The Indefinite Article: Clem Devine and Collective Identities
Daniel du Bern
I AM: Individual Artefacts Museum reads the large, glossy red cut-vinyl sticker attached to the wall confronting you as you enter Enjoy Public Art Gallery. It is reminiscent of those somewhat kitschy ‘HELLO, My Name is _____' stickers that you might wear at an informal work function, or a family reunion that is organised by a distant relative, or as an ironic gesture at a hip party - where you would be expected to write some snide, witty and perhaps philosophical remark, such as ‘Shit' or ‘Bob'.
On walking into the space you are not greeted with the Ethnographic museum of glass cases and boutique lighting as one might expect in accordance to the show's title (Karp & Lavine,1991,18). You instead find yourself in a room that looks like a cross between a junk shop and a design store. The main part of the gallery is taken up with isles of old and dilapidated shelves, upon which sit an array of quotidian objects and ephemera (clothes, compact discs, magazines, furniture, etc.). The objects are accompanied by small yellow sticker labels that describe and ‘rate' the objects, according to the following categories: ‘Artefact Description', ‘Circa', ‘Cost', ‘Intended Use', ‘Actual Use', ‘Actual Value' and ‘Place in Collection'.
On the main wall above these shelves, a large number of colour inkjet prints are pinned in grid format. These prints, one would presume, are page layouts for a book or magazine. They feature various combinations of; the ‘artefacts' (as described above), suspended in blank, white backgrounds, together with their respective labels, company logos, photographs of the exhibition's interior, and phrases, that could be either slogans lifted from advertisements or personal anecdotes. These montages are styled with an overtly graphic design aesthetic, comparative to ‘lifestyle' magazines such as COLORS, Wallpaper or THE FACE.
At the other end of the space, a row of labelled brown boxes are stacked neatly against a wall, a small makeshift photography studio is set up besides this, along with a desk upon which sits a G4 Mac computer, scanner, inkjet printer, digital camera and a variety of other paraphernalia. At the desk sits the artist, Clem Devine, smoking a Marlboro cigarette and clicking away at the computer mouse.
This is the exhibition I AM; Individual Artefacts Museum by Clem Devine. It is the first of two parts of Devine's recent project, of the same title, the second being an edition of three artist's books that were created as a result of the exhibition. For this exhibition, Devine packed up his personal belongings and transported them to the gallery, where in he set about cataloguing and displaying his ‘collection', mimicking the practices of the traditional museum. Devine reinscribes the museum through the dialectic of commercial culture. Compounding the two to raise fundamental questions as to their roles in contemporary society, how we construct identity, and our perception of value, taste and authenticity, aesthetic or otherwise. Responding to Devine's exhibition more directly, you are faced with certain other questions: Where is the museum? Is it the exhibition? The actual gallery? Neither? Are the objects artefacts? And if so, what is the art? By being art, does this deny the ability for it to be a genuine museum of artefacts; does it deduce it to being just a parody? And perhaps the most pressing questions you are asked, who or what is Clem Devine? And who or what am I?
[The modern museum's pedagogical] strength lay in the fact that they were repositories of the ‘real thing', which unlike the surrounding world of plastics, reproduced images, and a deteriorated natural and human environment could inspire and invoke a sense of wonder, reality, stability, and even nostalgia.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002
Devine's work emphasises the artificial nature of the artefact. He does so by subjecting his possessions to a process of abstraction: through firstly removing them from their initial context and reinscribing them as artefacts within his museum, then obscuring a second time by translating these artefacts into two-dimensional representations. This sense of artificiality is further heightened by the very nature of objects that Devine chooses to display within his collection. He does not randomly choose from the objects within his possession but makes calculated decisions formulated through arbitrary systems of value and taste, asserting his role as the curator as being that of a connoisseur. The objects that he chooses to display are those of spectacle, censoring banal items such as his socks, undies, or toothbrush, instead opting for the more glamorous, dramatic objects loaded with personal and cultural significance (for example, his Dolce & Gabbana glasses, Diesel Shoes, Dj Shadow CDs, Permanent Food magazine, artworks, and snapshots). They portray a version of Devine's identity that is not how it would be in its everyday ‘reality', but rather how he wants it to be seen.
The collections of museums create the illusion of adequate representation of a world by first cutting objects out of specific contexts (whether cultural, historical, or intersubjective) and making them stand for abstract wholes a Bambara mask, for example, becomes an ethnographic metonym for Bambara culture. Next a scheme of classification is elaborated for storing or displaying the object so that the reality of the collection itself, its coherent order, overrides specific histories of the object's production and appropriation.
Devine's applied methodology mimics the processes of both categorisation and selection from which modern museum is formulated. Yet unlike the museum where such activities are carried out behind closed doors, he draws attention to the process, by doing the opposite, having both the collection and the cataloguing apparatus held within the one space that is open to the public. Devine's work also transgresses the parameters of the modern museum for other various reasons; firstly, his chosen artefacts lack a necessary 'cultural value', they are not exotic rarities, defined by a distancing in space, time or culture; they are objects that are either mass-produced commodities, or objects that are of ‘little consequence', whose value is stipulated, if not solely, by sentimentality. Secondly, that although they are disjointed from their initial context, they are not totally removed from it. They remain functioning as objects that have purposes other than just being looked at (for example, the stereo that was displayed in the space as an artefact was also used to play music); and thus negate conventional understands of museum artefact as devoid of any function, or interactivity, other the visual (Barker,1999,13). Following on from this point, that through the very nature of the exhibition's display, physical interactivity of the audience and the artefacts was encouraged. And lastly, this presupposed ethnographic 'Museum' being held within another kind of museum, the art gallery, meant that Devine's ‘museum' only physically existed for three weeks, the artefacts we can only presume being returned back to their quotidian setting. Both Devine's museum and its artefacts become ephemeral. In all accounts this Individual Artefacts Museum confuses the notion that the museum is an ‘institution primarily for the preservation, display and study of works of cultural interest' (Turner,1996,354).
We discover the artifice when we look at older installations or those made in other cultural contexts.
Karp & Levine, 1992
The unconventional nature of this narcissistic collection highlights the contradictions of the modern museum; its assertion that it is represents an objective reality while being thoroughly unnatural and subjective. Viewing a collection such as Devine's, where by someone has arranged their own stuff in a way that they want it to be seen, we can only interpret as being an utterly biased representation. Works such as this remind us, as Emma Barker states, that museums and galleries are not neutral containers that offer a transparent, unmediated experience (1999,8); that despite what some might say, it is impossible to an display an object that has been removed from its original context, with a truth that is if not entirely subjective. Through Devine's usage of the museum dialectic, we come to see the modern museum as being not unlike it's renaissance predecessor,
Yet this type of art practice The Artist Critiques the Museum is hardly an isolated incident. The last 20 to 30 years has seen a multitude of artists, throughout the globe, reinterpreting the museum in accordance to the growing awareness that the ‘objective rationalism of the modern museum' presents an imperialist perspective of cultural identity and cultural colonialism (Corrin,1994,6). They view the traditional Western museum as an institution that suppresses voices of ‘the other,' through its depiction of history as linear and chronological, which is largely ignorant of cultural difference and conflicting accounts of history. This project of revisionism attempts to create a ‘new museology', where by history and ethnology are realised as a multiplistic' and dispersive system of subjective narratives. But when one critiques a show such as Devine's, what is interesting is not whether it has been done before or not, but the manner in which it's done; of how in which it is located within the dialogue of ‘new museology' in contemporary art and culture.
It is the conflating of the museum and advertising/commercial culture that I see to be most poignant in Devine's work. The linkage of the two provides us with an idea of what the museum has become in contemporary culture. The lifestyle magazines that are parodied in the exhibition provide a vivid illustration of this, and COLORS is arguably the most blatant of them all. In the introduction to COLORS; Thousand Extra/Ordinary Objects, Peter Gabriel states: ‘People like to surround themselves with objects, it's part of our nature. It may be an anal instinct, but we like our stuff. People are defined by their objects whether they are useful, decorative, beautiful, ugly, common or rare, we can't but leave clues everywhere as to our identity. Clues to our culture, national identity, religious affiliation and sexual inclinations, our objects reflect who we really are and who we want to be (Mustienes, 2000,1). And it is by assertions as such, that sound like those of a museum but come from commercial culture; that validate Jean Baudrillard's proposed notion that, ‘gathering artefacts' whether they find their way into curiosity cabinets, private living rooms, museums of ethnography, folklore, or fine art function within a developing capitalist ‘system of objects' (Grossburg,1992,61). We are made aware that theses magazine, along with other commercial and mass-media institutions, are the museums of today. Yet despite what Gabriel might presume objects to pertain, the exoticism of the objects within COLORS, as indicated by the title in itself (Extra/Ordinary Objects), means that ‘our' objects are not indicative of ‘our' identity, but rather one of fantasy and desire. Therefore, would one be wrong if they were to say that the museum does not map identity the ‘ourselves', but that of ‘capitalism'? Or are the two inseparable?
The new approaches to merchandising and to politics are part of the increasing fusion of policy, fashion, entertainment, and advertising. A much more sophisticated and more encompassing understanding of how to influence the perception of reality is permeating the worlds of politics, business and entertainment. The Hollywood dream factory has become the prototype for the global economy as more people move from producing and consuming material products to being actors in their own imagined movies. Part of the reason for the popularity of the new ‘reality' television is that more and more people are living their own reality shows, suspending the distinction between artificial and real.
There is a disjuncture between the physicality of the artefacts', and their two-dimensional representations, in I AM: Individual Artefacts Museum. And it is through this disjuncture that a sense of otherness is portrayed. The otherness that I refer to is not one that is defined through its difference, but rather by its difference. This difference in Devine's work I see to be very telling of locale from which this work was made. One only has to look to the ‘happy mistakes' of our two favourite New Zealand modernists Colin McCahon, who is referred by the way of the show's title, and Gordon Walters to see that our history is informed through a condition of ‘mixed messages', often ‘lost in the translation'. In Devine's work there is what some might see to be a naive love of graphic design, and although I may not share such a passion, I would have to say, in context to viewing art, that quite often the ‘real' thing seems to be somewhat of a let down after having only seen them through reproductions that can let your imagination fly. There is something very uncanny about being placed in a situation where one can witness the way in which two versions of the same object converge. Their incongruities make both seem neither real nor fake. To borrow from Jeffrey Deitch, Devine does not ‘carry the viewers of to a fantasy world, but transport them to a fluid space where the artificial and the real is deliberately blurred. The artistic goal is not the construction of a fantasy, but the articulation of a new reality where the rigid concepts of truth no longer apply' (2001, iii).
If we view I AM: Individual Artefacts Museum as an acceptance this ‘new reality' it is not without a certain scepticism. Devine makes known a certain feeling of anxiety and distrust as to the roles of both commercial culture and the museum as cultural institutions that frame one's identity. While Barbara Kruger wryly stated ‘I shop therefore I am', Devine questions whether one's true identity can be defined by the objects they own. Although certain things are implied, he never makes anything explicit. It is though the work's apparent ambiguity that one is able to speculate, as I have done, and formulate their own opinions upon the matter. Devine's work acts as an empty canvas that you throw your paint at. If we return to the empty ‘name tag' that Devine appropriated for the advertising of the show, we might be able to find some answers. Maybe it is this lack of anything within this box that locates the identity of Clem Devine; that it is nowhere to be seen and the objects he displays are merely facades, illusive, empty husks. Or maybe this is just too optimistic and is a case of wishful thinking. And if this is the case, is Clem Devine just another exhibitionist adrift on the vast ocean of materialism, that looked over the edge of his boat, found his reflection and fell in love?
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