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Fear of things

September 17, 2012

My column in September’s ArtReview magazine. Read the entire issue for free at www.artreviewdigital.com

“Do you remember things? Actual things? And you could touch them, couldn’t you, remember? The physical world, I’m talking about — remember it, older people? Matter? The older people, they remember… actual matter. Remember? Things? And it was all real and it all existed, yeah? Not like now.”

I’m watching the brilliant British standup Stewart Lee on YouTube, in a show from his Comedy Vehicle series, in a skit in which he satirises the voguish discussions of how virtualised, digital culture is making material objects – like paper letters and vinyl records – redundant. (“For the younger people, a ‘record’ was like a giant, flat MP3, right?”) Around the same time, I’m reading an interview with much-feted international artist Tino Sehgal on the Guardian website. Sehgal doesn’t seem to like things very much:’Our culture is hung up on and overemphasises what can be derived from material objects,’ Sehgal muses.

It’s been bothering me for a while, this growing cultural animosity towards things. It seems to run alongside an equally creeping fascination with the supposedly dwindling experience of materiality, brought on by the expansion of networked, digital image culture. In the British art scene, for example, it’s hard to avoid the chorus of high-definition video works in which one finds digital or CGI renderings of three-dimensional objects and not to note the extremes to which these animations go in their struggle to emphasise the materiality of these immaterial visions – which for some reason are always revolving. Revolving things are everywhere: there they are in Turner Prize-nominee Elizabeth Price’s User Group Disco (2009) or in works by younger video artists such as Benedict Drew or Ed Atkins. Maybe one finds the roots of this in the ubiquitous lo-fi artefact of the revolving Internet GIF animation, or perhaps it goes back to a video like Mark Leckey’s Made in ‘Eaven (2004), with its eternally revolving CGI rendition of Jeff Koons’s mirror-polished Rabbit (1986).

While I’m writing this, a banner ad at the foot of the Sehgal interview is offering me an infinitely revolving animated carousel of different shoes – for the well-off Guardian reader to purchase once she’s stopped reading Sehgal bitching about things. This, of course, is the underlying tension attending things today: their status as commodities, as representatives of the supposed evil that is ‘consumer culture’, means that objects carry with them the vague sense that they are somehow unethical, politically incorrect. There are just too many things in the world, right?

And over in the artworld, art things are tainted by their association with the big bad art market, having become, as Koons’s Rabbit gleefully anticipated, apparently nothing more than fetish-objects for the idle wealth of the ultrarich: vehicles for financial bubble-blowing – build your private foundation, fill it with things.

Which partly explains the artworld’s unease at being a place mostly based on the circulation of things, and why performance art like Sehgal’s, with its pedantic stipulations about not leaving behind any material traces – photographs, paper contracts and so on – seems so appropriate at the moment. The feeling of fatigue one now often finds in discussions of the art object comes from this ambivalence about things – consumer goods and luxury art objects both appear as something excessive and undeserved, so while we need things, we end up trying to be blind to them. As Sehgal opines, ‘I’m not against material things – I just don’t work with them.’ Things are an embarrassment.

Back in the 1990s, the American critic Dave Hickey wrote that the emergence of immaterial or conceptual art ‘arose in the mid sixties as a strategic reaction to a commercial reality: all the walls were full!’ Conceptual art was a reaction against the ‘overproduction’ of things. So in the artworld of noncommercial kunsthalles, there’s something of a sense of 197os-retro, with art museums falling over themselves to re-present first-generation dematerialised art practice and performance artists.

What’s creepy about this second wave of thing-hating is that it’s happening in the midst of a neverending economic recession, which, by definition, is the socially corrosive breakdown in the production of things. But such is the current cultural distaste for material stuff, it’s as if this is of no consequence. As Sehgal disdainfully observes, ‘Over the past 200 or 300 years… life has become about accumulating material wealth. The 21st century is not about accumulating material wealth like the 20th century.’

And off Sehgal floats, on a gust of dematerialised, postindustrial rhetoric, studiously ignoring all the things that need to be produced just to enable him to talk them down. Meanwhile, elsewhere, things bubble up in art, like a guilty conscience, in the intangible, weightless world of digital culture. Things, eh? Who needs them?

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