On ViewHunter Shaw Fine Art
Klammern aus denen Blätter Sprießen II
June 26 – July 24, 2022
If socialist realism promoted socialist ideals through a visual lexicon that elevated physical labor and celebrated those who toiled in the service of a totalitarian vision of equality, we might say that contemporary capitalist realism is the exact opposite. Not celebratory, equalizing, or a product of the working class, capitalist realism and the many ills it diagnoses are explored in Klammern aus denen Blätter Spriessen (Brackets from which Leaves Sprout), a group show at Hunter Shaw Fine Art in Los Angeles featuring work by Colleen Hargaden, Filip Kostic, Yein Lee, Andrew Rutherdale, Jonas Schoenberg, and a text by Steph Holl-Trieu.
As the first iteration of this exhibition, which presented slightly different work by the same artists, took place at Scherben in Berlin, it seems appropriate to classify the artists’ collective output as the outgrowth of a genre that started in the same city over fifty years prior. Capitalist realism at that time was thought to be a sort of German pop art, due to its political resonance and interest in mass media. If we extrapolate from the thinking of British cultural critic Mark Fisher (in a manner slightly at odds with his intentions as he avoided conflation with the Cold War era movement), capitalist realism as an artistic movement today could be seen as a practice that reveals, via exaggeration and mimesis, capitalism’s social, political, economic, and environmental impact on present lived experience and various possible futures.1
The central node of this exhibition, Filip Kostic’s Bed PC (2021), exemplifies the encroachment of capitalism into all aspects of daily life and the rapid dissolution of the boundaries between work, art, play, and rest. Affixed to the wall above a twin bed are three large monitors that create a 180-degree arch over the pillow. A split keyboard rests on either side of the mattress, a small table is attached to the bed frame to support a mouse, and Kostic’s custom built computer hums from below. Bed PC enables Kostic, or any user, to engage in all digital spaces and activities without leaving the comfort of his bed. First constructed in the artist’s home during the pandemic when spaces of work rapidly began to encroach on those of leisure, this WALL-E-esque contraption highlights the transition from a way of life segmented into discrete spheres of activity to one understood as a single, totalizing continuum of experience. Nominally recreational virtual spaces, be they the game Risk of Rain 2, a video chat with a friend on Discord, or a deep dive into Hennessy Youngman’s Art Thoughtz on YouTube—all of which Kostic took part in during an eight hour Twitch livestream from the gallery—may offer some respite, but it is hard to shake the uneasy feeling that such alternative spaces only perpetuate the “reality” we seemingly want to escape by enabling us to endure it… just a little longer.
Kostic’s Bed PC, whether a subversive or sincere embrace of our contemporary, dystopian, work-life collapse, appears poised to induce a state of depressive insomnia deeply tied to the corrosive effects of capital and overstimulation. A similar effect is reflected in three LED-illuminated wall-based works by Andrew Rutherdale which reproduce Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797–99) on acrylic panel with laser-engraved SCOBY—a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Foregrounding materials that could come into greater use on a ravaged post-Anthropocene Earth, Rutherdale’s reference to the conflict between reason and fantasy highlights the significance of this Enlightenment-era warning in the present: do we not, after all, find ourselves assailed by an overindulgence in fantasy, a preponderance of irrational thinking, a world infested by human-generated evils? Rutherdale alludes, in particular, to environmental catastrophe. The kind of bio-technology hybrid that he embraces in these works may be received by some as a welcome alternative to conventional industrial logic, a sustainable media based on symbiotic relationships, but to others it will only foreshadow the ecological decimation that must take place before we start using kombucha in lieu of paper.
According to Fisher, the reality of environmental catastrophe must be suppressed under capitalism. He explains that even though environmental sustainability might be effectively woven into corporate advertising campaigns as a means to suggest that “any problem can be solved by the market,” capitalism is inherently opposed to such altruistic efforts because it solely values growth and market expansion, which necessitate the harvesting and degradation of natural resources.2 Colleen Hargaden’s video titled Terminal Island (2022), which plays on a monitor supported by a pair of shipping container door rods on the wall across from Bed PC, speaks to this phenomenon. Her black-and-white animation of a cargo ship on route to Terminal Island in Long Beach, California—part of the largest port in North America—quietly illustrates the unsustainable systems of waste and excess that remain inseparable from global trade and its infrastructure. A shipping container falls from a cargo ship in turbulent waters and sinks to the ocean floor where aquatic flora grow over its surface, attracting crabs and playing home to a variety of other creatures. This fleeting depiction of a natural environment within the space of the exhibition elicits a quixotic kind of optimism: a brief glimmer of hope that new life can still emerge from humanity’s detritus.
Hargaden’s look to the future through the lens of an unsustainable present and the sci-fi tendencies of Rutherdale’s work, which also speak to life on a blighted planet, possess a clear affinity with Yein Lee’s Blooming on cybernetic’s spine (2021). Assembled from an assortment of found materials—steel, plastic waste, fake flowers, electrical wires—Lee’s sculpture resembles a cybernetic humanoid life form, or rather its egg qua maturation chamber. Questions of agency and the value of augmentation arise quickly: is this an enhanced personage of the future, or simply a poor excuse for a human? Akin to the Borg on Star Trek, Lee’s sculpture might represent a kind of drone augmented with technological implants, the product of forced assimilation. Alternatively, such physical change could be seen as a liberating personal choice that endows the individual with new and improved functionality. But if the latter scenario foreshadows our future under capitalism, further questions of access and equitability are inescapable. Take the Mods, the overly flashy, cybernetically enhanced teenage biker gang on vespas recently featured on The Book of Boba Fett: their augmentations are sometimes voluntary and other times lifesaving, but in all instances a high price is exacted from those receiving them. How liberatory can such a system (or life-hack) be when it necessitates that an individual pay for the functioning and maintenance of their own body? This is, in many ways, already the case for those who lack universal healthcare. But by exaggerating the norm, Lee and the exhibition as a whole make one wonder whether all these technological enhancements and tools of convenience are any better than simply succumbing to the forces of nature.
In their obvious incongruence, Jonas Schoenberg’s intimately scaled pigment on plaster paintings are poised to act as the only foil to the system under scrutiny in this exhibition—in the sense that their creation theoretically grants the artist a brief moment of escape from capitalism’s monetization of all worldly activity. But, of course, artworks are also a commodity, and paintings more effective in this regard than most. At every turn, Klammern aus denen Blätter Spriessen forces us to ask ourselves if escape is merely a story we tell ourselves, and whether this story, this fantasy, does anything more than accelerate capitalism’s assimilation of every kind of experience. We will have to wait and see as the futures imagined by the artists included here come into being—or not.
We might understand this in terms of Slavoj Žižek’s conception of “overidentification,” a term he coined to describe the work of Laibach, a Slovenian band that emerged after the death of Yugoslavia’s dictator Josip Broz Tito. Laibach sought to illuminate the characteristics of totalitarianism by enthusiastically adopting, and reflecting back at the totalitarian state, those very same characteristics. The contemporary artistic practices that I am referring to as capitalist realism have undertaken a similar strategy.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009), 18.