1.14 / Review

Beg/Borrow/Steal

By Elyse Mallouk May 5, 2010

“Beg/Borrow/Steal,” presented in the Viewing Room at Catharine Clark Gallery, is intended to be an introduction to San Francisco based artist Stephanie Syjuco’s work. The show is not a cohesive presentation of a single project, but rather functions as a kind of six-year micro-retrospective without a unifying narrative. The show is composed of pieces pulled from varied bodies of Syjuco’s work, tied together only by a common strategy―information deliberately withheld.

Italian philosopher Paolo Virno asserts that “There are things which only exist inside relationships,” in the common space between you and me.[1] This indeterminate space cannot be known or contained and remain common, Virno believes; rather, it can only be struggled with and contested. If it is named, it is co-opted. Syjuco’s work questions the social and economic relationships that run through and beneath a capitalist system by pursuing the formal limits of communication and exchange within the gallery. Her work intentionally withholds the information that might spell out or fix the common space between us.

Black Market (floor display) (2005), Black Market (stall) (2005), and Black Market (reaching) (2005) are three found Internet photographs enlarged into pixilated prints. In them, women display and peruse commodities in a supposedly illicit Philippine market. The objects of interest are excised from each picture, leaving behind a flat black surface. Only the bits of street and figure not obscured by the blacked-out objects are available to view in full color. In the glossy expanse between discernable images, I could see my own reflection.

The plane of obscured material that appears in each picture is also conveyed by a series of unidentifiable lumpy forms, arranged on shelves in front of the framed photographs. These sculptures are made from found products, once desired, then discarded, which are reclaimed, bundled together, covered in papier-mâché, and brushed with black paint. In a protracted transformation, a material object in the market becomes the immaterial Internet image, which then becomes the manipulated glossy print in the gallery, and finally, the once again material, but now unknowable, thing. The process enacts an excision: a gradual, willful removal of information. These objects are particular, singular, and abstracted; they are generalized, formless forms. In the images, there is no way to discern the items beneath the shiny black blob. Each viewer has the liberty to fill in the blank, but this freedom is complicated; it is restrained by a set of received and cultivated ethical and moral assumptions about the kinds of objects being exchanged beneath the superimposed surface. Viewers are free to make judgments, but the piece does not confirm or deny these presuppositions. Visual inspection does not give way to knowing; the things themselves remain concealed, available only for speculation.

Contemporary artist and writer Gregory Sholette has theorized about the existence of a sort of hidden, unacknowledged system of production and exchange that creates the “dark matter” that props up the more visible aspects of a capitalist 

market. [2]This stuff is made up of everything that is produced by individuals and collectives but not legitimized by sturdy institutions, from corporations to art museums.[3] This “missing mass” is made up of shadow economies, which support the more prominent forms of production, but that also have the capacity for disruption.[4] The dark space of the object in Syjuco’s Black Market pieces can be read as a metaphor for this invisible production. Viewers undertake a sort of symbolic imposition, as they fill in the holes in the image with their own conceptions of the illicit. When the obscured objects are remade by Syjuco into artworks that inhabit the gallery shelves, it only complicates matters further: what does it mean to desire these objects, which can be codified both as unique handmade commodities,

Black Market (stall), 2005; Framed Fuji lightjet print, 31 x 41 in. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Black Market Objects (detail), 2005; Paper mache covered objects, vinyl paint, shelves, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

and as symbols for the hidden things on which they are literally built?

In another work, bootlegged exchange is not only represented but also proposed. FGT Satellite Distribution Point (Accumulation/Dispersal/Situation) (1992/2010) is an appropriated, depleted Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece—five or so sheets of a larger stack of prints, the somewhat whole of which is currently on view at SFMOMA. The original set of copies is Untitled (1992), a stack of large, black-and-white offset prints by Gonzalez-Torres depicting a silhouetted bird flying against the clouds. Museum visitors are invited to take pieces off the pile and use them as they like. The posters are ubiquitous in San Francisco bedrooms; they were exhibited as part of "The Art of Participation" (November 2008–February 2009), and are currently on view in the museum’s 75th Anniversary show. I have one hanging above my desk, which I paid museum admission to obtain. The stack at SFMOMA is ideally eight inches high, and is replenished by the museum every day, so that when a viewer takes a sheet off the top, the impact of this action on the crisp-edged sculpture is imperceptible and temporary.

Stripped of any information providing clues to Gonzalez-Torres’s personal narrative, removed from the extra-commercial legitimacy of the museum context, and never coming close to reaching its ideal height, Syjuco’s appropriation is a simulacrum of the sculpture exhibited across the street. On a more structural level, it establishes a shadow system of distribution outside of the institution, which owns the rights to exhibit the piece. The posters in the short stack at Catharine Clark are the very same ones that can be obtained at SFMOMA, but with the change in context and scale, the significance of pulling a poster off the pile and taking it home is entirely different.

Here, what the viewer takes is not an original Gonzalez-Torres copy, but a Syjuco appropriation: an illicit object, legally pilfered but illegitimately re-presented outside of its intended context, apart from its ideal sculptural form, in a secondary venue. Gonzalez-Torres questioned the idea of the original by presenting free copies as parts of a whole, which nonetheless maintained a kind of aura. Syjuco questions the copy by deflating the pristine minimalist form of the whole and bootlegging its parts.

At Syjuco’s distribution point, the posters are actually free: viewers do not have to pay admission to get one. But the gallery will not replenish it, making participation visible and semi-permanent, affecting the encounter subsequent viewers will have with the work. Syjuco’s remaking of the piece creates a new sense of responsibility. When you take one of these prints away, your mark is visible. The act of taking is no longer benign. As a countermeasure, some viewers bring posters from the museum to the Viewing Room in order to contribute to the stack. Though the prints are both free and artificially scarce in their new context, they become somewhat less desirable. This inversion messes with the normal economy of supply and demand in the gallery, but not by way of the now-conventional method of convivial offering. The work is less about generosity than it is about complicity and responsibility. It makes visible and present the muddled complexity of the common space between us. It questions the conditions of exchange and intervention in this space.

The space of interpersonal exchange in this work is not altruistic, but explicitly commercial; it cannot be separated from an economy, in part because of its context in an art gallery. However, the idea of economy presented here is not monolithic. It is a series of systems that can be manipulated—to a point. Syjuco’s interventions foreground the commercial mediation of our exchanges with other people, but also obscure it. There is no resolute solution suggested in her work, no fix for the desire-driven, and so implicitly commercial, aspect of social relation. There is no avoiding complicity in capitalist exchange, but this does not preclude the possibility for small dislocations, fractures that show the dark stuff beneath without attempting to explain it away.

 

“Beg/Borrow/Steal” is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco through May 15, 2010.

 

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NOTES:

[1] Sonja Lavaert and Pascal Gielen, “The Dismeasure of Art: An Interview with Paolo Virno,” in Open 17—A Precarious Existence: Vulnerability in the Public Domain, Jorinde Seijdel and Liesbeth Melis, eds, (2009): 72-85.

[2] Gregory Sholette, “Swampwalls: Dark Matter & the Lumpen Army of Art,” in Proximity Magazine, Issue 001, Chicago (2008): 35-45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

 

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