Review of group exhibition, Supermart, curator Shiralee Saul
by Jeffrey Fereday
While the1980s bull market in international art may have created an air of urgency amongst bidders not unlike the gaggle of frantic activity surrounding a red-light special table at Kmart, I doubt there's a great deal to be gained from stretching the comparison much further. The deconstructionists have already cornered the niche market for mixing method with metaphor. Art and Text, Art and Supermarket – hell, I'm bored. Let's shop!
Initiated and developed as a curatorial project by artist Shiralee Saul and well-publicised as the newest brightest funnest media handle of the Next Wave youth arts festival's visual art program, SupermArt was an installation event involving more than 30 brand-name artists.
In a feat of either unrestrainable enthusiasm or sheer overdetermination, all imaginable aspects of the show reflected the thematic convergence of art market/supermarket, from the junk-mail format catalogue through to the mode of display and the choice of location itself - at Blaxland Gallery (within the Myer department store, Melbourne). The gallery space was shopfitted with temporary supermarket-style shelving upon which the artistic products were displayed beside each other in multiple, enabling gallery visitors to walk between aisles and handle the art works. Even so, the thematic construct was battling to overcome the gallery's spatial circumscription, and so far as supermarkets go, this one looked decidedly under-stocked – more like a new world Moscow department store than New World vista of commodified plenitude.
In this respect, SupermArt's equation of the art market with the supermarket is largely a fictive and literal construction, a metaphor rather than effective allegory, ranking parallel with such allusionary turns of phrase as 'the art world', 'the art game', 'the art lottery', and so forth. It's not to suggest that this elision is without points of comparitive interest but that, for whatever reasons, such collisions or collusions of cultural and commercial discourse were, in this instance, lines either temporarily unavailable or else overwhelmed by the directness of the context.
The considerable effort towards straddling the two realms was evident, not only between the dialectic trade of art market meets supermarket, but also in the schizophrenic spectacle of appropriate consumption. Should one buy this installation as a serious critical proposition or take it with the funky humour of an undergraduate theme show? Supermart's strategy constructed an engaging and entertaining product, and one which could possibly arouse some debate as to art in its cultural and functional commodity; to this extent the project's work within the parameters of Next Wave was successful. But what kind of product is engaged by such an approach? A critical art of entertainment, an art entertaining criticism of commodity, or an entertainment critical of art commodity? Certainly entertainment is attendant at the entry level of Supermart's curatorial intention to demystify contemporary art and make it accessible to a wider popular base within youth culture demographic.
It was also evident that artists involved in this show generally took one of two approaches – to use the curatorial construction as an opportunity to respond to aspects of cultural commodity and commodity culture, or simply as another chance to market their work. The latter participants do not involve my interest in this context, except that, strangely, their work comes closest to illustrating a notion of Art Supermarket: in a culture where context is everything, acritical work proliferates across the art market in dumb plenitude, just as here it stocks up the Supermart shelves without comment except for implicit claim to unique value as art. The manufacture of multiples achieved but a tangental, incidental criticality in the relations of cultural value; more strongly they demonstrated a categoric incomparibility of art's cottage-industry production with mass market commodity production.
Works which interested me more were those which attempted to wedge themselves critically into the curatorial context, or more precisely were situated there in critical relation to art-market/mass-market commodification.
For instance, Andrew Seward's designer range of flannelette lumberjack shirts, displayed somewhat forlornly on the bottom shelf, offered wry commentary upon the notion of artist as wearable brand name, and on the precepts of fashionable art production within geometric abstraction painting.
A point of some interest in both the art market and supermarket concerns the selection of products/artists to be included within each institution, what prominence is afforded in their display, what mechanisms operate behind the scenes to achieve the visiblity and exposure that is necessary for a particular product to emerge as a market leader. Peter Hennessey's GenUrine products (reproduction urines from the most famous men of 20thC art history) literally took the piss out of the art reference at this point, as did AAA's pseudo theoretically-informed card game, High Falutin. Each managed to express materially something that I hear in the phrase 'the art supermarket' as a distant grumble of undergraduate discontent.
However, there are limits to the appropriateness of the thematic elision of art market/ supermarket. There may well be nothing outside the market, nothing beyond commodification, yet the nature of art's commodity is particular. Art does not invite the public nor does it proliferate so literally, so directly, within the realm of the everyday commodity. Demonstrably, culturally, the art object is constructed as different, an object apart. In its estrangement from functional practicality, mass production and the realm of rapid consumption, the art object could be seen as model-metaphor for that which it is not – a representation of the object at large as it might exist beyond the touch of practicality or the broadcast of everyday consumption – object as ideal.
Mathew Jones' jumbo prophylactics bearing the text Resistance Is Useless brought commodification of the social agenda into the equation, while Shiralee Saul's Beuys Toys poked a fur-lined funnel into territory of art and gender politics. Susan Fereday's proliferative Last Painting tissue boxes worked multiple ironies – here one could dry postmodern tears with art's persistent claims to institutional totality. Helga Groves' Radiant Nocturnes were decorative light globes enclosed within small perspex box frames, evoking the impossible promises of art/commodity and both the substance and transparence of framing/packaging in containing unrealisable potential. Works with text by Elizabeth Newman, (Message: small blackboards with text the road was dark but the stars were bright chalked on), and Kate Daw (Voice: fragments of narrative texts), and Maureen Burns (The History of Trade – Chapter V: the words SELF PORTRAIT etched into stone in six languages) each took on the context with interesting points of inflexion.
I would question the validity of certain requirements of participation in this event. The first is the decision to allow the work to be handled by gallery visitors. This disruption of gallery convention places a tough order upon the construction and durability of the art made for this exhibition, not to mention delivering an unreasonable burden of economic risk upon the artist-producer (the gallery was contractually absolved from any responsibility for in-store breakage and theft). The kind of hands-on scrutiny which a product receives in a supermarket is seldom the result of enquiry upon its contents' materiality, but more often an interrogation of its claim to content or its representation of value, or even material assurance of its claim to transcendence. The singular unit of a supermarket product is not designed to be handled repeatedly on the shelf by each shopper who passes by; to demand that of a comparitively fragile art work would seem unreasonable.
In any case, more interesting grounds for comparison would be between the aesthetics of presentation and display which operate in both art and commercial realms' visual and textual codes. Naturally such work was attempted by various participants, but here the tautology of the supermarket-style display brought an expectedness with this that tended to obsure the work. I wonder whether a simple shelf around the gallery walls, or a single wall with shelving stacked top to bottom would have been more satisfying, more evocative, and more conducive to critical thought concerning art's commodity. Or perhaps simply the display of objects within the chosen replication of supermarket convention but without the facility to touch would have been sufficient, creating greater tension between the conventions of art consumption and supermarket consumer culture. In art, if not supermarket culture, sometimes less is more.
Ironically, by foregrounding the self-conscious display of the artistic product as commodity, SupermArt describes more accurately a situation in which the curatorial concept is itself commodified, packaged, traded. Art of serious intention can thus be included within the overriding structure of the show, and indeed the basis of its curatorial premise can be serious, but with its categoric investment in entertainment it would be difficult to see how such promise could avoid being deferred.
It appears that, more than ever, curatorial authority is indispensable. Perhaps this is a result of public uncertainty about contemporary art. Perhaps the apparent credibility of the authoritative presence of the curator is reassuring. Or perhaps, within the wider rationale of the investment class, the curator is the structural position which most closely approximates the executive function of the investors' corporate paradigm. As for the world of commodity, check out the spectacle and totalising ambience of a new shopping mall and you'll see what production values a show like SupermArt is stacked up against.
First published as ‘SupermArt', review of group exhibition, Agenda #24, July/August 1992, pp.24-25