View of “Babak Golkar,” 2014. Wall: Fair Trade, 2014. Floor: Assisted Reconstruction, 2014.

View of “Babak Golkar,” 2014. Wall: Fair Trade, 2014. Floor: Assisted Reconstruction, 2014.

Babak Golkar

View of “Babak Golkar,” 2014. Wall: Fair Trade, 2014. Floor: Assisted Reconstruction, 2014.

Each work in “The Return Project” was realized through an identical series of actions. Vancouver-based artist Babak Golkar begins by purchasing a cheap, usually decorative object from a local big-box store. After taking a life-size photograph of the object in his studio, he carefully deconstructs it, removing and occasionally replacing elements, retaining the original tags and packaging materials. The resulting product, designated as art via a discreetly placed authentication note and artist’s signature, is then rephotographed—again, at full size—retagged, repacked, and returned to the store for a full refund. In the gallery, each pair of before-and-after photographs was presented as a diptych alongside an object fabricated from the “surplus” material removed from the purchased product. The conditions of display for each set of photographs and manipulated residual—the format and frames of the former, the shelves/plinths or lack thereof for the latter—were distinct, carefully considered, and highly aestheticized.

Through careful selection and clever titling, Golkar introduces a layer of symbolic meaning into each set, addressing contemporary geopolitics, recent events, and art history in indirect ways. In one set, a sleeping cherub’s eyes have been opened and its wings removed and casually placed on the floor to the right of the photographic diptych; alongside these physical manipulations, the works’ titles—But a Storm Is Blowing (all works 2014), for the photographs, and History, for the object remainder—transform the kitsch ornament into a meditation on historical progress by way of Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history. In another, a column of wax removed from the bottom of a scented red candle was melted down and cast into a fist making a thumbs-up. Titled Spring, the photographs obliquely lament the lost potential of the fervid pro-democracy protests that swept across the Middle East in 2011, while the new candle, called Mission Accomplished, wryly acknowledges the United States’ role in the continuing instability throughout the region in its reference to then president George W. Bush’s notoriously premature declaration of the end of the Iraq War in May 2003.

But Golkar’s project also revisits core questions about the nature of art and objecthood first broached by the Duchampian readymade: What constitutes an art object? Is its status and value as such dependent on the artist’s say-so or its institutional frame? What distinguishes art from commodity, especially when artwork is indistinguishable from a commodity or when, as a product of the ever-expanding culture industry, the commodity in question resembles an artwork? Golkar complicates matters further by not limiting his process to a single gesture of displacement. Instead, he choreographs a series of crossovers between two adjacent but supposedly discrete economies—of art and of consumer products—highlighting the growing slipperiness between these categories under late capitalism and the dramatic expansion of the art market in recent decades.

By releasing the modified consumer goods back into circulation, Golkar seems to mock the traditional locus of artistic value. While the unique interventions of his hand and signature may redeem these objects from their debased status as kitsch, they are unable to impede the items’ consumption as products. The result is simply a very limited edition, a perverse hybrid of unique artwork and mass-produced copy whose status as one or the other depends entirely on the unknowable intentions, desires, and actions of the unwitting consumer turned collector.

The photographic diptychs and manipulated “surplus”—the by-products of Golkar’s process—continue the interrogation. Presented in a highly aestheticized manner in the gallery, documentation and residual material are performatively elevated to high art, rehearsing the manner through which the art market has capitalized, even dematerialized, practices such as Conceptual and performance art. Hovering between art and not-art, the various material products of Golkar’s process seem to stress the contingent status of the art object in the twenty-first century, one largely dependent on not just its conditions of display but also its conditions of consumption.

Murtaza Vali