Bodies in Market Conditions
Which forms of subjectivity does late capitalism produce? And why is it so precarious? In the large room on the lower floor, works are shown that question our lifestyle.
“The sheer volume of medicinal packaging points to the simple belief that physical and mental ailments can be healed by medication. At the same time we know that these packages are empty.”
Since 1990, capitalism no longer has any limits. In light of the imminent climate catastrophe, the statement by the literary critic Fredric Jameson that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is more topical and depressing than ever. Today, everything is part of the system. Including art, of course. What remains: It can cast its own gaze on the workings and consequences of this production relationship.
This becomes clear in several respects in the exhibition “Forever Young”. On the one hand, Pop Art – especially the works of Andy Warhol – is of course also an examination of the economy of attention, so inherent in capitalism, of questions of production, and not least of the conditions of the art market itself. In the working manner so typical of Warhol, who refrained from explicitly passing judgement, capitalistic mechanisms tend to be presented rather than criticized. Another strand of the exhibition is much less ambiguous in this respect – even though it soon becomes clear that art’s “criticism” of capitalism is not the mere naming of grievances, and certainly not a display of alternatives, but ideally detailed research, a demonstration of the economic subconscious. The pieces gathered together in the large room on the lower floor examine from different perspectives the question as to which kind of subjects are produced by capitalism, and why they are often so precarious.
Among the most conspicuous works in the exhibition are without doubt the three objects by the British artist Damien Hirst (*1965). For example, a medical cabinet full of medicinal packaging, which bears the strange name “E.M.I.” (1989). The cabinet comes from a series, all of whose pieces Hirst named after Sex Pistols songs. The confrontation with capitalism can already be found in the name, since the strategy of the early London punk band was to hijack the mechanisms of the music industry – using scandal to draw attention – and to exploit them before ultimately affirming them. Hirst alludes to this program in the name of the piece – and then collects huge amounts of medicinal packaging. The sheer volume points to the simple belief that physical and mental ailments can be healed by medication. At the same time we know that these packages are empty. Even more overwhelming is many visitors’ declared favorite piece in the museum: Hirst’s gigantic pill shelf, entitled “In This Terrible Moment We Are All Victims of an Environment That Refuses to Acknowledge the Soul” (2002). Curator Jacob Proctor: “Here Hirst works naturally with a typically neoliberal approach in the matter of medicine. He refers to the pharmaceutical industry, which promises relief or optimization with countless preparations. And this market is proliferating, but people still have to be able to afford all of this, which presents a problem to many in the USA and also in the UK.” The flip side of these (empty) promises is then shown in “Waste (Twice)”, from 1994: Display cases full of medical waste. What is collected here is absolute worthlessness, indeed even less: Objects that are so depleted that they arouse only revulsion.
The largest piece shown in the room is also concerned with our relationship with objects: Cady Noland’s (*1956) huge installation “Deep social Space” (1989). Here the American collects the insignia of the “heartland”, as Ronald Reagan called the white, conservative population that brought him to power. Various objects of the redneck lifestyle are displayed on a kind of fenced-in stage: a barbecue, beer cans, a US flag, handcuffs, a saddle… What initially looks like a somewhat simple (and also classist) criticism of white trash reveals its depth only when viewed historically: “One can in fact understand this work only against the background of what happened in the USA under Reagan in the 1980s. The valorization from above of the white, conservative lifestyle using the term ‘heartland’ had massive consequences: society became militarized, while at the same time, due to neoliberal economic policies, huge pauperization occurred. And in the liberal milieus of the large cities, AIDS claimed countless victims. It was a very dark time and Noland exhibits this horror like in a showcase,” says Proctor. But there is another aspect that is just as interesting, and links the piece thematically to the other works in the room that are concerned with the economic framework conditions of our existence: “Deep Social Space” (1989) shows that objects are attributed with their own social potency. The collected items are not so much commodities; rather, they form a certain behavior.
Something similar also applies to the material of the sculpture “Blue, Purple and Blue/Purple” (1991) by Mike Kelley (1954 – 2012). Kelley constructed these hanging, bell-shaped structures from soft toys, arranged by color. There is always something profoundly tragic about soft toys, referring as they do to the child’s need for warmth and love. They are an object in the truest sense of the word, substituting for time and affection. What is sadder than the collection of soft toys at the memorials to children who have died? And yet they are such utterly loved things. The animals used by Kelley were bought in second-hand stores. They are worn, stained, have been cuddled to bits. They are not real, but real feelings are attached to them, which makes Kelley’s work both funny and poignant.
A direct antithesis to Kelley’s amorphous cuddly bells might be found in Jeff Koon’s (*1955) porcelain figure “Amore” (1988), which can be seen on the ground floor in the room on the topic of “Signs of the Metropolis”. Here Koons, ironic master of the smooth surfaces, shows a small, touching souvenir, grinning dumbly and holding a sticker that says “I love you”. But while Kelley’s soft toys thrive on their grubbiness, thus demonstrating something approaching a human side of economic circulation, this kitschy object, in its ambitious perfection, is nothing but a pure commodity. It looks at us with cold eyes, and the sticker “I love you”, which it holds in its hand, is not so much a promise as a threat.