Narcissism thrives best in the provinces by defining itself against the dullness surrounding it, until it has to leave for the city for refinement and actual deployment – to generate value. Provence is a magazine Tobias Kaspar founded with Hannes Loichinger in 2009, its title redolent of plein-air painting, pastis and straw hats. It’s fitting, then, that it is conceived as an ‘eight-issue magazine dedicated to hobbies’, as is advertised in its subtitle. The magazine essentially pools fellow artists, curators, gallerists, writers and the less defined presences that cruise the art world. Their respective contributions – encompassing anything from pieces on travel, fashion, other artists, design, etc. – are in turn parasitically pasted into the layouts of existing publications such as Madame.
Provence thus also functions as an art object channelling the success story of contemporary art – from influential tastemaker all the way to the flexible, if not quite all-purpose, creator of surplus. This trajectory registers most ‘tangibly’ within the fashion industry, where Marc Jacobs’ recruitment of Takashi Murakami to ennoble Louis Vuitton bags with ‘art’ in 2002 marked a sort of precedent.
In dialogue – or in cahoots? – with this trend, Kaspar designed an A.P.C.-derived raw denim edition, (20122TK1JEANS, 2012), which he showcased in a ‘site-specific’ context in 2012 at the Andreas Murkudis store in Berlin. This initiative occupies a conceptual grey area, hovering as it does between an extra-institutional intervention and an economically sound move to carry current social capital over to, well, ‘raw goods’. (Tellingly the jeans can be ordered via mail order form in the back of his catalogue, Bodies in the Backdrop, published by Walther König in 2012). If Kaspar is in fact revisiting institutional critique, he does so not by interrogating the inner workings of the institution itself – the gallery, say – but by ensnaring the various spheres where this institution of contemporary art has attained unprecedented appeal. Kaspar’s own practice is enmeshed within lifestyle and fashion industries that both exploit and court contemporary art’s protagonists as a resource and target group.
At his recent show at Galerie Marcelle Alix in Paris (2012–3) Kaspar reworked hairpieces by Raf Simons – originally a discreet detail from the fashion designer’s 2010 spring/summer collection. Kaspar bleached these hairpieces back to a ‘natural’ palette of different shades of dirty blonde. Neatly laid out in rows of three, pinned onto a black fabric substrate and sealed under Plexiglas, they resembled preserved specimens of an anthropological collection (Blonde (fig 1 to 15), 2012). The corresponding fashion folk and their fetishes – pricey clothes – were further captured in a video projection documenting Simons’ respective runway show (Raf Simons, Spring Summer 2010, Friday June 26th, 2009 9.30pm at 9 rue Henri Barbusse, 75005 Paris, 2012). An accompanying monitor showed a recording of the decolourization process – the video’s low-grade look and humdrum flow evoking DIY styling tutorials on YouTube (Blonde (Making of), 2012).
Complementary to this, Kaspar depraves advertising’s standard mode of the product demo in the film Hydra Life (2013), recently shown at Silberkuppe in Berlin – the work’s title lifted from Dior’s eponymous face cream that is being tested. Here the film’s production value approximates that of high-end advertising: professionally shot on a RED camera in the black marble bathroom of an upscale Berlin hotel suite, an actor plays a less-perfect version of that flawless if somewhat prim Miss ‘Oil of Olay’. Suspensefully applying said cream in generous quantities on her neck, hands and sternum, the ‘model’ leaves it sitting on her face a tick too long. Long enough for this feminine, supposedly ultra-fast absorbing product, to start oozing vulgarity. The film’s exaggerated sensuousness is of the extra-dry variety, one that drains luxury skincare’s chief allure of perennial sweet youth. It’s a Zen-like meditation on the cult of beauty during the course of which investment in this select commodity appears increasingly absurd, triggered by a perfect subversion of its generic mise-en-scène.
Formats like these, and their equally skin-deep content, provide the matrix for Kaspar’s détournements of trendsetting consumer culture. He’s not only astute at pinpointing the trivial signifiers of ‘now-’ and ‘it’-ness. He zooms in, de-accelerates and anatomizes them, not so much by appropriating the industry’s images, to which art no doubt contributes, but by borrowing from the arsenal of strategies devised to produce and disseminate their fantastic pull.