In their various activities and guises, Bernadette Corporation are preoccupied with the ways in which personal identity is compromised, either voluntarily through an artist’s desire for public recognition, or unwittingly, through the appropriation of art by corporate culture. Their own identities, and those of their subjects, are constantly moving targets. In 2004, they published Reena Spaulings, a novel written by a committee of collaborators, and they have exhibited photographs of androgynous models – with their interchangeable faces – alongside a long lyric poem, arguably the essential art form of undiluted subjectivity (The Complete Poem, 2009). Is this a self-reflexive game? A token gesture of resistance that has already been assimilated by the system it intends to outwit?
Satirically resisting the domestication of their work, in their most recent exhibition, ‘A Haven for the Soul’, Bernadette Corporation accentuated the plush minimalism of Galerie Neu’s space. Chrome bathroom fittings – taps, handles, jets and shower heads – in the sleek designs found in upmarket homes, were built into the walls or displayed on plinths and shelves. Each was monogrammed ‘BC’, and engraved with anonymous comments culled from the Internet in response to a series of leaked nude mobile-phone photographs of the pop star Rihanna. The steel and platinum fittings transform the gallery into a Ballardian cell with an air of high-tech entropy: three ‘infrared basin mixers’ emerge from a wooden panel lying askew on the floor (sexy as fk [Trébuchet], 2010) while plumbing pipes issue from a tap laid on a shelf, like a robot arm with its nerve ends spilling out (go girl, Media Hot and Cold, 2010). The fittings are pitched as commodities, reducing the gallery they occupy to a showroom of luxury household goods, but the reflecting chrome surfaces of these tools of self-ablution also function as mirrors, recalling the traditional vanitas image.
Bernadette Corporation interrogate the way self-image is distorted and distended into media images – how monologue morphs into collective babble. Hardback books of collections of Internet chatter were arranged on shelves, each titled after a classic text, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1956), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay ‘The Crack-Up’ (1945). Self-published by the artists, they could be described as examples of ‘vanity publishing’. The comments on Rihanna are illiterate and puerile, rendered in the language of blogging, with its conventional abbreviations (‘LOL’, ‘OMG’, etc.). They are also dirty in both senses of the word, scatological and prurient: ‘(12–May–2009) I want to see her shit in my face.’ The gallery was cast as a cleansing anteroom, a metaphor for what a white cube can do for an art work: sanctify and assign pedigree while cleansing it of its murky studio auras and scents and priming it for sale.
In The Earth’s Tarry Dreams of Insurrection Against the Sun (2010), two upended television monitors leaning against each other showed black smoke – real dirt – billowing into the sky, news footage of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, and across the show, Bernadette Corporation drew their correspondences too neatly: plumbing accessories in conjunction with a plumbing disaster (one definition of the spill); hygiene against pollution; vanity engendering vanitas; authorial identity subverted by self-image-buffing products; polished steel sullied by expletives printed on its underside (another pun). Look how readily the notion of ‘luxury household goods’ presents itself as a reductive definition of art objects. A weakness for glib binaries is a sign of sentimentality, however knowingly it is indulged. Bernadette Corporation may be vigilant in their wish to avoid becoming the dupes of culture industry consumption, but their work is coercively submissive to interpretation. They play hard to get while leaving all their knots easy to unravel.
Only the pervading tone of comic absurdity relieved this coyly didactic note. Two plinths were placed in the dead centre of the space, each occupied by the same elegantly curved tap, but facing in opposite directions, as though they were engaged in a moronic dialogue that their inscriptions were translating for us (Oh snizzap!!!, 2010, and TOOTED IN THE AIR, 2010). Martin Amis said of John Self, the uncouth and uncontrollable protagonist of his comic novel, Money (1984) – a caricature of pop-cultural excess – that he is the face we see in the mirror when we lock the bathroom door behind us. Money heralded the burgeoning era of international celebrity culture; its lurid Postmodern promiscuity masks a deeply moral novel. The title of this exhibition, ‘A Haven for the Soul’, suggests Victorian-era religious values. Despite the obvious irony, the title is apt. This was a moralistic show, an old-fashioned elegy to transience, populated by desperate, disembodied voices crying out of some location-less wilderness in the digital ether. A hymn to lost subjectivity, it is a bathroom mirror in which nobody ever appears.