A girl’s chanted refrain – ‘You’ll be taken down brick by brick by brick / Burn the orphanage’ – greeted visitors to ‘2000 Wasted Years’, the Bernadette Corporation retrospective at Artists Space (which will open at the ICA, London, on March 26). The music accompanies a trailer Bernadette Corporation made for their film Get Rid of Yourself (2003), about the G8 protests in 2001, but the promo’s explosions make it look like nothing so much as a Steven Seagal film. Still, looking at the images of violence and fashion in the gallery, I found myself nodding along to the bubble-gum metal as if it were a metaphor for the show: slick and hooky, and sometimes of questionable substance.
‘2000 Wasted Years’ collected work from the nearly two decades the group has been together, and, playing off the collective’s ‘corporate’ status, the space was decked out like a boutique with mannequins and Perspex vitrines. Videos of catwalk shows feature gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking models, and spreads from their style magazine, Made in USA, feature fashion and French theory. Silk scarves printed with scenes from the group’s history, some involving the once-famous model Devon Aoki, were displayed. Chrome bathroom fixtures from their 2010 installation ‘A Haven For The Soul’ were inscribed with statements from the Internet. The piece was based on the idea, the show explains, that gallery and bathroom are where we find purification and meaning, as if those spaces are where we collect the dispersed bits of our identity. The Internet quotes, though, are in response to explicit photos Rihanna texted of herself. And, it all just seemed, well, silly. Or stage-y. There were statements here about the ‘stripping bare of celebrity in cyberspace’, a phrase that sounds like someone crossed Jean Baudrillard with Marcel Duchamp. And, maybe that is the point, a sly reference to Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23) crossed with his Fountain (1917) via the bathroom fixtures and updated for our age.
Bernadette Corporation started almost as a fluke, while running a club night in New York in the early 1990s. This was an era of Sonic Youth and a new gallery on Ludlow Street dedicated to skateboarding. Raves and indie rock were crossing over. It was also a moment that now seems crucial to the art world. (Countless reviews of the 2012 Whitney Biennial described the once-derided 1993 installment as seminal, and the New Museum has just opened an exhibition dedicated to that year in New York.) Youth culture became big business, while Chloë Sevingy was still just a teen working in club-kid boutique Liquid Sky and not yet profiled in The New Yorker. Add to that moment the longing-to-be and do-and-matter of your early 20s, plus the fact that nothing can matter after being schooled in so much theory, and you get Bernadette Corporation.
They’d just graduated from universities such as Brown and Columbia and had absorbed well the ‘B’s: Barthes, Bataille and Baudrillard, believing in expenditure and waste and the death of the author and that nothing is real. Then there was the ‘A’, Louis Althusser, in whose worldview change – real revolutionary change – is impossible. From this, Bernadette Corporation created a manifesto in a French fashion magazine calling the avant-garde bankrupt and professing that corporations have more possibility for subversion. The manifesto’s title was ‘2000 Wasted Years’, also the name of the Artists Space retrospective, suggesting they might still believe this theory. But, because there was so little distance between the text-heavy panels quoting the group and the exhibition’s didactic text, it was hard to find much criticality, let alone a context for their work.
The show was spiked with aphorisms like: ‘Fashion is a stoical slave protected from history.’ Or, ‘being into fashion is a form of initiation.’ When Bernadette Corporation appropriated the G8 protests of the early 2000s, there was ‘Empire is everywhere. Nothing is happening.’ Of their 2011 videos of British kids happy-slapping (shot originally on mobile phones in the early 2000s), the group wrote that it ‘presents a street-level, potato-like type of engagement with the mediated body’, a phrase I can’t even begin to break down. Such inscrutability is really a dare, asking viewers to come to their own decisions, but it robs the work of a connection to larger ideas, while core member John Kelsey’s own art criticism is moving and smart, hardly laboured with ennui or impenetrability. Instead, this retrospective avoided any larger understanding of where the group fits into New York at the time or why fashion was exciting when other change seemed impossible. The why was always missing here.
After 9/11, Bernadette Corporation went through the same profound shock other New Yorkers felt. Fashion seemed irrelevant, and the collective moved closer to politics and protest, making Get Rid of Yourself, a film of the anarchist Black Bloc group at the G8 riots. In the movie, however, Sevigny speaks the protesters’ lines. The appropriation empties the original gestures of meaning like so much posturing. It’s protest as pop song or maybe a kind of teen angst provocation and, no doubt, alludes to how easy it is for artists to adopt a critical stance and change nothing because of art’s limited reach, not to mention the problem of rendering protest into commodity. It is, however, hard to know if this is what they meant given how much of the work is taken up with infinite irony. That constant circling back on itself also gives the work a parochial feel as if it’s meant only for those who can tease out the winks and nods.
In 2004, Bernadette Corporation produced a crowd-sourced novel, Reena Spaulings. With numerous anonymous writers, it’s about an affectless model and her misadventures in an apocalyptic New York. With little through-plot, the novel is a picaresque like that which De Sade deployed to show the failure of reason in the 18th century. Bernadette Corporation’s post-lit novel has evolved to ones that are simply culled from their online reviews. In a black Perspex box, you could read The Koran and Moby Dick comprised solely of readers’ comments, as if this is the teleological end of reader-response theory. Reena Spaulings, however, gave its name to the gallery which Kelsey co-runs. It may have started off as an in-joke as people called asking for Ms Spaulings, but it exhibits interesting work that is occasionally simply a provocation to the art world but more often engaging and compelling.
The retrospective left me craving some genuine gesture, someone to do something that isn’t simply clever. A line from Bernadette Corporation’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1945 essay collection The Crack-Up nails it: ‘I found parts confusing. Can you clarify.’ That could be my review.