt to picture the constantly moving nature of capital. They also highlight the tensions and contradictions inherent in artistic work, which may attempt to critique or go beyond the system of its origin while this self-same system seamlessly swallows up and incorporates the artwork into its smooth functioning. A serendipitous accident allowed the soundtrack of howling wind from Brick Sellers of Kabul to haunt the serene spaces of Siegel’s room.
Victor Burgin’s Possession (1976) juxtaposes a statistic taken from an edition of The Economist, and an advertising image of a man and woman embracing. It was originally displayed as one of 500 posters installed around Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1976 – an attempt to directly intervene in public space to change consciousness. Burgin later abandoned this strategy, considering it too crude and as not reflecting how ideology actually works. Nevertheless I think it is a nuanced work, acknowledging both income and gender inequality, and the passage of time has made it, if anything, more vital.
Karmelo Bermejo’s Fiscal Oil Paintings (2014) at first glance appear to be monochrome paintings, but when viewed from certain angles the phrase ‘Undeclared Income’ becomes visible. This is an obvious allusion to the way that art has become a way for capital to be stored away from the prying eyes of government’s seeking tax. The paintings are accompanied by a transparent ‘Certificate of Authenticity’, printed and signed with invisible ink and placed in a display case.
Meschac Gaba, Kathi Hofer, Susanne Mooney all deal with the manufacture of desire and the production of value. Gaba uses money to decorate the frames of his paintings, making it useful and discounting its exchange value; Kathi Hofer utilizes gift wrapped boxes as sculpture forms; Suzanne Mooney presents photographs of empty display features, unmoored from the commodities their function it is to sell – these take on the appearance of generic, minimal art works. Christopher Williams’ cool, mannered photographs question the medium’s commercial uses, re-photographing works removed from their original contexts. Raqs Media Collective’s text-based, site-specific work Please Do Not Touch the Work of Art stresses the intertwining of desire with vision; it also emphasize the injunction against touching artworks in galleries, one of the strategies for protecting their special status.
Non-commercial art galleries occupy an ambiguous position in the contemporary world. They are simultaneously spaces that are public – potential sites for debate contesting the dominant social and political discourses – and spectacular buildings, bolstering notions of the creative city (proclaiming that this city is an investment opportunity). The Glucksman is a space for the display of objects that are at once baubles for the rich, art for contemplation and objects expressing the labour of their oftenconflicted makers. Except for Burgin’s work, none of the pieces in the show make an obvious critique of the current neo liberal form of global capitalism, none attempt a radical gesture against the market (and perhaps wisely so). Rather the works reflect and depict the market. They are aware that the market determines them – the collapse of a currency allows Gaba a material that will add aesthetic value to his works; Fischl’s market as subject necessarily depends on its subject; etc. Burgin’s works remain an artifact of a time at the dawn of neo-liberalism when direct tactics of critique seemed appropriate. Everything Must Go was a show befitting its context, acting as a reminder that the market is all space, everywhere and everything – no place is inauspicious, explicitly stated in the wall text next to Lida Abdul’s bleak, ruin-filled Brick Sellers of Kabul, which stated, ‘her poetic film offers a glimpse of optimism from the ruins of war-ravaged Afghanistan, and an insight into how markets can emerge in the most inauspicious circumstances.’ Not perhaps how I would have framed it, but certainly fulfilling the exhibition’s stated aim.
Everything Must Go was on view 28 November 2015 – 6 March 2016.