Two weeks ago I discussed the representation of women in the face of growing consumerism in mid-20th century women’s art. This week, I will focus on consumer critique in a single contemporary artist’s work, which is often so complex and fraught with meaning, it needs careful reflection for it to unfold its implications.
Josephine Meckseper is a photo, video and installation artist, who offers a striking, multi-layered account of the extent to which consumerism pervades our lives today. Although Meckseper’s work covers a variety of themes, she states: “The basic foundation of my work is a critique of capitalism” (Art Now Vol. 2, 2008).
Her signature art works are her installations in which she juxtaposes everyday commodities, advertising and objects of political meaning, and arranges them in a way reminiscent of the show-windows of department stores. With that, Meckseper suggests a profound connection between consumer society, the politics of power, and the mechanics of desire (as formulated in Art Now Vol.2, 2008). Far from stating the obvious, Meckseper’s works reminded me of the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s theory of culture industry. Adorno claims that we cannot escape culture industry, in which real value is replaced by the fetish character of commodities, because culture industry subsumes every form of protest. If many people buy Palestenian scarves as a sign of protest, for example, a fashion company will produce its own version of the Palestinian scarf and market it as fashionable accessory. As the scarf becomes a fashion statement, it looses its political significance. I believe Meckseper’s Untitled (2005) which consists of a mannequin wearing a Palestinian scarf and a hoodie, an abstract painting, and the cover of the terrorist biography The Angry Brigade expresses just that. It shows how politics and lifestyle conflate, although the political signs drawn on (capitalist-critical) may conflict with one’s way of living (consumerist).
In this issue, Meckseper does not seem to make a difference between left-wing or right-wing political formations. The New-York based, German-born artist portrays the CDU and CSU, which are German conservative parties, in the same light as the RAF, which was a terrorist group in 1970s Germany. Both the photo works CDU-CSU (2001) and RAF Tray (2002), represent the political groups – in the aesthetics of fashion photography – as beautiful, glamorous young women. In levelling the dichotomy between the parties, she exposes them as expressions and/or projection screens of middle-class longings. Political symbols, as the CDU and CSU gold chains the models wear in the former photo, and the RAF logo on the box of matches in the latter photo, reveal themselves as empty signs simulating meaning. One can say they are simulacra in the Baudriallardian sense.
Meckseper also comments on women’s roles and the representation of women in these works. She shows that attractive young women play an important role in consumerist self-fashioning; they are presented as both objects of desire, and subjects shaping consumer and political culture.
Though Meckseper does not primarily think of herself as a feminist, much of her work deals with the persistent objectification of women in advertising—a concern that links her to women artists I discussed here. Blow Up (Tamara, Michelle, Laura) from 2006, for example, shows three models posing in 50s underwear. While the models conform to contemporary standards of beauty, the appearance of the photo not being retouched, and the old-fashioned underwear let the models retain their human aura, making them look real and approachable. Maybe Meckseper wants to show with her work that little has changed since the 1950s regarding the representation of women in advertising, the only improvement being that we do not have to deal with the stiff and confining ‘corrective’ underwear anymore.
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage – Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.