The disparity between what is said about an artwork and its physical reality is often remarked upon in casual conversation, but seldom becomes a site of serious contention. As Dominic Eichler observed in the last issue of frieze, ‘references are now more than ever used as material like lumps of clay to a potter’. Historical or pop-cultural reference points are flagged-up not just in order to construct meaning but, by reflecting already validated precedents, to establish an artwork’s own position within the canon. You know the kind of tactic I’m referring to: a vaguely geometric sculpture that is, supposedly, the same size as Gerrit Rietveld’s head and painted the colour of the cover of Joy Division’s second album. Such work only functions in the space between its physical form and the language used to describe it. Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda understand that this space – one of tacit social agreement – is increasingly one in which the cultural capital of an artist goes boom or bust.
Their exhibition ‘Hardy Boys and Gilmore Girls’ comprised three elements. Scattered the length of the gallery floor were a dozen or so slabs of fiberglass insulation matting and at the far end of it hung a drawing on tan-coloured paper depicting the interior of what appeared to be an unfurnished Modernist chapel. Two speakers suspended from the ceiling played a recording of a woman narrating the early life of luxury good’s designer Louis Vuitton, which was recounted in language that could be straight out of the company’s own promotional literature. This rags-to-riches tale is thick with gooey pathos and sugary platitudes about how Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy’s (LVMH) work supporting the arts is ‘inscribed under the sign of creative passion, and profound love of human values’. The narrator speaks in English but with a distinct French accent, as if to suggest she could be an employee in LVMH’s international PR department. The drawing was of both the inside of a bag and a Modernist building: it is a proposal for an auditorium based on the interior of a Vuitton ‘Alma’ bag, enlarged by a factor of 25.
The biography functioned as an example of a creation myth, the kind of back-story that generates auras of value around a product. Although it was not entirely clear what the point of the fiberglass matting was, a basic reading could be that its juxtaposition with the ‘idea’ of LVMH conjured by the woman’s voice demonstrated the disjunct between that which is said of something – how a luxury good (be it art or handbags) is defined by language – and the reality of what something is; the blunt materiality of lumps of fiberglass, for instance. Or stitched leather.
In its formal obduracy – the rough, low-grade fiberglass, the just-so off-centre hang of the drawing, battered hi-fi speakers suspended from the ceiling, the enigmatic allusion to Nancy Drew’s teen novels in the title – the exhibition was certainly subtle, yet also achingly familiar in the oblique vernacular it used. According to the exhibition press release, the show reflected Chung and Maeda’s views that ‘in a neoliberal economy in which a proliferation of freelance professionals need to secure their economy on a continuous basis, the visibility and representation of labour has become significant capital’. A fair enough statement given the way in which they used Vuitton’s life story in order to explore the mechanics of allure behind high-end cultural product. In light of this, the preposterously hyperbolic assertion that the artists have also ‘successfully established clandestine ways to take on board the aesthetic responsibility of Conceptual Art and challenge bourgeois notions of classification, private labour and style’ made the project doubly intriguing. Was it a subtle indication that Chung and Maeda – known for making work that exists in a zone at some remove from straightforward exhibition-making – were presenting a project that functioned not just in the interplay between objects in the gallery, but also in the language used to ascribe value to their own creative labour?
A clue could be found in a piece the artists contributed to Starship magazine, available to read on the gallery information shelf. In it, they argue that ‘the reason why the press release has become a center of attention goes beyond the fact that it establishes credibility, but that a work’s significance relies less and less on concrete images or indexes found in the work itself, and more on a declarative statement […] As an analogy, you could say that the impact of an insult doesn’t depend on its reference to the world. If someone says “You are an asshole”, you are not insulted because of the statement’s literal meaning. Insults are interesting because name-calling does not rely on language’s consistency with the world to which it refers; the impact of the insult has not to do with reference, but with the experience of language itself.’ The experience of art, Chung and Maeda suggest, is not necessarily consistent with the language used to describe it. But if in essence this means we are dealing with the primacy of semantics over materiality then why bother with the art part in the first place? All that is solid melts into PR.