Selection by Cindy Peña

In 1935, Walter Benjamin published The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, heralding a new epoch for art in the Industrial Age. The technological development of photography, in particular, radically shifted the possibilities for artistic production. Benjamin posed that the loss of the aura of the unique physical art object, along with the implementation of modern technical capacities, brought about substantial changes in how we approach and understand art. This new condition opened up the field of art to play and the exploration of industrial and mass-produced materials and to their reinterpretation. Since then, many artists have stripped the artwork of its claim to be unique, handmade, and sacred through the possibilities that a boundless choice of media has provided.

By the 1960s, consumer goods or their recognizable copies were everywhere to be seen in art. This creative liberty enabled artists to become critical commentators of culture, but it also led to the commodification of art. And while any object could be designated as art by the artist, this selection was dependent on the historical and contextual factors within the art world. Found objects as artworks contain many associations and can prompt diverse thoughts from the viewer, involving the public as active participants in decoding them. Using found materials including debris, toys, or talismans, artists activate personal and global cultural imaginaries to produce desire or nostalgia. Today, the nostalgic impulse is a trend that can be seen in artistic production and the move towards interdisciplinarity at large. 1

Found objects may open up new possibilities for exploring traditional art concerns such as composition and color, and to revisit grander themes such as materiality.
Stephen Dean’s practice is based on an investigation of color theory. In Account 233 he piles pocket books against a wall, playing with the tonal gradations of the colored edges. Meanwhile, Alexandre da Cunha appropriates and recontextualizes everyday objects, highlighting certain visual aspects but maintaining their original resemblance. Ruby is a sculptural composition made by arranging brightly-colored plastic containers in the shape of wine glasses.
Although we use these ordinary artefacts in our daily lives, they lack the emotive weight that is inherent in specific objects, such as those used in our early childhood. Mimicking the type of constructed prop children might make to play, Francis Alÿs reused bits of wood and metal to assemble his Camgun (gun number 63), with a vintage film reel canister as the bullet magazine. This series of assemblages was made when the artist was “exploring the idea of the camera as a weapon” for his video El Gringo, but children’s play has also significantly influenced the artist’s themes and approaches, resulting in this body of work. 2 Responding to a different set of interests, Julieta Aranda built a cube from vintage LEGO blocks which is partly coming undone. The work, titled Elementary suggestion for digital decay alludes to the abstract notion of virtual reality, here represented by the pixelated surface of the disintegrating cube.
Kader Attia is known for using mirrors or reflective surfaces often, attempting to divert the gaze of the onlooker onto him or herself. In Childhood, Attia places a bubblegum-pink slide amidst broken mirrors and tiles. The nightmarish installation recalls a communal shower room which becomes more and more threatening as we discover the leather straps placed close to the clogged drains, the broken toy doll leaned against a wall, and the knives sticking out from the smooth surface near the bottom of the slide.
“All of my work is based on a confrontation between paradoxical ideas; they all include one thing and its contrary. I try to deal with universal issues: childhood, death, intimacy, fantasies, neuroses, phobias. One thing that my works have in common is that they are often rooted in an anecdote from my childhood.”
- Kader Attia
Another trend among appropriation art offers a critical or revisionist view of art history and art institutions. Mark Dion reflects on the notion of the museum as a graveyard or mausoleum in L'Ichthyosaure (2003). This diorama-like installation features the body of a Ichthyosaur, a prehistoric marine animal. From its open belly spill out a load of books, lanterns, measuring devices, portraits, and tools; the research materials of archeologists or explorers. On the other hand, Sebastián Romo obscures the images and legacy of the Tropicália movement in the installation of the same name which places 3500 photo prints up against each other forming a closed circle.
Artists have also commented on consumer culture such as Eduardo Abaroa’s Ancient and Modern Foods, a composite sculpture of a mastodon made of fiberglass covered with Hostess cakes (similar to the “Pingüino” treats by Mexican brand Marinela). Similarly, Philippe Hernández uses cans of beer to compose Modelo, a pun since the brand means model. Meanwhile, Darío Escobar “has effectively appropriated the readymade from its art for art’s sake context, only to deposit it squarely in the dominant sphere of global culture.” 3 Kukulkan II, merges Escobar’s interest in investigating the form of pre-Hispanic architecture (embodied in the feathered serpent in this case), with his recurring use of soccer balls, an emblem of the consumer culture of global sport.

The study of material culture has gained momentum in the last 20 years, with scholars from a variety of disciplines agreeing that “artefacts are implicated in the construction, maintenance and transformation of social identities,” and artists have great influence on the construction of those identities and the avenues by which they are questioned. 4 While on the surface these works seem to reveal aspects of the mundane through their use of everyday materials, they can also be opened up to offer deeper meditations on contemporary culture. Even if wit and immediacy are their most used strategies, artists working with quotidian objects possess a capacity to evoke fact and fiction through the objects themselves or the scenarios they propose. Even then, their interpretation will vary every time the work is seen, since individual memory will dictate our association or lack thereof with the work of art. This capacity is what makes contemporary art inexhaustible.

Text by Cindy Peña, Curatorial Assistant, Museo Jumex.

1 Jan Dalley, “Why contemporary culture is having a fit of nostalgia.” Financial Times, May 4, 2018.
2 Francis Alÿs, Peter Kilchmann Gallery.
3 Christian Viveros-Fauné, “The Sculpture of Everyday Life: Dario Escobar’s Readymade Sculptures,” in A singular plurality: the works of Dario Escobar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2012).
4 “Editorial,” Journal of Material Culture, no. 1 (March 1996).
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