Plastic Vanitas of the Consumer Cult
Mariele Neudecker: Plastic Vanitas
January 15, 2016 to Sunday, March 27, 2016
The Nunnery, 181 Bow Road, London E3 2SJ
Roland Barthes once said that plastic is more a movement of shapes than a substance; as he put it, ‘plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation’. Plastic therefore is more a form than a substance. For the first time in history we have been able to separate – not just in the imagination, but in the real world – substance from form. Plastic can be shaped into numerous forms and can be of many colours. A plastic spoon can be red or blue; something unheard of in generations before. An apricot has always been yellow. Being yellow was assumed to be a fixed quality of apricots. Blue apricots could only have been imagined. Plastic changed that logic, and before that, industrial paints to some extent. That is why Barthes called plastic a ‘miraculous substance’ – ‘A miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature.’ The same substance, the same polymer, can be shaped into a bucket or jewels just as well, Barthes asserts.
Plastic imitates. It is a miracle substance, but its magical quality subsides to become prosaic by the very fact of its reproducibility. Plastic objects are usually imitations of previously non-plastic objects: cups, plates, fabric, bottles, chairs, etc. It is hard to think of something that has been originally created in plastic. Lego blocks may be a good example, but Lego blocks are also more form than substance. They come in every colour, and they can form any shape. On their own, Lego blocks have no character, just like plastic objects. This plastic cup is exactly the same as another cup from the bundle. A plastic object in a way, is a simulacrum as it refers to nothing. This is much like a computer-generated image, a pure simulacrum.
As Walter Benjamin famously said, what is shrinking in the age of mechanical reproduction is the ‘aura’ of the work of art. After the invention of photography, the world of art suffered a crisis that changed and reshaped the very meaning of art. Now the work of art is made mostly to be seen, either in its original form or through its numerous copies. In ancient times, there were pictures or objects with magical or religious purpose that were not intended to be seen by everyone. Photography and its capability of mass reproduction changed this. Still when it comes to copies of a work or art, let say a Venus sculpture, or a person’s portrait, there is still some kind of aura around the original object; this aura originated from its uniqueness. People understand this aura and that is why despite millions of copies of the Mona Lisa, people still queue to see the original, as if it radiates a magical energy that can be absorbed by the viewer.
In other forms of photography, let’s say documentaries or landscapes, there is still a reference to the original object, or as it is said, an ‘indexical’ reference. This however diminishes in digital photography. There is no physical film with a photochemical trace of the reality. Now when it comes to taking digital pictures of plastic objects, we are in the realm of pure simulacra.
Walter Benjamin recognises two points of emphasis in relation to receiving and appreciating works of art; cultic value and display value. When he speaks about cultic value he speaks about works of art in traditional contexts, i.e. works of art in religious rituals and acts of worship. In this context, the aura of a work of art is linked to a ritual. He then argues that today, in contrast to primitive times, the display value is more important than the cultic value. This is obviously the case for photography, as ‘in photography, display value starts to drive cultic value back along the whole line’.
Now in the case of Mariele Neudecker’s works in the Nunnery Galley, Plastic Vanitas, how do they show any display value? They display of course plastic objects, but what is the value or the purpose of that? As we have seen, there is no originality in plastic products, i.e. there is no unique object in it. Besides, the plastic object itself is as reproducible as its photograph. In terms of Neudecker’s pictures, the collection of objects in every image are cheaper, more accessible, and even more reproducible than their images hung in a gallery. So what is the source of value here? It seems to me, by being faithful to Walter Benjamin’s dichotomy of cultic and display value, Plastic Vanitas possesses some kind of cultic value. They tend to give value to plastic, a material that has become synonymous with superficiality, artificialness, cheapness and insincerity. They tend to do this with an even more superficial and available-to-everyone medium of digital photography as well as digital print.
Plastic itself is intrinsically linked to consumerism. Plastic is something primarily made to be consumed. So it is apt to call them primary objects in the rituals of consumerism as Alison Clarke shows in her book Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In her book, Clarke shows that Tupperware as both commodity and business model has affected American popular culture as well as domestic life. The Tupperware business model was formed around the idea of the ‘Tupperware Home Party’ that resembles a domestic religious convention or ritual. Similar to the practice adopted by Avon Cosmetics, housewives would sell Tupperware plastic objects in house parties. Clarke also shows the link with a more general trend in the United States toward evangelical Christianity, which would employ the same idea of house parties.
Now here we are in front of Plastic Vanitas, with its obvious link to the Vanitas, the Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 16th and the 17th century with the Protestant moral values they tend to convey. Now does Mariele Neudecker’s works not show us the emptiness and brevity of the postmodern consumerist life? Do they not get their cultic value from this moral value? Or are they themselves in an ironic way empty and superficial objects, referring to yet other superficial objects, i.e. a twice empty simulacrum; digital pictures of plastic objects? Are they not a series of works that gain their value from being presented inside the frame of an art gallery? Are they not yet other commodities in the age of the digital commodification of everything?
Whatever they are, it seems that they provoke all those questions not by representation, but through their way of being. This is where, despite their kitsch and postmodern presence, Neudecker’s works are faithful to modernism. Perhaps this is what makes her works resonate with Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ where the process of industrial mass production, not products themselves, was a paradoxical parody of American industrial society.
BARTHES, R., & LAVERS, A. (1973). Mythologies. London, Paladin Books.
Garber, M., 2000. Fine Art for 39 Cents. Review of Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America by Clarke, A. London Review of Books vol. 22 no. 8 pp. 26-27.