PRINT October 2007


Jeff Koons, Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979, vinyl and mirrors, 32 x 25 x 18".

Whether by faking, borrowing, or stealing, artists today commonly produce works of art that employ the vocabulary of industry. This is not surprising if one considers the extent to which the broader contemporary language of form derives from the global corporate system. Unlike in earlier eras, nearly all products now draw on the collective labor of large numbers of people. We are supposed to be contented consumers of the factory-made wares of our brothers, sisters, and distant unheralded cousins in Asia. The message is that the individual can no longer be a producer of things except in highly circumscribed situations, and so artists must continually attempt to reclaim the territory of production or invent new relationships to it.

Critical discussions of works in this vein often make reference to Marcel Duchamp’s early readymade sculptures, asserting that his precedent grants artists the authority to designate any object their own artistic production, and, accordingly, redefines the artwork as anything an artist deems as such. Yet one could also interpret Duchamp’s signing of a urinal in 1917 as an act of resistance to the forces of economic and industrial development surrounding him. The urinal he employed was produced by an elaborate industrial process; its economic origins make it an emblem of the structural changes occurring throughout the West at that time. Many of the things that people used were still made at home or nearby—a mix of industrial, artisanal, and personal production. But the remnants of preindustrial life were being swept away, the labor of the individual replaced more and more by that of groups functioning within factories, corporations, unions, and conglomerates. How does the individual artist-worker compete with this new context? Perhaps by doing as little—or as much—as possible. Duchamp’s first readymades were industrial objects produced in great quantities. The difference between any two examples of mass production was “infra-thin,” as he described it. Significantly, he didn’t sign a custom-fit shoe or a hand-forged pitchfork, nonindustrial objects that display their non-standardized idiosyncrasy proudly. His choice might be seen as an early protest against the determined shrinking of society’s space for individual production.

In the ninety years since Duchamp’s Fountain, the process of industrial development has continued with ever-increasing force and speed to the point where virtually everything we use (or consume) is produced by corporations in a linked series of manufacturing processes and trade. And so the question remains: How can the individual artist produce works of art that effectively employ the commonly understood language of capitalist industry? Duchamp’s attempt at an answer to this question only made it more pointed. He proposed something serious but also absurd, a change in authorship by fiat. This deceptively simple proposal seems not to be an option for artists, now that Western society promotes the idea of consumer choice itself as a kind of de facto authorship. What are other tactics or procedures?

By examining recently exhibited artworks and their antecedents, one could begin to write a manual of numerous approaches, but three stand out: One option is to “fake” the product by making an imitation or reconstruction of it. This often requires that an artist transmute or reconstitute the form in another material, since industrial materials typically require industrial processing. Another is to “borrow” preexisting objects and use them in a more or less intact state. Or one could “steal” the methods of capitalist production itself, by accessing an industrial process and adapting it for one’s own use. Often, artists move from one procedure to another, elaborating them or mixing them up. The common thread is that these gestures do not pretend to erase the economic origins and processes underlying these products (or to obscure or aestheticize them, as in more traditional modes of assemblage). They suggest that the ongoing recurrence of readymade-like objects in sculpture might be taken as evidence of a common struggle to resist the continuing loss of individual creative autonomy in relation to production. Many strategies could work—anything except giving in, anything but simply buying and consuming.

From an art-historical perspective Jasper Johns’s ale cans, flashlights, and lightbulbs are obvious and important precedents for creating fake versions of mass-market products, but his questioning of sign and signification does not drive younger artists’ uses of analogous procedures. In Johns’s lineage we might also consider the handpainted objects and installations of Fischli & Weiss, though these may be more concerned with trompe l’oeil effects than with challenging industrial manufacture. More relevant are the groundbreaking examples of Robert Gober and Jeff Koons, artists who are well known for works that point to objects of mass production and who provide two diverging narratives in the struggle to engage commodity forms.

Koons’s earliest work with preexisting industrial products includes Inflatable Flower and Bunny (Tall White and Pink Bunny), 1979, which consists of two store-bought blow-up toys displayed on inexpensive mirrors. Borrowing a mode of presentation that one might see in the window of a cheap gift shop, he puts these plastic products forward as art, via their transposition to the floor and to a different commercial/institutional context. In this sculpture Koons attempted to recast two childhood objects as adult ones, transforming them from transient to permanent, without altering the inflatables themselves. But we immediately intuit that these plastic products will inevitably fade and sag, even if hidden away in a box and exposed to light only for very short periods of time. The work does not exactly achieve Koons’s oft-stated goal of giving us permission to perpetually indulge our most banal desires, existing instead as a historical placeholder in this line of thought. It is an example of “borrowing” from the world of capitalist production, but it does not represent Koons’s most radical and extreme attempt to alter our perception of commodity culture.

Nearly three decades later, Koons’s current work with ostensibly similar material stands in stark contrast with this early foray. He has moved on to creating his own wildly obsessive fake versions of industrial products. For the past several months, his studio (working in tandem with outside fabricators) has been busily completing his ongoing series of “Popeye” sculptures, begun in 2002. In scale, texture, and small physical details, these objects appear to be common inflatable pool toys and dolls in the form of dolphins, monkeys, and lobsters, similar in kind to those Koons originally displayed on mirrors. But they are not. They are cast metal, typically aluminum, which is matte, painted to closely mimic the appearance of a plastic toy. Perfectly smooth castings, meticulous handwork, and sophisticated painting processes are used to achieve the appearance of cheap, disposable goods that are produced in large numbers with highly mechanized technology.

In these works Koons defies the original ethos of his models. Designed to be used at most for a couple of seasons, pool floats of this kind are intended to be lost, popped, or worn out so that they may be replaced with new ones. Yet Koons’s sculptures are forever. They realize and permanently materialize his epiphany about the utter banality of our erotic imagination. The painstaking reconstruction of these objects is so radically different in its materials and processes that it fundamentally changes the nature of the forms—disregarding both their original use and, significantly, their planned obsolescence and inevitable failure. Koons’s sculptures make the inexorable cycling of capitalism stand still. Styles may change, but these objects are monuments to another kind of permanence.

Robert Gober has long been engaged with a more perfunctory kind of faking than Koons, but in a relatively recent work he chose to “steal” the methods of industrial production. His diaper package, an element from his 2005 untitled installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, is an extremely convincing copy or double of a mass-market commodity, despite the fact that the contorted pose of the baby on its wrapper is unlikely to please a Luvs or Huggies CEO. There is a good reason why the sculpture is so believable as an actual mass-market object: The plastic packaging that wraps a stack of surrogate handmade plaster diapers was printed at a factory using the same materials and technology as those employed in the printing of “real” packages of disposable diapers. This mock consumable, made with such verisimilitude as to demolish the term itself, is an example of accessing industrial processes in order to convincingly adopt a vocabulary of production.

In this instance, however, it could be argued that the artist went too far. By stealing the original methods of production, Gober loses some of the subtle friction between individual and industrial labor that characterizes his best work. Sure, the image on the package strongly critiques the modern drive to normalize the functions of the body. But this critique plays itself out iconographically, at the level of image, rather than in the carefully calibrated making of the work. In its seamless imitation of every parameter of the original, the diaper package dissolves the tension between the individual’s ability to resist the values promoted by commodity culture and the massive resources available to corporations to promote those values.

Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960–64, painted bronze, 5 1⁄2 x 8 x 4 1⁄2". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

By contrast, Gober has often produced poignantly handmade, imperfect versions of products, in order to transform them into metaphorical political protests. His early iconic work Drain, 1989, is one of the most finely tuned examples of this approach. This small sculptural intervention appears to be a typical late twentieth-century sink drain, improbably inserted into a wall literally at a ninety-degree angle to its original functionality. Yet a quick but careful look reveals what it is not. It is not an object from the plumbing store. It is not the result of a long line of decisions, beginning with complex negotiations over plumbing standards and cultural traditions concerning water use, followed by engineering calculations, and ending, after manufacture, with standardized tests measuring density, size, and tensile strength. It approximates the look of something like this, but it is not this. Small imperfections reveal it to be a hand-formed approximation, an individual’s version of an economically efficient commodity, perfectly imperfect and customized. The material is changed from the usual cast iron or stainless steel to pewter, which is infinitely easier to cast. Drain resists our impotence as independent makers. Anyone could make it in his or her garage.

Koons and Gober cast long shadows, but they do not mark an end to the tradition of faking the industrial, “readymade” object, a strain of contemporary art that continues in the work of several young artists, including Matt Johnson, Kris Martin, and Kaz Oshiro. Johnson’s 50 Cent, 2005, is a fake version of one of the lowest-end product lines, the gum-ball-machine toy, albeit his is partially platinum and holds a miniature trash can. Martin’s Golden Spike, 2005, is an open-ended edition in the form of a common framing nail cast not in steel but in gold; he hammers it into architecture as he sees fit. In both cases it is the change in material that represents the strongest element of resistance toward the power of industry. The original objects are by nature cheap and commonplace. By reconstructing them in expensive materials, Johnson and Martin propose a simple restructuring of monetary value, implying a value for the valueless. Oshiro’s Bose Entertainment Sound System, 2002, along with his more recent sculpture-painting hybrids of fridges, washer/dryers, and tailgates, are convincing reconstructions of the originals, made, oddly enough, from stretched canvas and Bondo. His transmutation of materials, like Johnson’s and Martin’s, suggests another notion of inherent value, though instead of rare metals he uses paint on canvas, which might be considered both more and less precious. Together the gestures of these three artists could be viewed as an irreverent joke about our ability as consumers to determine value. But the relative thinness of these pranks may also point to how hard it really is to meaningfully challenge the economic laws governing industrial objects.

Turning to “borrowing,” it is worth mentioning the rich current of sculptures and installations constructed as assemblages, works that consume and repurpose the products of industry for use in the artist’s expressive palette. Many crucial pieces by figures from Jessica Stockholder to the late Jason Rhoades have involved this approach. Yet the process of subsuming these objects within an aesthetic scheme tends to obscure their economic and material origins. The resultant artworks are less legible as texts formed of a shared material language, and in them the tension between collective industrial labor and that of the individual subsides.

How, instead, might an artist use the actual products of our economic regime without either pictorializing them or simply claiming them like Duchamp? We may purchase these products in order to use them for our own artistic ends, but can they still remain just themselves in our hands? If they are included within the context of a larger work and visibly retain the traces of their material history, perhaps they can preserve their autonomy as something yet to be consumed. Artists have played with this idea for a while, whether in Cady Noland’s deadpan accumulations, Mike Kelley’s theatrical stagings, or Haim Steinbach’s pared-down displays, which laugh at the lack of labor that consumption requires. Josephine Meckseper has recently co-opted the structure of store windows to deploy her own politically pointed rearrangement of products and images. Even Gabriel Orozco’s sectioned Citroën (La DS, 1993) could be said to have been “borrowed” and then “returned” to us, looking functional at approximately half its original size. Can we do something new with preexisting manufactured objects without using them up? The recent work of Isa Genzken, Rachel Harrison, and Carol Bove suggests this is possible.

Genzken’s latest constructions slap together a disparate variety of cheaply purchased and salvaged objects and materials. One gets the sense that she is perpetrating violence not just on the objects but on capital itself. Whether in Al Dente, 2003, a plate of toy dinosaurs and cows, or in her “Vampire/Empire III” series of 2004, objects are doused in layers of paint, as if she has just finished pouring on gasoline and is about to light them on fire. The paint does not mask, consume, or dissolve the original object in a carefully balanced composition. Instead, Genzken’s is an antiaesthetic that leaves objects, with all their attendant information, intact so that we might contemplate their history as they meet her protest.

Elefant, 2006, is a sculpture with tusks that crawls with toy insects delicately attached to a mess of other elements. Perhaps this work depicts the commodity as a parasite on our inner psychology. Mutter mit Kind, 2004, disturbs the world of design with an overturned, literally overthrown, postmodern Philippe Starck plastic chair. Hula Hoop, 2006, consists of a tangle of materials sitting opposite an untouched Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair—a tasteful viewing platform in sharp contrast with the indecipherable agglomeration it faces. By smashing, tying, dousing, sticking, gluing, and taping together everyday objects in a specific but thoroughly illogical manner, Genzken protests the modern power structures that create the manufactured objects of global culture. She does to the objects what she would likely do to the power players behind them: She tortures them but lets them live.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 2004–2005, bronze, cast plastic, plaster, oil paint, and polyurethane, 17 1⁄4 x 46 1⁄2 x 25 1⁄4".

Rachel Harrison’s sculptures highlight the differences between what an individual can create and what the media and industry create for us. A common mode of hers is a construction modeled from cheap materials, slathered with a frostinglike layer of mucky paint. These elements seem to imply that we can only make rough and messily biological modernisms; they are a celebration of the de-skilled. To these she adds small (and larger) bits of the world: Stuck onto edges, backs, ledges, and niches are toys, pictures of movie stars, thermostats, bicycles, and more. These objects are in general unaltered, pristine, and fresh with the memory of their original commercial contexts and uses. Harrison’s ready-made additions highlight our plight: What we can do is so limited, so impoverished, yet they can do anything and everything. Her work offers an adaptive solution, a place where one can indulge the primordial imagination, even while assembling a toy from a Happy Meal. Or so, at least, it is to be hoped.

In Al Gore, 2007, a towering off-kilter monolith has a typical analog household thermostat stuck on its side, of the kind that is still in widespread use throughout the US. It is the corporeal nature of this object that lends the sculpture its wry humor. Because the thermostat is a real one, we can seriously contemplate turning up the heat in the sculpture. Huffy Howler, 2004, consists of a brand-new, Chinese-manufactured bicycle, permanently entangled inside a sculpture, and yet it’s as though you could still ride off on it. The bicycle doesn’t read as an element in a perfectly composed still life; it looks instead as if it were somehow on loan to the sculpture. Harrison’s gestures suggest that even if we can’t compete with the power of industrial production, we can at least tangle it up in our own personal complexity. We can borrow these products for our own, sometimes meager, remade world, and perhaps this might render them impervious to the motives of their original production, advertisement, and sale.

Carol Bove provides a more grown-up picture of our relationship to cultural production. In a number of her sculptures, used objects, especially 1960s books, records, driftwood, etc., are situated on furniture, as permanently arranged moments. These works provide an apparently accurate picture of a completely superseded past. Strangely, we seem to be observing these objects not as antiques but in their original era, though this sense of time travel is tempered by our knowledge of what has taken place between then and now. If Bove’s sculptures are a kind of time capsule or tomb, then they are extremely tenuous ones. For example, one could simply take a book off the shelf in Adventures in Poetry, 2002, and the moment, as well as the sculpture, would disappear. And this is precisely what was supposed to have happened to these interrelated store-bought products, originally intended for college-educated sophisticates. Read a book; play a record; move on to the next style in furniture, music, and ideas. These products should have been—and maybe even were—discarded, donated, or dropped off at the Salvation Army. One feels this tension acutely, because each charged element of Bove’s compositions retains its original form, with all its evidence of aging and use. Her arrangements resist the main thrust of capitalist production, its constant destructive renewal, its looming temporariness.

If these three sculptural modes could be termed cynical, accommodating, and nostalgic, respectively, there is always the option of trying to beat the industrialists at their own game. Someone like Takashi Murakami proves that the artist might actually be able to insert products into the mainstream marketplace, as he regularly does in Japan. There are also more nuanced options. Rather than literally becoming a kind of capitalist entrepreneur, one could steal time at the factory, creep into the closed-down company and grab the old equipment, or find a way to take over the whole product line.

One important forerunner in this regard is Rosemarie Trockel, who since the early 1980s has stolen time at the mill, so to speak, in order to make custom-knit fabrics that she attaches to rectangular wooden stretchers. The stitching in her woolen material looks like that of any commercially manufactured sweater, but the patterns are often quite different from those that one would ordinarily find for sale: Rorschach blots, hammers and sickles, scribbles, stains, and the wool logo, among other eccentric offerings. In the sense that these works are not painted and do not display any overt evidence of pictorial intervention, they seem like sculpture. Turning on its head Duchamp’s notion that a painting is a readymade because you buy premanufactured canvas and tubes of paint, Trockel produces a feminist critique of painting by commissioning a fabric visibly knit, not woven, as if from a piece of a huge sweater or scarf. Instead of being knit at home (or at the studio) by an anonymous woman (artist), these works are stitched by an industrial-scale, automated machine. Rather than accept the necessity of using the products that industry provides (woven canvas), Trockel repurposed the textile-production line itself, which resulted in works that remind us of the economic powerlesssness of domestic manufacture in the West.

Trockel’s knit works are grounded in the technologies of the industrial revolution, such as the automated Jacquard loom, which was revolutionary because of its punch-card-driven production of complex patterns; that fantastic contraption has now almost completely outlived its usefulness. What happens to these expensive machines when they no longer fit into the system? Last year Kris Martin presented ET TU, 2006, a huge mechanical offset printing press and its final product: one piece of paper printed with the work’s title at the opening of the artist’s first solo exhibition. The giant hulk of a machine impresses the viewer with the startling physical complexity required to produce even images. While clearly reminding us of the power of capital, ET TU reminds us equally of capitalism’s time bomb: obsolescence. The work provides another possible example of resistance by taking advantage of the constant turnover in technology. With digital printing soon to make the offset press completely antiquated, Martin was able to repurpose this massive machine as a functionless artwork, stealing the tools of production only to adapt them to new conceptual purposes. In another stab at disruption, Mandi III, 2003, Martin custom ordered an automated sign from a company that makes many of the mechanical arrival and departure boards found in European airports. His is just like any other such sign, except that it has no letters or text so that it displays only black on black as its panels flip by ominously. The sculpture is in many ways the original object, but it has been fundamentally reimagined. Martin did not commission the original manufacturer just for the sake of expediency. By realizing this sculpture not as a replica but as an effective product on its own twisted terms, he demonstrates that it is possible for the individual to idiosyncratically alter the course of industrial production.

Robert Gober, Drain, 1989, cast pewter, 4 1⁄4 x 4 1⁄4 x 3".

If placing custom orders or buying up scrapped machines fall in line with typical corporate practice, how about something a bit more fraudulent? Joe Scanlan’s Web-based project Things That Fall was launched in 2004, in part to sell art commodities. The website includes a catalogue of art products from low-end (the patented potting soil Pay Dirt) to high-end (shelves and custom-built beds). These are artworks that Scanlan makes himself but that literally function as the products they purport to be. The ethos of this project is to steal from “the man” the methods and vocabulary of mainstream commerce for the purposes of art or, conversely, to make art serve the consumer. The most effective example of this approach may be DIY, a repeatable work begun in 2002 and continuing today, in which the artist provides an instruction booklet explaining how to make a typical IKEA bookcase into a coffin. Additional information tells readers how to turn other IKEA products into sundry items for their own personal funeral homes. IKEA provides only the production and worldwide distribution of an identical form; Scanlan gives us the goods. DIY effectively deconstructs and physically repurposes the product, demonstrating that with nothing more than a hammer and a screwdriver one might be able to conceptually remake anything. This may or may not be a liberating idea.

Things are in transition. A new economic model that has been extensively discussed is one in which the consumer is given direct access to industrial production. The New York Times editorial page last spring trumpeted the imminent arrival of a domestic three-dimensional printer. The idea is that a product may be “downloaded” and then produced at home. Digital customization of the product is intended to provide at least the semblance of personal influence beyond simple choice. When fully realized, this development will bring immensely sophisticated technologies for making things into the domestic environment. It’s hard to imagine anything further from needle and thread, hammer and nail.

To some extent, these trends have already been adopted by artists. Kelley Walker and Liam Gillick, among many others, create e-mailable drawings that are translated into solid matter by ever-cheaper laser- and water-jet cutting. Thanks to computer-driven machines, it is becoming more and more economical to produce one-off versions of complex forms. Jorge Pardo has his own computer-controlled router in his studio, obviating the need for even e-mailing a drawing file. The definition of production itself is constantly evolving.

The potential freedom for individuals (or artists) supposedly provided by new developments in digitally driven, automated production is to some extent illusory—or, at the very least, temporary. Perhaps we think that the factory has arrived on our own doorsteps, providing us with infinite possibilities. But while most anything can be “hacked,” the inherent structure of the tools and software still defines the field of possible forms that can be made. “Customization” will come to look more and more generic as the number of participants in its system increases. Our common understanding of production may move from the infinitely repeated, identical forms purchased off the shelf to one in which every industrial object is a unique commission, perfectly geared to our personal taste. It’s not that technology is bad as far as opening up new conceptual space for artists is concerned. The question is, How does one produce idiosyncrasy in a future where everything that is made already looks idiosyncratic?

Josiah McElheny is a New York–based artist.