Capitalizing on the Spectacle: Virgil Abloh's 'Figures of Speech'

Virgil Abloh’s ‘Figures of Speech’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is an exhibit that mixes art with fashion, but most of all, it appears to critique, investigate, and subvert commodity fetishism, while using the same language. Abloh is the creative director for Louis Vutton, but his career includes launching ‘Off-White,’ a brand that wraps into it fashion, homeware, and luxury items. No clothing items sell for under $1000. This statement appears on its ‘about’ page: “a fashion label rooted in current culture at a taste-level particular to now. With a specific opinion and not necessarily same with vision seasonal men's and women's collections are offered.There is a product offering of the brand also in the realm of furniture and ready made goods to further reinforce an approach to lifestyle” (about page). This verbal ambiguity about what ‘Off-White’ represents carries over into the artwork that Abloh produces. Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle predicts this type of art, and Abloh is a prime example. 

Society of the Spectacle talks about the condition of a late-capitalist society in which exchange-value has become more important that use-value. Not only that, in such a society, we feel we need items merely because of the appearances those items give us. As a case in point, a major component of Abloh’s first fashion label, Pyrex, is simply appropriating Ralph Lauren Flannel Shirts, painting ‘Pyrex’ on them and the number 23 - an homage to Michael Jordan - and reselling them for $550. If Abloh did not collaborate with Kanye West, this behaviour might be criminal. However, the MCA Chicago proudly displays these knock-offs as “genre-bending” and the chief curator assures us that “[h]is projects have unfurled with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, cultural sensitivity, and rigor, and when taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.” So, I will examine this claim, while drawing on the theory of Society of the Spectacle and The contemporary Cargo Artist as Cargo Cultist by Hal Foster as a grounding framework within which to consider the work of Abloh and other artists who blur the line between high-end designer culture and critical work. 

Abloh’s installations unconsciously build upon the history of ready-mades, Conceptual Art, and the unification of art with commodity by artists such as Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Jon Kessler, and Barbara Kruger. According to Foster, all of these artists deal with commodity-signs by breaking down the distinction between art and commodity. The essence of this is: everything in culture has an arbitrary value (Marx’s sign value). And where does this value come from? It’s assigned by those designing the commodities and reinforced by the consumers. In Debord’s conception, this value goes beyond Marx’s idea of exchange value. The value is conflated with a certain look, a certain style, a brand -- and this conflation produces the society of the spectacle. One of Debord’s definitions of the spectacle is “an identification of all human social life with appearances” (9). This includes art spaces.

Abloh is actually aware of how art has been coopted by the spectacle and he capitalizes on this in ‘Figures of Speech.’ In a video interview released by the MCA, he states: “The crescendo is after a lifetime of learning, and sort of the push and pull of how pop culture dictates taste, is I’ve been identifying with the power of advertising, how that, at its essence, is what drives culture, it drives taste, it drives decisions, it drives everything from an election to what you’d have for lunch...a lot of my fine art is about demystifying and communicating again, to a tourist and a purist, these powerful loaded images are in some ways more impactful to society than ‘art’.” He’s right. However, impact on society and critical depth are not the same. Artists such as Barbara Kruger subvert the fetishization and control of the female body by mainly male-run advertisers through feminist messages inserted over the images. In this sense, she also capitalizes on our worship of appearances to capture attention, but then she exposes the hidden misogynistic messages contained within the images. Abloh’s fine art appears to share the same strategy of subverting advertising. His piece, You’re Obviously in the Wrong Places, also uses text, a neon sign, and image, four statues of adolescent black males cast in all-white. In a similar way to Kruger, he’s exposing the hidden message communicated to him by the white world of high fashion. Unlike Kruger, however, who has a clear feminist ideology underpinning all her work, Abloh’s art only dabbles in making political statements. “Figures of Speech” for Abloh, is a way for him to expand his consumer-base. In fact, the MCA opened a pop up store, aptly named “Church and State”, to sell Abloh’s products. Because of the multi-disciplinary aspect of the show, “Figures of Speech” benefits the MCA by drawing people from across the visual arts, architecture, fashion, music, graphic design, etc. The exhibit is a retrospective of all of Abloh’s creative endeavors, from being the creative director at Donda, Kanye West’s industry, art directing Jay Z and West’s album Watch the Thone, creating his experiment brand Pyrex, launching Off-White in 2013, and becoming the creative director of Louis Vutton in 2018. Hence, the end goal of the exhibit is to create greater hype around Abloh’s name by earning him credibility with high-society museum-goers who might otherwise sneer at his streetwear. 

I don’t dislike all of Abloh’s fine art. Some are thought-provoking; like his piece ‘Options,’ in which he (or a team working for him) arranged 16 yellow evidence-markers, which reference the 16 shots fired into the black Chicago teenager Lacquan McDonald. The question with this work becomes: can it have an impact in the midst of an exhibit designed merely to scratch the back of one of the biggest cultural producers in our current moment? This is also Debord’s question. Can a real political statement be appreciated in the midst of (and in this case, with the material of) fetishized commodities? Debord argues that even revolutionary or anti-imperialist propositions are coopted because they can be turned into the spectacle itself. I can take a picture of those evidence markers and share it on instagram, and instantly its message is not only diffused, but hijacked to communicate something about me. Not only that, its being surrounded by fashion-wear and other items from Virgil’s brands dilutes its power because it becomes part of the consumable brand. 

While I appreciate some of the things Abloh is attempting to communicate through his installation, ‘Figures of Speech’ becomes merely that, a series of ‘figures of speech’ rather than an integrated show that carries real ideational or relational power. Even if it did cohere around a series of powerful concepts, its drained of its power because it situates every meaningful attempt to pull back the curtain on ‘real life’ within the name-brand of Virgil Abloh. Abloh himself is the real subject of the exhibition. All the objects in the exhibit are there to increase his publicity and to support his creative direction. This is what Debord calls the personalization of advertising. Brands derive their legitimacy from association with celebrities. It’s the same reason we see Abloh running across the runways at his fashion shows. His name, his god-like presence, is the sign value that makes this exhibition, like his other creative endeavors, marketable. And that is the case regardless of the quality of either his fashion design or his fine art. 



Works Cited

Virgil Abloh’s Pyrex Vision Brand is Still Alive, Leach, https://www.highsnobiety.com/2017/06/22/virgil-abloh-pyrex-vision-original/#slide-7

https://www.off---white.com/en/US/women/t/seasons/fw-2019

A Brief History of Virgil Abloh’s Meteoric Rise, Yotka, https://www.vogue.com/article/virgil-abloh-biography-career-timeline?verso=true

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2y11ZJf7pK

Virgil Abloh's "Figures of Speech" Exhibition Gets a One Week Extension (UPDATE), Estiler

https://hypebeast.com/2019/6/virgil-abloh-figures-of-speech-mca-chicago-exhibition-recap

https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2019/Virgil-Abloh

Figures of Speech: With His 1st Museum Exhibition, Virgil Abloh Says 'I Was Speaking About Race the Whole Time’, Kai

https://theglowup.theroot.com/figures-of-speech-with-his-1st-museum-exhibition-virg-1835357717

https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/barbara-kruger-798.php

Foster, Hal, “The Contemporary Artist As Cargo Cultist,” Alain Bois, Endgame: reference and simulation in recent American painting and sculpture, Institute of Contemporary Art, 1986

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967

Andrew ManningComment
When They See Us

Police brutality. We throw around that phrase but have very different beliefs about where the problem comes from.

I was driving home from work recently and on the radio was listening to how the Phoenix police force threatened a family, including a pregnant mother with two young children for shoplifting from a dollar store. The video has gone viral. The family is suing the Phx Dept. for $10 million. The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=298&v=w3EZIth8koI. While they did hold a public hearing after the incident, the man being interviewed on the radio, whose official positions I didn’t catch, but who has been part of the PD for years, called ALL the officers involved in the incident ‘a few bad apples.’ For more on that, and other incidents involving Phoenix police, see this article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/06/27/this-city-led-us-police-shootings-last-year-after-viral-video-tensions-are-boiling-over/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6ad29bc53388.

A few salient points from the article,

1) “The shooting surge in Phoenix — police fired their weapons 44 times last year, well above the average of 21 shootings per year during the previous decade — disproportionately affected black residents. They make up 7 percent of the city’s population, but represented 20 percent of those shot by police in 2018.”

2) “Advocates say their calls for reforms in recent years have not been heeded, including the creation of a civilian review board to oversee police misconduct issues and improvement of department diversity. About 72 percent of the department is white in a city where white residents make up 43 percent of the population. Only 20 percent of officers are Latino, compared to 42 percent of residents, according to census data.”

3) “Daniel Garcia, who served as Phoenix police chief from 2012 to 2014, said he tried to focus on disciplinary procedures during his tenure but struggled with the police union, which organized a no-confidence vote against him. The five-person disciplinary review board, which is appointed by the City Council, routinely overturned his decision to fire or discipline officers, he said.”

What emerges is an institution that is disproportionate ethnically, in which there are little to no repercussions for misuse of the badge, and in which a police union protects officers from disciplinary measures. This does not mean there are no good officers. The rollout of the body camera program is hopeful, but since it is so limited in distribution, not a significant check on brutality.

So what actually qualifies police brutality? There’s a legal definition of ‘excessive use of force’ as that that goes beyond what’s necessary and proportionate to defuse the situation. In the video above, the bystanders with the cameras seem to know that better than the cops. Instead of defusing, the officers escalate. However, the terms are hazy. An officer only needs to have probable cause to believe that someone is posing a physical threat to the officer or others. That can be reaching for something in the passenger seat. This is one reason why officers are protected. They can claim they sensed a threatening movement/gesture. We see this over and over again. But there’s also something called ‘qualified immunity’ that protects an officer from being sued if the courts determine that they were not violating a clearly established constitutional right such as the right to remain silent.

On excessive force definitions: https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/excessive-force-and-police-brutality.html.

On why police are prosecuted and incarcerated at very low rates compared with the rest of the population:https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/8/13/17938234/police-shootings-killings-prosecutions-court.

This leads me to what has led me to investigate some of this: I was needlessly stopped by police a few weeks ago while parked outside of a gas station. It was clear there was either a crime or some sort of illegal activity going on at the station because there were multiple squad cars parked and a few parking spaces were sectioned off with police tape. The officer asked to see my license and car insurance. I showed him my license but was having trouble finding my insurance, at which point he called to another officer “Come over here and bring the car!.” It’s what they would do in preparation for making an arrest. He then asked me if I had any weapons in the car, and then pointed to a mason jar I keep spare change in and asked: “What’s in there? Do you have any drugs?” I answered “No". I could have not answered any of these questions according to my 5th amendment right, but I figured it would be easier to comply and get me home faster. The other officer made it over to my car and they both turned on flashlights and shined them through the windows, clearly looking for something. This too is illegal unless they have probable cause. Being parked outside a gas station where there is criminal activity is not probable cause.

I related this story because elements of it are connected to the show ‘When They See Us’, which is the story of the wrongful conviction of five black and latino teenage boys in assault and rape of Trisha Miley. That case happened in 1989 in New York City, a hub of gang and criminal activity, but because recent incidents parallel what happened then, it’s important to look at the origin of the U.S. police force.

This article does a good job of laying it out https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/. What’s clear is that a metropolitan modern day police department did not exist until 1829, and the U.S. was the first country to institute one. Since its origin, it has gone through various forms, not all of which look like our modern day version. However, it’s illuminating to track its progression because up until recently, around 1929, party and politically controlled versions dominated the scene. The precursors were night watches in the North (civilians volunteered to monitor criminal activity, even though these watches were filled with criminals, drunks, and unwilling citizens), and slave patrols in the South (military or vigilante groups that chased down runaway slaves and prevented slave revolts - like the Ku Kux Klan).

How does this relate to ‘When They See Us’? Well, the questioning of the five boys happens at a police station and is manipulated by police officers. The boys are detained for hours upon hours without food or water, and coerced into framing each other under the promise of going home free. What’s evident is that they’re setting up these boys against each other and they video the testimonies to be used in court. It makes me question police accountability. We can videotape police brutality on the streets, but we can’t watch a private interrogation deep in a police station. It also makes me understand how the police department is still linked to state interests. It has a reputation to maintain. A police department’s funding comes mainly from taxes, but also from municipal and federal grants. Every grant has an application. And every application has to list the effectiveness of the department, including criminals convicted and cases solved. Not only that, but the case of the Central Park Five went high-profile very quickly, thanks to a series of newspaper advertisements taken out by Donald Trump advocating the death penalty in relation to this case.

Ava Duvernay, director of ‘When They See Us,’ makes clear that she wants to not only drive home the innocence of these boys, she wants to make a statement about what it’s like to be a black or latino boy in America. It’s a nation where ethnic minorities, especially blacks and latinos, are assumed guilty until proven innocent. That’s the basic premise of the show, I believe. And there’s actual numbers to back this up. Look for instance at the number of wrongful convictions of the black population (47%) in relation to its percentage of the population in total (16%) in 2016. And those are only taking into account exonerations. According to best estimates, 4 out of 100 inmates are wrongly convicted in 2016, but only 2 of those end up getting exonerated. All that information is here: https://time.com/wrongly-convicted/.

Add to that other statistics from the Justice Department. “The Justice Department, for example, released a study in 2015 that found black men received roughly 5% to 10% longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes.” Obviously racial bias still exists not only in our police force, but in our courts. This post is an outcry — like ‘When They See Us.’ Innocent lives are being wasted because of this bias.

Methods have been instituted such as ‘second glance’ measures and legal organizations have sprung up to confront wrongful convictions, such as the Innocence Project. Their website is here: https://www.innocenceproject.org/.

I do not have answers for how to put a stop to racial bias. Apparently anti-bias trainings are becoming more widespread among police departments, which is all to the good. In general, I know wrongful convictions often come about when cases are rushed through the courts with little evidence, but also the presentation of possible suspects matters. What I do know, is that we, as citizens have to educate ourselves first. Instead of just watching a series like ‘When They See Us’ and looking at it as a problem that existed in 1989, we have to be aware that this still goes on. The reforms have made a difference.

“The number of exonerations has generally increased since 1989, the first year in the National Registry’s database. There are 2,000 individual exonerations listed in the registry as of March 6.

Experts say the increase in rate of exonerations can be explained, in part, by a growing trend of accountability in prosecutorial offices around the country. Twenty-nine counties, including Chicago’s Cook County, Dallas County and Brooklyn’s Kings County have adopted second-look procedures and special review units that are tasked with looking into questionable convictions.”

I would posit, and this also backed by evidence, that it starts with who are considered suspects in the first place. Cases like the shooting of Laquan McDonald and Treyvon Martin highlight this. In both cases, when a crime was reported, cops moved in to the area looking for suspects, and they targeted innocent people based on activity, racial profile, and location, but instead of following proper tactics, they assume they have the suspect in question simply because ‘young black males are more likely to commit crime.’

Here is some research comparing how blacks and whites in America view how blacks are treated, both by police and in general: https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FT_19.04.09_Race_KeyTakeaways_Whitesandblacksdiffer.png?w=640.

The discrepancies in view hold in many different areas. If you are interested in seeing more poll responses in regard to race relations, follow this link: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/09/key-findings-on-americans-views-of-race-in-2019/.

If you’d like to take an implicit bias test, you can do that here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. Obviously, its very hard to measure implicit bias, and sometimes even harder to measure institutional bias, but I sincerely hope that series like ‘When They See Us’ continue to spark national outrage over clear injustices toward ethnic minorities, and we have to ask ourselves deep questions of our law enforcement agencies, not just assume that they are just.

Also to satisfy further curiosity, you can read dialogues of the original Central Park Five with their on screen counter-parts: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/arts/television/when-they-see-us.html.

Andrew ManningComment
The Migrant Caravan and Asylum Seeker Processing in the U.S.

I write this post in hopes of change: change in policy, attitude, opinions, beliefs, even assumptions that we make when considering immigration issues, particularly those of asylum seekers. To be honest, I’ve just recently begun to think about these issues, but this post is a way for me to think through it, and I hope that my doing so might clarify your own thinking or spark indignation and advocacy. Note: you do not need to share my opinion: please disagree with me if you so choose.

So first, here are some of the issues involved. I think the U.S. is needs to be held accountable by the U.N. for their crimes against immigrants. If the U.N. will not do so, then the lot falls to Immigration Advocacy groups and regular citizens, who can lobby on behalf immigrants because this is a population that cannot lobby for themselves. People coming to the U.S. seeking asylum are often detained at the point of entry because their asylum claim has to be filed and be processed by a court who asks questions to determine if that person really has credible fear of returning to their country.

Problem 1: Officials often throw asylum seekers into prisons instead of holding centers without consideration for age, disabilities, gender or sexual orientation. That is one essential problem with how asylum seekers are processed: without individualization, people undergo severe trauma in incarceration because there are no special facilities for asylum seekers. Why is acceptable to throw asylum seekers in jail in the first place? It’s as if they are assumed to be criminals before proven innocent. That runs contrary to our judicial system’s ‘innocent before proven guilty.’

Problem 2: There’s a surprisingly low asylum approval rate, especially against certain countries because the U.S. thinks that the harder they make it to enter the country, the less refugees they will attract. From 2002-2007 Haitian asylum seekers only had a 5% approval rate. The implication is that those who would consider asylum in the U.S. stay in danger and fear for their lives. And many of the countries surrounding the U.S., Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, and others are undergoing extreme political turmoil, oppression, violence, and open criminal activity. Asylum seekers from these countries are discriminated against because the U.S. doesn’t want a flood of asylum seekers. In reality, however, people seeking asylum don’t often premeditate it for a long time or research the tough stance the U.S. has on asylum. Asylum is by nature a last resort. We do not need these prisons. Every other country with the exception of Australia processes asylum seekers without detaining them.

Problem 3: Families are separated. Children are often separated from parents and siblings and held in different facilities, sometimes in different places in the country. What’s more, there’s often no way to reunite the families because the only records immigrant processing centers keep are first names and age. Sometimes it’s only through advocates or non-profits asking questions of the parents and connecting the puzzle-pieces that families are able to be reunited after detention. Some never find each other. The trauma this causes in children is irrevocable. And trauma at an early age has been shown to decrease life-span, increase risk of substance abuse, and cause emotional and mental instability.

Problem 4: Asylum seekers are required to disclose credible fear of returning to their country at a port of entry or from within the country. However, presenting this fear after entering the country diminishes the chances asylum will be granted. People often do not disclose at a port of entry because 1) they don’t know that they need to, and 2) security personnel are intimidating and often remind them of government officials from the country they are fleeing. The problem of disclosing at a point of entry however, is that sometimes asylum can be denied right then and there by an authorized official if the stated fear is unclear. In that case, the seeker is just deported to the dangerous situation from which they fled and then faces a five-year ban on re-entry.

Problem 5: Using invalid travel documents is considered a federal offense and can be prosecuted. Many asylum seekers, however, do use fake identification or passports because they can’t apply for valid documentation from a government regime that is persecuting them. They have no other choice. A fake passport or ID does not make someone immediately deportable if they state their fear, but decreases the chances of their asylum being approved, which then makes them deportable.

Problem 6: The prisons that asylum seekers are detained in are privately funded. The reason behind this is actually that Congress has mandated a quota that 33,400 beds be filled. No other U.S. branch of correctional or law enforcement has a mandated quota on detainees. With this quota though, private corporations have incentive to invest in these prisons and detention centers. This is part of the reason why asylum seekers are often sent directly to a detention center. They help fulfill the quota and keep business owners happy. Not only do large corporations own prisons, they lobby on the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration detention procedure in order to feed their business. And this business is growing. CCA and GEO, the two private prison corporations that dominate the detention market, both have increased their profits substantially. From 2007 to 2014 GEO measured a 244 percent increase in profits, which has allowed them to create a new family detention center that will hold 1,200 immigrants. The story is the same in every commercial field: when large corporations dominate, they have the power to sway the market and expand it.

It’s clear from this that the U.S. does not welcome asylum seekers. In fact it does everything it can to discourage them, and in some cases prevent them, from entering the country.  In 2004 the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center compiled reports of U.S. forces in Haiti blocking that path of people attempting to flee Haiti by boat during the revenge killings following the removal of the Haitian president. Not only has the U.S. prevented people from leaving Haiti, the U.S. Coast Guard has also returned Haitian refugees intercepted on the water partially because U.S. Coast Guard personnel are not trained in determining asylum cases, but more because there’s an easy way to return migrants to their host nation by sea; whereas its harder if they arrive at a recognized port of entry.

It’s crystal clear the U.S. does not want refugees or asylum seekers. While this has been the nation’s attitude since 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, and the ‘war against terrorism’ rhetoric of the Bush administration, no one has unabashedly proclaimed this before Trump. Now it’s clear to all surrounding nations, meaning, those who would attempt are deterred from fleeing their host country.

For Christians considering this issue: consider the fact that Christ himself was an asylum seeker, fleeing to Egypt during Herod’s census. What if Egypt just closed its borders and denied his family entry? Clearly God had a specific plan for that, but this illustrates 1) that Christ empathizes with asylum seekers, and 2) that God uses the generosity of open countries to protect victims of persecution. Clearly, there is a point where it becomes wise for a country to close its borders or risk an economic crisis, but the U.S. is nowhere near that point. In fact, the U.S. is profiting off immigration. The problem is, it’s a country that’s only willing to take in as many people as it can profit from. Notice how often Trump refers to the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Mexicans in the caravan as criminals? That rhetoric plays on normal Americans’ fears that should they start letting in immigrants, the nation will be overrun by criminal gangs and drug traffickers. There’s no doubt that drug traffickers have joined the caravan as a Trojan Horse. But drug-traffickers do not claim refugee or asylum status. Criminals might, but because asylum seekers are either imprisoned or monitored, traffickers would avoid claiming asylum.

So why is Trump threatening to shut down the border and deploy military personnel to aid Border Patrol? There are a number of reasons: 1) it seems to illustrate his point that if we did not enforce the Border immigrants would flood and overwhelm our country, 2) because he wants to intimidate potential asylum seekers by using this as an opportunity to send a message, 3) he wants to pressure Mexico to keep them out, or 4) because he really believes asylum seekers are criminals and terrorists. If he shut down the border though, it would halt the passage of goods and services across the border, which brings in about $1.7 billion per day. This would clearly hurt the U.S. more than letting in asylum seekers, who would profit private corporations. But Trump’s rhetoric appeals so widely because it plays on people’s panic about security when seeing a large group of migrants, which Fox News so conveniently airs frequently. People are afraid of the ‘other.’ Let’s face it people. If you’re not, you’re not human. But we have to stymie those evolutionary responses and see not just a crowd of faces, but desperate people attempting to escape persecution, violence, starvation, physical and verbal abuse, etc.

No, we cannot just let anybody in, but nobody’s asking to do that. But we cannot keep everybody out. Asylum law actually was formed on the back of World War II as a safeguard against keeping people in a tortuous situation. Yes, it’s tricky to determine asylum claims, but that is why asylum seekers should be granted interviews to determine exactly what they are fleeing from and why they fear returning, as well as be processed through immigration courts. If we deny people that right, we not only violate International Law, we condemn people who have risked their livelihood and in some cases their lives to make it to our border.


Andrew ManningComment
Mia Cross's Constructed Femininity

Mia Cross' pieces at the Cambridge Art Association as part of the exhibit 'Face It' grabbed me on my last trip into Boston. 

It seems that Mia is treating the female body with sarcasm and irony. In the image below she accentuates the soft velvet-iness of it (quite literally) with pink pastel and surrounds it with a dabbed wallpaper-like pattern. She also defaces it. All of these choices strip dignity and power from the female body. The softness of it accentuates it as a sexual object. The wallpaper-like design hints at an interior (the classic location of female entrapment and male aggression. And the defacement depersonalizes it. 

To the left of the pink body is a silhouetted body, naked but for a bonnet. The bonnet probably references 1880s fashion trends. "The bonnet, made of anything from linen to straw to silk to cotton to felt, was crafted to cover a woman’s head and usually shield her face from the sun. Pale complexions were considered a sign of health and wealth" (Fleming). As such, it accentuates the female body as delicate, tender, something to be protected (by males). To the right of the pink lady is another female silhouette, this time crafted out of lace. Lace has had a place in women's fashion since the 1500s, especially bridal fashion (Owlcation). Lace was meant to accentuate the delicacy, sensuality, and preciousness of the female body. This being so, all three of these figures highlights a soft, powerless, traditionally male-dominated female stereotype. 

IMG_20180223_143436890.jpg

Then I got to the thing that really got my attention: a male unclothed manikin that is partially overtaken by floral patterns. It seems the soft, helpless version of femininity Mia is portraying spills out from the paintings onto the male figure. I have no idea if the manikin's placement in relation to the three female bodies is significant. Is he looking away (as if trying not to witness this very luscious, seductive portrayal of femininity)? Whether conscious or unconscious of her decision I think Mia placed him there intuitively. He could be a guard/protector, except he is also very vulnerable. There's something about a manikin that is utterly creepy as well that makes me want to interpret him as a voyeur who has just looked away, but is tainted by the weak-ass image of the opposite gender he has seen and that vision is now obscuring his vision. 

But Mia seems to treat both genders similarly, with the same degree of sensitivity and softness. Yet, in each case, she is presenting us not with a body, but with a mimicry of a body - something constructed. It could be said she is presenting us with constructed identities. And this, I think, is what I find compelling about her work. The only question is: is she aware of the construction of these identities as a kind of social satire? I would argue yes. 

IMG_20180223_143500415.jpg

And I would argue yes because of the image below. Taking the whole display into account, it's clear Mia has a comic relationship with bodies and body-parts. Legs and feet sprout from the gallery floor as if bodies were trapped upside down. Hands dangle from the ceiling at the end of long, floppy arms. There is an edge to this work that suggests Mia is displaying her version of female identity not as ultimate, but as a social image that changes through time (hence the references to Victorian and pre-Victorian femininity). 

IMG_20180223_143952383.jpg

All this is only confirmed by the paintings below. They show mouthless faces. That is if these can be called faces. They are more like symbols. Or masks. The eyes though are penetrating. It's almost haunting. These non-humans seem to look into my soul and ask: are you okay with this? Are you okay with us being this? 

Cited: https://owlcation.com/humanities/History-of-Lace-Making, http://www.katetattersall.com/early-victorian-womens-hats-part-1-concerning-bonnets/

Andrew ManningComment
Art about the Internet: Now and Then

The fact that you're reading this right now means you are a participator in the internet. There are approximately 3,675,824,813 users of the internet around the world. This is not really surprising because it's so prevalent. The most valued restaurants and cafes now are those with wifi. The internet is a source of boundless imagery, which alters the visual landscape in contemporary art. I mean, I am using it right now to share imagery with you. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises questions of: how do we now approach visual stimulation and what has the internet taught us to look for in that imagery? 

Art In the Age of the Internet at the Institute of Contemporary Art tackles these questions. In the entry-way to the exhibit coexist two pieces posing different images of the mass source of imagery that is the world-wide web. 

The first is a piece titled HowDoYouSayImAfrican? It's a collective, crafted by a host of artists. It consists of a grid of screens aligned in an arc so as to partially surround the viewer. Each screen contains a different visual. I have done my best to capture it in the photos below. Videos were not allowed. 

You don't know where to look. Every screen is flashing at you, competing for your attention. When I got closer, however, I was able to follow individual screens. One involved a computer generated image of a man's head floating and being mapped as though for surgery or to locate the weakest spot (with the implicit aim of doing violence to it). Another showed film of black protests by the black lives matter group. Another, a twitter feed decrying white police brutality. Another, statistics on white supremacists. Another, an interview of someone who knew Michael Brown, the black victim of white police in Ferguson who died and became a symbol for the world of what happens when a certain population group dominates another in inhumane ways. 

Each of these visuals is displayed on a relatively small screen about the size of a mac laptop screen (the screen I'm using to write up this post). 

The sense of the whole piece is one of OUTCRY. All of the voices pouring forth from each screen rush together into a cacophony of noise. And this, I think, is the point. I can't really enter into any one of the screens very well because they're all moving, distracting my eyes. I can't really hear any of the individual voices very well because they're all speaking at once. In the end the effectiveness of the OUTCRY is diminished. It becomes a garble of noise, sound, moving images, bodies, text. I think this piece is exploring the limitations of responding to injustices of our times through media outlets such as twitter, the news, amateur uploads to youtube, etc. Yes, these responses do hold power, but this piece raises our awareness to the fact that the power of each is modified by all the other voices speaking out at the same time. Or is it? Could it be that the power of each is intensified as they all join together? In this piece specifically, I think messages and narratives are confused. That said, the pieces does give a great sense of the range of responses to police brutality after and since Ferguson. It presents simultaneously the incredible resource the internet has been in documenting police violence and responding to it, but at the same time it demonstrates how that response is often adulterated by its' commonness. 

Directly across from this piece is one entitled Internet Dreams, by Nam June Paik. It is similar in construction. Old television screens are arranged in a gridded configuration. Images are sometimes contained within individual screens or flashed across all jointly to create a larger image. The majority of the imagery is taken from older movies starring actors and actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant. The date of the piece is also much older, 1994. Upon a little research I found that the piece is what is termed a 'video-wall.' I remember seeing similar displays in grocery stores and malls when I was a kid (late 1990s, early 2000s) before large-scale electronic billboards existed. It was cutting-edge technology at that point, to create a singular image across multiple screens. And it must have been cutting-edge when Nam June Paik first displayed it. The global internet did not come into being until the late 1980s. I'm not sure the state of the internet when Nam June Paik first displayed this, but it was still a novel technology. Hence, this piece looks at what is possible through the internet: the hyper-stimulation of media and transfiguration of traditional cultural staples (ie classic films) to a broader global media system. Hence, by creating the 'video wall', Nam June Paik is taking the individual television system, which is a personal, privately used media system, and demonstrating how images become social, interconnected, and pervasive. 

The possibilities for such a system are exciting. On the plaque in the ICA, a commentator writes: "the early internet promised to democratize culture." It promised to connect all the privatized experiences of individual citizens and make them shared. This is one of the great strengths of the internet: that through facebook we can share things with others. Yet, anybody who has spent any time on the internet knows that that sharing can quickly turn into white noise. We fail to pay attention to any individual piece of information or graphic because of the overabundance of shared information. There are a few good reads on this topic. One is The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, which explores how being able to click away from anything quickly makes us surface-level thinkers and responders. Another is Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, which has more to do with various forms of entertainment, which lends to our passivity as a culture. 

The screens in Internet Dream all flash brightly and simultaneously. It's overstimulation. This, it shares with HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican. But the overstimulation is even greater. Images change at a greater speed. The colors are intensely bright. Manipulation of the video is drastic. Images break apart, move, collapse, and flash at you in such a way it's hard to see them as anything coherent, but more of a fascination with the technology itself. And this, I think is one of the differences. HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican is more interested in the discourse surrounding politicalization and free speech, whereas Internet Dreams is simply manipulating imagery. HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican presents a look at different corners of the internet relating to a current issue, exploring both its potential and its harm through a curated experience. Internet Dreams looks at the internet itself as new form of communication and shared experience in culture in more of a positive light. 

Both, however, don't present either exclusively a positive view of this technology or a negative view. Rather, they reflect the times in which they were made and the means for which the internet was and is being used in those times. 

 

 

 

Andrew ManningComment
More progress, editing out parts

I am posting some more progress shots of my current painting. This is mainly a photo post because I don't have a lot of time to write, do forgive me.

I'm not sure if it's changing for the better, but here it is. I busted out the white paint and decided to cover the bottom third. 

 

 

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Andrew ManningComment
Daniela Rivera's 'Andes Inverted'
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I was delighted to come upon this piece on my last visit to the Museum of Fine Arts. It possesses a subtle power that is simultaneously personal and political. 

There are two main components to this piece, one being a monumental scaffolded structure with a series of paintings mounted up it's front. When walking up to it, I could not help but notice that it's sides were not covered up, but were left open, revealing the scaffolding underneath. I have no idea what the intent, if any, was behind that decision, but for me, it played into the themes of the piece. It did so because the paintings have to do with a human-shaped landscape (the interior of a mine), and scaffolding is often used to construct buildings. I believe, either intentionally or unintentionally there is an irony at play: the same scaffolding that is used to construct is being used to exhibit paintings of a colossal site of destruction. 

The paintings depict views of a Chilean mine as if from the rim. They all join together to constitute a larger picture of the mine's interior, but do so in a jumbled, non-uniform manner. The shapes of the rock do not flow seamlessly from one painting to the next. Rather, they are slightly off-kilter, like puzzle-pieces that don't quite fit together. This is especially the case because the edges of the paintings align in a 'stair-step' manner with the planar surface of each higher painting set back a bit from the planar surface of the one below. All this creates the sense of disjunction and fragmentation. This can be seen in the picture below. 

Here you can see the 'misalignment at the edge of the paintings'

Here you can see the 'misalignment at the edge of the paintings'

In addition, the whole structure is tilted back at about a 75 degree angle to the ground. This creates additional visual confusion because the perspective of the paintings themselves is downward, but perspective of the whole sculpture is upward. I found myself looking up at aerial views - which can be slightly nauseating. This creates a push and pull on the paintings themselves, which brings them to life. 

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As for the actual paintings, they are almost monochromatic. There are hints of warm and cool, but mostly it's a bland, desitute grey. It seems Daniela is accentuating the featureless, monumentalizing the utter bareness of this stripped landscape. 

On the other side of the exhibit is a wall. Daniela has scaffolded an incline midway up, and use the surface of the incline as a board for a large-scale drawing. It might be hard to tell from the image below, but the drawing is punctuated by strong vertical lines. It also features slanting diagonals which are marked in different ways. When viewing it from far away, it is indistinct, and almost looks as though the wall is dirty. Upon closer inspection, however, the markings appear as traces of foot-prints as well and rocks. This is the ground. Except that it looms over my head. Again, Rivera is playing with perspective and perceptions of up vs. down. As indicated by the title of the exhibit 'Andes Inverted', this is an explicit theme. 

But how does this theme contribute to the concepts of the work? Well, in the wall-piece the mine's surface looms over the viewer. We all have a natural instinct to be afraid or in awe of whatever is over us. Again, Rivera is monumentalizing. When standing beneath the piece, I am literally 'under-standing'. I am looking up in awe of something that I can't quite comprehend. I don't know what angle I am looking at. It appears as a flat surface (because of the vertical lines) as well as a moving surface (because of the light playing across it and the slanting diagonals) as well as a dimensional surface because of the building up of marks. 

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There may be no clear statement these two installations are making, but they do seem to be underscoring the destructive effect of the mine on the landscape. These pieces disorient and intimidate, making me at once struck not with beauty, but with a sense of desolation and loss. 

Andrew Manning
Layering! How it mirrors personal complexity.

Even though I have only spent a couple more hours on this painting I am sharing some more progress shots and some thoughts about layering. 

Layering is a new way of working for me, but I like it because I think it mimicks the psychological reality of a human being. What I mean by this is: we are all a complex set of layers. We have set of characteristics in our social life, a set in our cultural life, a set in our rest life, a set in our play life, a set in our family life, you get the picture. More importantly, we have layers of ourself, some of which are hidden even from us. These layers are penetrated in community and we begin to realize gradually more of who we are. Yet, I believe the truth about all of us is that we are more complex than we believe. 

This painting I believe is partly an exploration (or at least a acknowledgement) of our psychological complexity. 

Anyway, here are more process shots. It helps me to post these every week because then I stay on task. I am potentially looking to add another layer of complexity to this piece, but will have to decide, so stay tuned if you'd like to see where this goes! 

 

 

Andrew Manning
Unabridged Process Shots: Fresh from the Studio

Accepting things as works in progress is hard, but valuable. So here's some of my process. I'm sharing works in progress partly as documentation for me, but also so that you, (my reader), can see how I approach a work. My approach changes constantly as does my style, but in doing this I hope to find some threads of continuity. 

In addition, you get to see how a work evolves for me. 

This is my current project. ----->

It's largescale - about 3 feet by 8 feet - mixed media painting, which, in process is very similar to what I have been making in the rest of my convolutions series, but I've added black acrylic. 

I decided to go large after having a conversation with an art professor (at one of the schools I am looking at applying to for grad school). I'll be honest: drawing with pen on a huge white sheet of paper is extremely intimidating because it seems like it takes forever. But drawing with such a small implement as a pen also forces me to focus in on a specific area and forget about the rest of the image, which, with a scale like this, makes it exciting to step back and see it coming together. 

For you artists out there: take this as encouragement to try something new - step out of your comfort zone. Of course that is kind of the point of art - to try new things - but I know that I need encouragement to do that every once in awhile. 

I'm not sure where this specific painting will go, but I'm excited to share it with you and to reveal glimpses into how I work as the days progress. My goal is to post once a week with either new artwork or the work of others, so stay tuned for more! 

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Andrew Manning
My studio

My studio has been a sacred place to me over the past few months. And 'sacred' is literal. It has been a place where I meet God. Because God is found in the interactions between me and the physical 'stuff' through which I move. God/catharsis for me is found in becoming one with matter. For me this is painting. And don't get me wrong, I can't say that I am aware of God every time I pick up a brush, but I do believe God meets me in and through the act of manipulating matter into something which I deem appropriate. 

It seems to me that this is why carpenters, masons, and constructions workers are so satisfied with what they do. They are involved in the process of creation. Even if they have a blueprint and do not participate in conceptualization, they at least get to actualize something. They get to be involved in the process of bringing something previously in-existent into existence. 

There is also lot to be said for carving out space in modern society simply to play. What is play? It is a process of trying things out and of being open to mistakes. There are no consequences in play. It is a sphere where actions do not have gravity. Play is characterized by lightness. 

Why is play valuable? Because it gives humans a place to experiment without external pressure. It is safe to try things in play. But play also prepares us for situations that do have high stakes. When the pressure is on, play helps us to react. 

 

Andrew Manning
Steve Mcqueen's 'Hunger'

This film is very raw in its depiction of bodies, as are all of Mcqueen's films. However, this one follows the grim emaciation of the body that occurs when it is starved. The main character, a Bobby Sands, starves himself as part of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, which was an Irish political protest against the British Government's withdrawal of special category status for Irish political prisoners. Essentially, the prisoners were treated as civilians rather than political figures, and the strike, which began with a no wash protest (prisoners refusing to leave their cells to wash and smearing their own excrement over the walls), was led by Sands, one of the IRA's (Provisional Irish Republican Army) commanding officers. 

The protests that preceded Sands' hunger strike were aimed at securing five demands: 

  1. the right not to wear a prison uniform;
  2. the right not to do prison work;
  3. the right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits;
  4. the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week;
  5. full restoration of remission lost through the protest.

To me, starvation was not the main focus of the film. Rather, it is the question of brutality and inhumanity in human beings. Mcqueen unflinching aims the camera at human beings in their best moments and their worst. 

The film opens with an Irish prison officer (however it could be anyone at first) in his daily ritual of preparing to go to work. It is a rather mundane beginning. The first sign that everything is not right with the world comes when the officer checks his car for bombs--cut to a scene of him washing bloodied knuckles and standing outside smoking in a light snow, bloodied hand in pocket. 

Even in these opening scenes the film conveys a lot through minimalism. There are almost no words spoken. It is through gestures and glances that we read character's psychologies. This continues through the rest of the film. 

What strikes me most is how Mcqueen enters the narrative from both sides of the political struggle. From the beginning where he follows the prison officer Mcqueen switches to entering the prison cells.

We see prisoners smearing their walls with their own faeces, we see an inmate writing a note to a loved one on a scrap of paper and sucking it into his nose (to hide it from patrol during visitation), we see inmate heaping their dung into a circular ramp to funnel their urine underneath their doors. This is humanity at its most bestial but also its most cunning. In a weird irony, by refusing normal prison treatment (clothes, bath, food) the prisoners retain the dignity that comes with the ability to choose, but lose all other dignities--which raises the question: what truly gives a human dignity? Is it choice? Or is it all the amenities that are given us (that we don't necessarily choose)? Hence, by refusing to accept anything that would diminish their identity as members of the republican nationalist party, Sands and the other prisoners are clinging on to the one thing they still have power over: their chosen identity. And this is all that any of us have at the end of the day--who we have chosen to be. If we have that taken away then we are essentially 'no-one.' If we don't take a stand for anything we don't stand for anything. I feel like this is the essential point of the film. 

At one point Mcqueen shows the prisoners being taken and forcibly washed, shaved, and clad in prison clothes against their will while their cells are power-hosed clean. At another point riot police line up and the prisoners are made to scramble through a 'gauntlet' naked while being beaten. Then their anuses and mouths are probed. It is a brutal scene, but nothing is skipped. In perhaps the most poignant moment of the film we see -in the same frame- this scene of violence and a lone riot policeman crying on the other side of a wall. It is this capacity to understand humanity's infinite capacity for brutality and their infinite capacity for empathy that sets Mcqueen's films apart. 

Overall the film is very slow and focuses on small moments so that the viewer can have space for reflection. There is not much dialogue. The dialogue that is present is mainly condensed into a 17-minute unbroken sequence between Sands and a visiting priest, in which Sands explains some of the rationale behind his resolve. 

I appreciate that Mcqueen does not heroicize Sands or any of the other prisoners. Rather, he simply documents. However, it is the choices in the manner of documentation that make Mcqueen's films. It is more in the how than in the what.  

 

 

 

 

Andrew Manning