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CCGES > Current Projects > Tainted Goods: Contemporary Sculpture and the Critique of Display Cultures in Germany and Europe

Tainted Goods: Contemporary Sculpture and the Critique of Display Cultures in Germany and Europe

Generously supported by the DAAD, this event will feature Canadian and European scholars, theorists, and curators of contemporary art who will present, discuss, and debate the topic “Tainted Goods: Contemporary Sculpture and the Critique of Display Cultures in Germany and Europe.” The three-day conference will be held in Toronto, 10-12 May, 2012. Out-of-town participants should expect to arrive in Toronto on Thursday, 10 May and depart on Monday, 14 May.

The first presentation, a keynote lecture, will take place in the early evening on Thursday, 10 May at historic Hart House, located on the downtown St. George campus of the University of Toronto. The bulk of the conference will be held at York on Friday, 11 May. The full-day program on 11 May will be divided into morning and afternoon sessions. The program at York and the keynote lecture will be open to the public. In addition, the concluding portion of the conference will be a private roundtable discussion, to be held at Hart House in the morning on Saturday, 12 May.

Among the most challenging of contemporary art practices are sculptures that comprise sprawling accumulations of objects. The purpose of the conference is to
investigate this practice, with particular focus on German and European contexts. Straying from the cultures of monumentality, cutting-edge technologies, and crowd-pleasing spectacles associated with the globalized industry of “installation art,” the sculptural works of particular concern in “Tainted Goods” subvert display cultures by provoking viewing experiences that are neither seamless nor easily consumed. This seemingly tainted array of imagery and materials—often things literally left on the side of the road according to the relentless logic and progress of the capitalist machine—are combined in ways that allow each element to retain a degree of empirical specificity. There are gaps between images and referents that create the potential for a crossing of semantic switches or a perceptual friction that generates cognitive sparks and insights. While the artistic materials tend to be fragmentary and are juxtaposed with other items that initially may seem incompatible, in the end, they “say” nothing with communicative clarity. This “materialist” approach to art-making may interpreted with the aid of remarkably different aesthetic and philosophical  approaches, from those rooted in Frankfurt School notions of the dialectical image to those grounded in the thinking of Gilles Deleuze or Manuel de Landa, to name only a few.

Ideally, participants in the conference should focus their papers on the experience of specific examples of artworks and exhibitions. We wish to maintain an emphasis on exploring the forms and aesthetic demands placed on the viewer of such “tainted” sculptural works. We seek to develop a broader range of aesthetic models through which these sculptures can be understood to function critically, whether as commentaries on capitalist or communist economies, as anthropologies of everyday life, as critiques of the practices of museum collecting and interpretation, as twisted replications of sales strategies from advertising, stores, and television shopping networks, or as surrenders to the psychologies of accumulation, be they sumptuous pleasure, emotional displacement, or pathologized hoarding behavior. The works treated in “Tainted Goods” perform their critique of display cultures through the stark juxtaposition of artistic and non-artistic materials that have not been permitted to blend seamlessly into a coherent compositional whole that may be consumed or marketed with ease.

We are primarily interested in sculptural examples that feature one or more of the following aesthetic and thematic qualities. First, they may combine consumer
products and commercial imagery with materials that are ostensibly handmade and are incorporated into or onto a display surface. This support surface functions as a backdrop that one may loosely, but never fully, associate with commercial display environments or museum exhibit conventions. The surface becomes a site for the affixing or inserting of photographs, texts, products, and other objects in a manner that strays from the professional standards of retail-store or museum-quality design: In this regard, the viewer may confront, for instance, peripherally placed objects, plinths partially covered with cement or peeling plastic, an incoherent crowding of displayed items, and the abrupt association of utterly mundane with morally provocative visual and textual content. Second, the works may reformulate the traditional distinction between pedestal and art object, so that the support surfaces take on an active role in the semantics of the work. These support structures are structurally precarious, dispersed, and oriented to the ground, but are compositionally coherent to the extent that viewers must move around them rather than through them. Third, these works offer display environments thatdepart from high-end design values in favor of used, worn, and/or non-precious materials. Some of these degraded materials are identified with products thatare falling (or that have recently fallen) into obsolescence; as such they prevent viewers from “losing themselves” in them completely, and thus recall the Brechtian notion of putting reality on a stage as fetishistic activity in fossilized form. This staging activity promotes fragmentary and unexpected reminiscences that may form part of the public’s collective memory. Indeed, such reactions are possible because any states of psychological absorption are undercut by a decentered awareness of one’s own body, in contrast with the conditions of centered passivity promoted by mass-media

Although each of the works considered may provide strong references to retail, mass entertainment, storefront, and/or museum exhibit spaces, they may also contain some obviously hand-crafted elements: significant portions of them may seem to have been made by a single person rather than outsourced or produced by an industrial fabricator. Yet, along with a palpable sense of personal manipulation and care, there may be signs of purposeful abuse: While the artist has altered a variety of consumer products, they are never dissolved or masked completely: the smashing, dousing, sticking, gluing, or taping procedures exerted on them are meant to subvert the display strategies orchestrated by corporate and institutional power structures that rely on the aesthetics of the seamless. The fragmentary and abused objects seem to be straining within a predicament that is resistant to the motives of their original production, advertisement, and sale, providing a critical distance from design-and-display cultures that strive to erase border zones between products and their promotion as images. As such these displays are, in part, resistant to institutional standards and responsibilities of curatorial professionalism associated with the efficient practices of historical contextualization and the education of the public. These works stammer according to a model of the divided self rather than communicate seamlessly according to a model of the centred self. They cannot be easily reduced to bullet points in a curatorial argument and resist being packaged coherently by museum marketing departments. They deny the viewer an ideal route through the display that would facilitate judgments as a rational, fully present, or conscious subject. Rather, they are composed according to a model of subjectivity that is more dispersed, speculative, and fragmented.

Research Directors: Prof. Dan Adler (CCGES/Dept. of Visual Arts, York University) and Barbara Fischer (Curatorial Studies Program, University of Toronto)
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