Luxembourg City

Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 63 minutes 21 seconds. From “Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age.”

Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 63 minutes 21 seconds. From “Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age.”

“Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age”

Art and economics—the relation between them is not exactly a novel concern. But where artists of the 1970s sought strategies to undercut the co-optation of their work by the market, their present-day counterparts know they have a harder time steering clear of economic forces. Not only has digital technology abetted the shift of production from material goods to immaterial ones such as information—paving the way for the ascent of Google and Facebook, two of the world’s biggest corporations by market capitalization—but as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello showed in The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), modern art, with its aspiration to individual freedom and glorification of creativity, had a role in that shift. Therein lies a new challenge.

In curating “Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age,” Michelle Cotton set out to take up that challenge. The area by the entrance to the show was dominated by a visibly bruised airplane: a Soviet MiG-21, which Roger Hiorns had buried in the ground in the Czech Republic from October 2017 through May 2019. Having brought this relic of the Cold War—whose end sparked the boom of the postindustrial economy—to Luxembourg, he strung pipes resembling intestines through the fuselage, through which coursed a pap made of liquefied pizza: a metaphor for the digital liquefaction of economic flows but also for the self-cannibalization of the capitalist system already discussed by Karl Marx.

Two works positioned nearby homed in more directly on art as a commodity: Oliver Laric’s 3D reproductions of celebrated works, which make them universally accessible but also turn them into merchandise; and Hito Steyerl’s installation FreePlots, 2019–. Steyerl discussed the novel phenomenon of “freeport” storage facilities populated by undead art that may never again see the light of day in her essay “Duty Free Art” (2015). For the installation, she orchestrated the building of giant wooden flower boxes that replicate the floor plans of two such facilities, in Geneva and Panama, then invited a local garden club to plant them and fill them with life.

Industrial capitalism, with its rapacious exploitation of natural resources, has left the environment permanently damaged. What’s more and more evident today is the damage that postindustrial capitalism inflicts on human beings. The title of Simon Denny’s Document Relief Study 1 (Amazon Worker Cage Patent), 2019, is self-explanatory: The work features cages, for which Amazon took out a patent, designed for the transportation of workers. Cao Fei’s thrilling video Asia One, 2018, presents the debilitating robotic labor of the staff at a vast Chinese warehouse alongside a dance performance inspired by Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and Chinese operas of the Mao era in a juxtaposition that bristles with absurdities. No less incongruous is the contrast between the high-tech perfection of a Bitcoin mine in northern China and the archaic austerity of its surroundings, seen in Yuri Pattison’s installation the ideal (v.0.3.2), 2015–. For a mode of capital generation that is almost prehistoric by comparison to Bitcoin, consider Shadi Habib Allah’s light boxes Dropping the 10th Digit, 2018: The photographs of scribbled notes recording the illegal conversion of food stamps into cash at a drugstore in Miami vividly illustrate how the persistence of anachronistic practices in a hypermodern world connects to ever-widening social inequality.

Liz Magic Laser’s In Real Life, 2019, a mock reality-TV show, shadows five self-employed gig workers in different parts of the world as they go about their everyday lives. The portrayal of their quest for perfection and self-improvement, their self-exploitation, and the precarity of their existence confirmed and reinforced the notion of the creative professions as harbingers of a new spirit of capitalism.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.