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Consume your Art Like a Snickers Bar?

Consumerism is such a buzzword these days, isn’t it?

When you think about it, there’s not much that can’t be commodified or broken down into simpler parts for distribution and eventual sale to a market. Whether it’s nostalgia (hello, Naiise!), celebrity (hello Kardashians!) or experiences (#travelgram #wanderlust #blessed)  — pretty much anything can be framed as a good or product for acquisition.

A bit of essay research recently led me to Guy Debord and his theories of the spectacle — it’s truly amazing how much of a visionary this chap was.

To give you some background, Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International, a movement which originated in Paris in the 1950s and 60s. The group was left –leaning and linked to the 1968 Paris student and worker riots . (As an aside, the riots were the backdrop to Bernardo Bertolucci’s excellent The Dreamers, which in turn happened to be the film debut of a certain Ms Eva Green).

In 1967, Debord published his seminal work The Society of the Spectacle which provided a scarily prescient view into media instruments and hierarchies of power within society. He observed that:

“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”

Debord explained further that capitalism’s exploitation of the mass media has created an array of spectacles and illusions which promote a commodity culture. His key argument was that ordinary people as spectators of the “spectacle,” remain passive, uncreative and therefore powerless in the running of society.

To be clear, the reference to the term “spectacle” does not exclusively refer to attention-grabbing images. Rather, it is a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” While Debord does not himself pinpoint exactly what the spectacle is, it can generally be understood as his “term for the everyday manifestation of capitalist-driven phenomena; advertising, television, film, and celebrity,” exemplified to an extent, by the mass media.

If these ideas are of interest, I’d recommend the excellent summary here (don’t scoff all you academic types – you know you’re secretly referring to sites like these)!

To summarise, images that are fed to the public have the ability to influence human interaction and desires, such that the act of living has been subsumed by the act of acquiring. Through the proliferation of the mass media, the physical act of acquiring has itself been displaced by the need to project the appearance of having acquired. This commodity culture renders consumers as powerless, and images have the ability to create an alternative aspirational world divorced from reality.

If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at a “hashtag-blessed” post on Instagram or the “casual” photo of a first-class boarding pass on a Facebook profile, don’t fret! You’re in good company as Debord’s ideas clearly resonate in the context of modern –day social media. In a way, it’s hard to believe that these thoughts were formulated half a century ago.

Critics of Southeast Asian art are often quick to reject Western theories on the premise that they bear neo-colonial influences. Sometimes, they are rejected as being irrelevant to our Eastern souls, simply because they had been developed in response to specific situations and outcomes in the West. While this isn’t a view I personally adopt, it’s hard to see how such arguments can be sustained in the face of globalization, especially where social media is concerned. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – they reach wholly beyond national borders and create a consumerist culture of their own; which arguably transcends ethnographic divisions.

Put another way, great ideas are just that.

Great ideas.

No one has a monopoly over them, and there’s no reason why great ideas which originated in the West, can’t subsequently form the basis for sophisticated, thoughtful and authentic Asian art.

Anyway, enough of theory.

Here are some examples:

L and I were recently in Bangkok; and I chanced upon a great series of installations at the Ratchaprasong Skywalk Art Maze, which  prompted thought on notions of consumerism. The works were so placed in order to catch the attention of passers-by in and around Siam Square, the busiest shopping junction in the city. A brave attempt at changing mindsets, or a foolish experiment?

You decide:

Here I am with Haritorn Akarapat’s work On Human Nature

Haritorn is a self-taught artist, who has created these human-like, raw heads to “awaken the viewer from (the) routine of “spectacular” images.. being fed in (Thai) consumerist society.”

The heads are jarring in their deformed neon brightness; and pretty much scream at you for attention as you rush by, shopping bags in hand.

And here’s Sakarin Krue On’s Six Dancers:

Never one to shrink from the challenge of an embarrassing public photograph, I jump in to lead the charge.

These sculptures depict women from another generation, showing a dance which was popular in the past, in Thailand. Sakarin hopes to show a contrast between the static works and their busy commercial surroundings. On the Skywalk, a sense of community is missing, having been replaced by individualistic endeavors in the bustling city-space. Sakarin too evokes Debord’s theory noting that “relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people.”

Closer to home, P and I attended the media launch for Art Stage Singapore 2017 this afternoon at Marina Bay Convention Centre. The key theme of next year’s event (running from 12 to 15 January 2017) is that of capitalism, and it’s entitled Net Present Value: Art, Capital, Futures.

Of the many items on the agenda for next year’s showing, this excellent South East Asia Forum commission jumped out at us – Vending Art by Ivan Lam.

Not your typical vending machine.

In the work, artists in and from Southeast Asia were invited to submit a single original artwork, in the size of a business card. For each artwork received, Lam will create a Perspex case carrying the artist’s name, which will then be placed in a fully operational vending machine located within the Art Stage fairground. The artworks will be priced affordably for actual vending. The project is meant to trigger questions on the commodification and consumption of art, the value of an artwork and an artist, and the dynamic multi-layered relationships amongst players within the art community.

The vending machine is such a great visual isn’t it?

It’s instantly accessible to viewers as a low-end mechanical tool which spits out generic products directly into the hands of buyers, without any need for fanfare or lengthy expositions by middlemen. And yet, there it is — located within a space mediated by one of the biggest high-end regional middlemen of them all –-Art Stage Singapore. There’s a humorous quality to the work which clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. If the sentiment in Bangkok is anything to go by, the work is also well- positioned within general thematic concerns that resonate in the Southeast Asian region.

If this is a taste of things to come, we do have high hopes for Art Stage next year.  (As an aside, we’ve also been told that the private collections of 6 Singapore collectors will be featured for the first time at Art Stage Singapore 2017, and we can’t wait to hear more about those details, once finalised). More official news about the event here.

Anyhow. I digress.

The next time you buy something cheap from a vending machine – take heart, it could just as well have been a piece of high falutin’ art. Because really, what makes your vending machine Snickers bar that much different from a fancy artwork? They’re both objects with a price and value assigned to them. Perhaps one just has fancier packaging than the other.

Or maybe not.

To mess with your head a little, here’s Kentaro Hiromi’s hyper-realistic Rubbish (2016) – presently exhibited at the Singapore Biennale 2016.

Kentaro Hiromi handpicks everyday objects discarded on the streets, which then form the basis of his works. Each piece is painstakingly replicated and subsequently placed within a museum as an “art object”. (No doubt special cordons are put in place to ensure that the works aren’t accidentally thrown away).

The moral of the story is clear – whether it’s art or rubbish, candy bar or Claude Monet, it’s always worth questioning the motivations behind a purchase. You certainly don’t need to be a French philosopher to understand if you’re being motivated by genuine preferences or by the need to project a particular image. And if all else fails? Just post your purchase up on Instagram, because you’re #blessed; and hey, #picsoritdidnthappen!

(Vending Art:  Image courtesy of the artist and Wei – Ling Gallery.)

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