“With the upheaval of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”
– Walter Benjamin, “Paris of the Nineteenth Century in Baudelaire”
In the Vancouver of today, everything adds up to the realization that artistic creation is rendered impossible under the auspices of state sponsorship and ruling class culture. On the balance sheet of recent artistic production, the empty pluralism of public art – ambiguous text-based works, gardening, light projections, and billboard images – is found siding with the medium of the culture industry. All established means in the arsenal of artistic creation, to paraphrase the words of Alain Badiou on “militant art,” are mobilized to sing the praises of conservative institutions, while artistic novelty is inscribed within the continuity of the state.
Recalling Plato’s famous expulsion of the lyric poets from his ideal city, one must note that such a declaration would be foreign to the contemporary mindset. On the contrary, our city seeks out a new monumentality: to become another type of utopian city with the task of sinking artistic novelty. When assessing the realm of public art in Vancouver today, one can distinguish between two types of monumental public sculpture: one that resuscitates iconic monumentality found from consumer culture, and another that constructs material monumentality from the legacies of abstract, non-representational sculpture.
The resuscitation of these two forms, presented for instance by the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale, confronts us with the false dialectic of today’s sculptural form. In one instance, there is the deployment of glossy materials in the empty satisfaction of commercial iconography. On the other hand, there is a reassertion of the refined and heroic materials of the industrial revolution that had grafted onto advanced sculpture in the inter and post-war period — chrome, steel or glass. Although the two forms have historically demanded two different types of object experience and reception, today these prerequisites and demands are no longer applicable.
Before studying these two modes, it is necessary to grasp that in the upheaval of redevelopment, traditional civic monuments are rendered too fixed and cease to function as legitimate means to represent the glories of the State. In such circumstances, public art leaps in to fill an empty role, drawing on the same impulse of previous monuments: to affirm the existing order of things in the absence of militant thought, class consciousness or political practice.
Abstraction in contemporary sculpture has been repositioned along these tendencies, surrendering to the abstractions of finance, with flowing volumetric formalism standing-in for an equally contentless metaphysics of capital flows. Deceptively attached to the ground by its weight, these sculptures conform to the touristic structure of the Bienniale. Ultimately they will be sold and removed from their temporary placement in Vancouver, returning to the global non-space from which they came. No longer posing any threat to the dominant regime of visibility, nor with any connection to the spaces in which it is situated, the only content of this sculptural abstraction is its list of corporate owners.
On the other hand, there is the exceptional enlargement of the size and scale of the cultural readymade. Here, the object of consumer culture either acquires the playful grandeur of Walt Disney wish-fulfillment, or becomes a dimension of ludic detachment from the object’s cause of fetishistic desire. Against the vestiges of art history, the inflation of the everyday object does not lead to some imaginary liberation from the object’s shackles. In this naive charade, the readymade ultimately affirms the rule of the commodity culture all the more. It is now concretized, situated everywhere, especially within those illusory spaces where the city seeks amnesty from the ubiquitous, proto-totalitarian nature of Gastown’s tourist platform. Almost a century removed from Duchamp, the readymade becomes less and less the challenge of object-relations and more the distinguished affirmation of the condominium’s total rule.
To push these two theses further, abstract and readymade monumental public works have become increasingly indistinguishable as the historical processes of massification and tourism continue to monetize every type of public experience and space is further rationalized into subdivided compartments. As upscaling becomes the new model for gentrification, micro-lofts become the new paradigm for luxury where size no longer matters. The iconic commodity-form and industrial space are already constantly juxtaposed as they are generalized into the built environment. The condominium is exemplary of being both an abstract articulation of space punctuated by chrome, steel and glass, as well as being a standardized, easily reproducible art form. Advanced art becomes severed from its errant path — that is, it becomes freed from the element that Plato expelled from the ideal city: Өεϊος φοβός or ‘divine terror,’ in which the artist seeks to produce a new world ex nihilio. Instead, state sponsored art yields to the disinterested spectator who transits placidly through the pre-formulated spaces of the city.
When Myfawny MacLeod evoked the “unending terror” of The Birds in her large scale South East False Creek sculpture, it is in the hope that her work would provoke the same response as Hitchcock’s unnerving film. MacLeod’s Birds tower over the setting as emblems of what she has called an “artifice of the natural.” Utilizing the quaint and common qualities of the domesticated house sparrow, MacLeod’s Birds are even more vulgar and lewd in their unnatural enlargement. Yet in the end MacLeod’s sculpture shares the same fate as their territory, the Athletes Village: both are drawn onto the same terrain of failure and broken promises. For one, the Athletes Village is positively not the bastion of sustainability and inclusivity as the City would like to boast. After many broken promises, it is just like every other parcel of land in Vancouver: an opportunity for real estate speculation handed over to the rich.
Sharing a similar fate to the Athletes Village, MacLeod’s Birds are not what she claims them to be (emblems of an “unending terror”) but rather the mirror image of such an emblem: a facsimile of terror. Punctuating the morbid silence that characterizes this absolutized space, one hears the muted play of well dressed children who use the sculptures as their personal jungle-gym, while their parents, in a gesture of distantiation, scoff and impatiently await the opening of Terra Breads. Although The Birds in their profanity attempt to intervene into the mobilization of nature by the state, they capitulate to the site and are converted into the uncompromising idols of false promises. In their celebratory monumentality, they can only mutely confirm and sanctify the processes which facilitated their creation. As such, MacLeod’s Birds unfortunately are reduced to a mere simulation, a collection of images glued together from Walt Disney’s and Marlin Perkins’ archive. Their inflated iconography, when made visible from the condo’s perspective, is certainly not the “return of the repressed” — the traumatic disruption of one’s social and psychic identity through the encounter with the uncanny — but rather comes to designate the sanitized global arena through which the propertied class alone can navigate.
In the same moment that public art comes to surrender to the commodity form, the city itself starts to resemble a museum — an “open air musuem” to quote the Vancouver Biennale website:
“The Vancouver Biennale is a biennial public art exhibition that brings sculptures, new media, and performance works by celebrated and emerging international artists to Vancouver area public parks, beaches and urban plazas, transforming the city into an open-air museum.”
As we have seen since Expo ’86, the format of the world exposition has been generalized throughout the city, a process exacerbated with the arrival of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city has become a massive Crystal Palace, where Marx in Capital first chronicled the specious characteristics of the commodity. The result of this transformation is a city that permanently positions itself as though it is on display, making its wares legible to international flows of capital. At this juncture, art is less and less an ambitious act of everyday life, or even an exceptional field of creation, but rather a substance subjected to bureaucratic supremacy, equal in content to the most banal forms of distraction.
Under the city’s “Mapping + Marking” project headed-off during the Cultural Olympiad, the museification of the city is produced on demand, seamlessly contained within the circuits of the commodity form. Two projects sponsored by the City are exemplary: Geoffrey Farmer’s Every Letter of the Alphabet (2010) and Paul Wong’s 5 (2010). As signaled by their titles — 5 refers to the five sense — both works claim to index every possible configuration of a domain, linguistic or sensorial. This encyclopedic space is conceived as co-extensive with the spaces of the city. Standing in his recently renovated space of 1875 Powell St, Farmer would posit one of his more uninspiring statements about his project:
“In my mind I am imagining that people might come here on the weekend, that they might say, oh lets go check out, ‘Every Letter of the Alphabet;’ then grab a coffee, and then go to value village, and then go up to the drive. That it could be a little expedition. I want the space to be an experience, that there’s something for them to look at, but also they could browse, and spend some time. That’s something we’re trying to create.”
The linguistic shuffling of signifiers that constitutes the piece proper is borrowed from the same process of recomposition that characterizes the recuperative economy, which, like the tax-exempt redevelopment of a heritage building, or the thrift store that Farmer mentions, remobilizes goods back into the economy for profit. Infused with parasitic inertia, art becomes a continuation of the capitalist dérive, where one moves from one high glass storefront to another. During the exhibition, Farmer’s “three word show” publicly solicited three word text pieces, later to be assembled and hand painted on wooden signs. In selective contexts, the anonymity and collaborative nature of the piece served to produced humorous, mind-bending responses. But the ambiguity and ironic distancing that generally determined works such as “I’m loving it”, “We Are Oh”, “Stalin was pleased”, “Red Green Blue” and so on, fail to add up. The potential for such collaborations is ultimately suffocated by the space’s discursive cacophony. In the absence of a semi-coherent narrative, a question smacks you in the face: what are the stakes of the project beyond a free-floating play of text and sign? How may it expand, develop, or challenge the state of text-based art in an era that all too easily poaches quotes from literature and popular culture, and simply regurgitates these fragments in the hope that an ironic, recontextualized presentation bubbles over?
Moving on an analogous terrain, Paul Wong’s 5 fits the movement of the state with the false aestheticization of the empirical world. 5 is framed as a supreme aesthetic experience of the city. Dictated by the variations of the five senses, Wong maintains that there is no difference between art and practical life. Yet Wong’s aesthetics of an administered life does not transform existence according to the ideals of truth and justice provided by a truly liberated sensation and collectivity, but rather guarantees the myth that the state has always-already realized the promise of a “good life” by assuring every sensual and aesthetic possibility in advance of our arrival. 5 is the faithful duplicate of spectacle’s “practical life,” slightly transforming its terrain solely at the level of an image. Under this rubric, it makes sense that part of Wong’s project takes the form of a tourist charter bus, entitled ZOOOOOM, that embarked on a moving audio/visual tour of Vancouver.
When the Modern State founds itself on producing the good life for its citizens, it increasingly requires the deployment of all established means to achieve this goal. When the city seeks out a new monumentality, art is deployed as a faithful appendage to a state apparatus that functions to neutralize all political conflict. This phenomena is presented most clearly by Hito Steyerl, who writes in e-flux (detourning Hans Ulrich-Obrist) that, “if contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how to make capitalism more beautiful.”