Without photography, the free trade of goods developed by capitalism over the last 200 years – approximately the same age as photography – would be quite unthinkable. And in the era of online shopping, it can only become more important.
The Fétichismarchandise exhibition brings together three artists, Annette Kelm (born in 1975), Stephanie Kiwitt (born in 1972) and Ricarda Roggan (born in 1972), whose work examines – either partly or principally – the nature of the representation of the consumer goods the capitalist economy presents to those who have the power to buy them in exchange for money, which is nothing more than the value of their own time sold to an entrepreneur. At a time when one of the pioneers in the critique of the representation of merchandise, Christopher Williams, is being celebrated at MoMA (New York), we thought it an opportune moment to turn our attention to the following generation. The three invited artists, who live and work in Berlin, Brussels and Leipzig, are 20 years younger than the Californian artist. They cast a critical eye, each in their highly individual way, over the role assigned to photography in this battle for seduction, visibility and the showcasing of merchandise.
A single photograph positioned at the beginning of the exhibition takes us into the “wonderful” world of marketing: a photograph that has subsequently become famous, showing a disassembled VW Golf with all its components, photographed by Hans Hansen for the book Das Buchpublished on the occasion of Volkswagen’s 50th anniversary (from 1938 to 1988). In 2008 Annette Kelm produced a portrait of Hans Hansen in his garden in Hamburg and Ricarda Roggan inherited some equipment from his darkroom. This citation therefore takes the form of a tribute to him.
The term “fetishism” is generally used in relation to at least three fields. Setting aside that of anthropology, it is a notion central to the theories of Marx and Freud. Towards the end of the exhibition, on 12 and 13 February 2016, the CPG will host a symposium with Marxist and Freudian theorists to offer the public of Geneva a contemporary perspective on a concept that is over a hundred years old.
Although merchandise has only recently appeared in Stephanie Kiwitt’s work, we can see in this year’s Choco Choco series a logical progression in her search for the symptoms – often the worst – of our market societies. With Self Kassa (2010) this Brussels-based artist has turned her attention to the ultimate alienation of the employee/consumer: the checking out of purchases in supermarkets by the consumer himself, who thereby gives yet more of his own time already eaten into by the employer, and at the same time helps the retailer avoid the cost of wages. The CPG showed this series in its Open Frame exhibition in 2011 at the CRAC in Sète. Collaboration between the CPG and the artist dates back to the 50JPG 2006 with the Vor aller Augen exhibition, which displayed the work of the Meisterklasse students of Timm Rautert from the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts.
One of the most recent of Stephanie Kiwitt’s series, GYM, bears witness to the willing submission of the middle classes to machines that torture their bodies, driven by the constant fear of presenting an unattractive and not productive enough body to everyone’s view – from their life partner to their line manager at work. At a time when documentary work is increasingly running out of steam, Stephanie Kiwitt succeeds in making herself the chronicler of our daily alienations in the context of the capitalist organisation of our working and “leisure” time.
The Choco Choco series, which opens the Fétichismarchandise exhibition, is designed by the artist in such a way that the viewer sways between attraction and repulsion in relation to one of the most significant products in our addition to consumerism: chocolate. Filmed in a workshop that is halfway between artisanal and industrial production, this series concerns one of the substances most harmful to our health and most enticing to our palate, indeed to our entire neuro-economy. Chocolate is also among the products most directly connected to the colonial economy of previous centuries and, according to theorist Achille Mbembe, it was colonialism that preceded capitalism and provided it with a model. It is not without significance that it takes an artist born in Bonn and living in Brussels to examine the issue with the necessary coldness to dissolve the abiding myths of Swiss history: that the milk in Swiss chocolate comes from cows grazing in Alpine meadows and that “cocoa beans just fell from the sky!”
Annette Kelm’s world is a good deal bigger than what the CPG is able to show in the context of FÉTICHISMARCHANDISE. The artist’s world does, however, include the representation of certain commodities, sometimes to embody a contrast between high and low culture or to illustrate the history of a manufactured object which is already showing its age, or again to express possible narratives contained within the very object. The Kelm world also includes compositions of various subjects, portraits, (often of friends, including artist friends), landscapes and animals.
The photographs of a woman’s handbag in Lilac Clock Bag Buffalo Exchange from 2007, which do not appear in the exhibition, are an example in the Berlin artist’s body of work of the way in which she clearly distinguishes herself from the aesthetic of advertising, even if sometimes the “pack shot” look used in cheap catalogue shopping filters through her work, as it does in this series. The round handbag in glossy lilac has a clock built into one side, whose hands are never as they should be according to the aesthetics of advertising, i.e. precisely at 10.00 am. The minute hand is positioned in each of the four prints either just before or just after the most photogenic time – while the second hand is fixed at the 32nd second each time, unmoving, like the shoulder strap which remains in exactly the same position in each shot.
Not only does Annette Kelm tamper with the aesthetics of advertising, she broaches every possible genre to examine it and even to deconstruct the rules that fix it in place. The floral composition has grown in importance in her output in recent years, going as far as the decomposition of flowers or disfigurement of the genre through the introduction of magnets. In her 2007 Untitled series, for example, she seizes on the mass production of one of the flowers given most adulation in the northern part of the globe, the flower which delights the German lower middle classes and which sent Van Gogh into raptures: the sunflower. Photographed face on, in an “American shot”, the yellow contours with their brown Cyclops eye are all turned towards the spectator, which is also towards the sun (after the sun king, the sun spectator?). The four prints hanging side by side to form a single skyline seem at first glance to be identical, but there are slight differences, in the way in which this flower has, with each change, been made to look more like a commonplace industrially produced consumer product than a plant.
This work on similarity/dissimilarity in the series, introduced by Bernd and Hilla Becher among others, is closer to the work of Christopher Williams, without obeying the extremely strict rules the Californian artist imposed on himself in his critique of the representation of merchandise and does not negate its own nature as merchandise. More playful, with an extremely caustic humour, Annette Kelm goes beyond the strategy of Christopher Williams who never went so far as to show the price of the merchandise. Annette Kelm has reproduced full-scale the sign that makes a price attractive, the % sign. She stresses the nature of merchandise of the notice itself which has a production cost, whilst at the same time alluding with the % sign to the percentage that the worker has not received from the profit of production, which remains in the owner’s pocket. This gives the man or woman who has produced the commodity the same status, in the logic of economics, as the notice, i.e. that of merchandise, which, indirectly, also defines the owner of the promotional material business.
Untitled from 2009 pictures the reconstruction of an ancient frigate passing in front of an enormous container ship which does not fit inside the borders of the photograph. This photograph is among those works by Annette Kelm that forge links between different periods, between the true and the false, and serve as starting points for stories which each viewer is invited to imagine for themselves. Ricarda Roggan
Reproductions of commodities that show their age and present the viewer with signs of wear form a significant part of Ricarda Roggan’s body of work (the CPG exhibited her Attika series in 2006 during the Vor aller Augenexhibition which displayed the work of the Meisterklasse students of Timm Rautert from the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts). Two extracts from those series about merchandise either displaced or removed from the cycle of production/consumption/waste and elevated to a cult status close to the talisman or relic and entering the art economy are presented at Fétichismarchandise.
Solely by placing dusty old cars, sometimes covered with tarpaulins, partly wrecked by probable accidents, in images, the artist succeeds, through lighting and composition (the basic means of expression of photography) or through the positioning in space of the vehicle shells, in instilling in them an inhabited appearance. She almost gives them personality, a long way from the flashy bling of the latest models that assail us on advertising hoardings. These cars, in Ricarda Roggan’s lens, have more the features of things that belong to the archaeological record of future generations.
This Leipzig artist puts herself in the shoes of a scientist or even an anthropologist with her Apokryphen series. The small (30x38 cm) black and white silver gelatin photographic prints show objects taken from pencil factories, pipe makers, manufacturers of erasers and other materials used by writers, philosophers or composers. Ricarda Roggan has photographed in the most surprising museums, and always in the same way, things that were used by the “thinking heads” of this land of “Dichter und Denker” (poets and philosophers). The consistency of the environments/frames in which the manufactured items are placed creates a museum in the form of catalogues of all the pipes (Ernst Bloch), all the watches (Martin Heidegger) and all the pencils (Kurt Tucholsky) of Germany that inspired the pantheon of great minds across the Rhine. This merchandise removed from its usual cycle (production, sale, consumption, waste) is part of what constitutes what the market society sees as both its salvation and its totem: the museum, except that this is increasingly being made subject to the same laws!