You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred / Reviewed by Rebecca Sykes / 18.06.17
The images included in ‘You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred’ are arranged around broad generational groupings of artists based in North America and Germany, spanning from 1977 to the present day. The show’s stated ambition is to trace how artists have used the camera to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction, and begins with a familiar showcase of the poster girls and boys of the Pictures Generation (Cindy Sherman, Christopher Williams, Richard Prince), whose embrace of artifice and appropriation kick-started the repurposed commercial aesthetic so familiar today. Prince’s Untitled (four women looking in the same direction), 1977, shows four women with high cheekbones and glossy hair, locked together in a shared glance at something beyond the frame. It remains a powerful example of the seductive appeal of manufactured desire.
Another familiar sighting is Wolfgang Tillmans’s Berlin Installation 1995-2000, 2000, a 31-part installation of framed prints. The work, which includes an early self-portrait of the artist, remains as impressive as ever, but its inclusion, seen here trailing towards a corner of the back gallery, reads like an exercise in connect the dots, with Tillmans acting as a staging post in this walk-through of the Zabludowicz Collection’s crown jewels (all the work included in the exhibition is drawn exclusively from the gallery’s collection). The show does stage some neat generational dialogue: for example, Natalie Czech’s A hidden poem by Robert Lax, 2010, part of the artist’s Hidden Poems series that highlights ‘hidden’ modernist poems found in magazine and book pages, which are then themselves photographed and framed, is adjacent to Anne Collier’s photographs of magazine covers and record sleeves. Maybe it’s Czech’s use of an actual highlighter pen, but curatorial exercises such as this can, at times, feel perfunctory, like a lesson in the history of photography’s not-so-recent adoption of appropriation and digital manipulation.
One work that does use the techniques of pedagogy to great effect is Sara Cwynar’s Soft Film, 2016, a 16mm film on video, which shows items sourced from eBay and thrift stores obsessively arranged and re-arranged in composite shots that scroll seductively across the screen. The film’s exploration of the way objects can perform as ciphers for emotion and memory, especially those everyday objects that have become unloved and unused, only to spring back to life, like Woody and Buzz, with the click of an ‘Add to basket’, speaks strongly to the exhibition’s desire to blur past and present.
The ‘soft misogyny’ found in kitsch consumerism is flagged by repeated sightings of the film’s central motif, a salmon-pink velveteen jewellery box. The 1950s-pastel palette contributes to the film’s retro feel, which harks back to Cindy Sherman’s performance of feminine clichés inspired by Hollywood B movies from an earlier era; the grainy texture of Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #41, 1979, included here, offers something of a touchstone for Cwynar’s work and its preoccupation with recycled desire. While the script that accompanies Soft Film’s composite images, narrated by a floating male voice who describes how he can’t sleep because there’s just too much to look at – ‘Why would you make anything new when there is so much already?’ – prevents the work from offering any simple message about gender and consumerism.
The sight of hands repeatedly reaching into shot might seem to offer a welcome reminder of the human, in defiance of the brutal impersonality encouraged by consumer capitalism. But by drawing attention to the shape, colour and texture of the articles they handle, like the manicured hands of a shopping channel presenter, they work to mask the objects’ more substantial material composition.
Almost all the objects selected by Cwynar were made from plastics that took millions of years to form and will take hundreds of years to disappear. Our reluctance to think of the items we live with, and, perhaps, love, as existing outside a human timescale can mean we struggle to recognise that these cheap trinkets, a collection of American Presidential busts, for example, that topple over like bowling pins, will outlive us all. ‘You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred’, a phrase borrowed from a conversation between Jeff Wall and Lucas Blalock about the mystery of art, describes a scene of mastery and control. But just because we weren’t there to see it occur, doesn’t mean it never happened.
– reviewed by Rebecca Sykes
You Are Looking at Something That Never Occurred continues at Zabludowicz Collection, London, until 9 July 2017
176 Prince of Wales Road