Josephine Meckseper
Whitewall - N°24, winter 2012
Unabridged version

Timothée Chaillou: We could easily think that your work depicts the world as a huge circuit of commodities, money and labor operating to satisfy the economic interests of the power elite. I suggest we start this interview with the general narrative and the poetic dimension of your displays. Could you tell us more about this?

Josephine Meckseper: The work equally reflects the role of the artist in our current consumer society. How does one reconcile the symbolic and the monetary value of cultural production? How does one make visible real economic and political realities without just mimicking them? Is there really still a subculture or subversiveness in art? This is the narrative behind the recent display sculptures.

TC: In your work, you’re used to denouncing the absurdity of consumerism by using images of luxury goods and ads. Could you expand on your use of Cartier’s ads?

JM: I was mainly interested in how they were placed in the New York Times as full-page ads. There was something propagandistic in the way they appeared; their monumental scale and the militaristic manner of calling a watch “Tank.”

TC: In the same way, your recent images wrapped in plastic film, as well as your 0% Down video, show expensive cars. Do they symbolize masculine futility?

These works demonstrate the endpoint of traditional production methods in relationship to the automobile industry and art production. The "car painting" with its shrink wrapped car imagery seems to have come directly from a conveyor belt, not an artist studio. The shrink-wrapped paintings and my film 0% Down also draw comparisons between art history and consumer culture and how it has been defined and shaped by gender. In 0% Down car commercials are combined to negate the manipulative force of advertising, by exposing the potential for violence in the car products by using a neo fascist sound track.

TC: You once said that you explore the contradictions, absurdities and contingencies of juxtaposition between, for instance, an article about an African massacre and a Chanel model, or underwear adverts. Could you explain this choice? Is this exploration still an important aspect in your current work?

JM: The commodification of news and how political content has been instrumentalized both in the media and in an art context. Both offer digestibility and packaging of human tragedy. The image of a “real event” has to compete with an advert. My works exaggerate this mode of disseminating information and consumerism in order to expose it.

TC: Your work questions the aesthetics of photography, both because it reuses images from the luxury world, but also because your installations are themselves very aesthetic. The quest for aesthetics sets rather strict rules in order to convey a message efficiently in the media. Do you aim at “visual efficiency working 100%”(Xavier Veilhan)?

JM: I think we are talking about conventions and stereotypes at this point. The mainstream media usually taps into the lowest common denominator to effectively reach their audience. People tend to buy what everyone else has. It's fairly easy to deconstruct the aesthetic principles of advertising and propaganda, which I do to some extent in my work. However, art has not followed any golden ratio type of aesthetic guidelines for many decades. The reasoning behind cultural production has become a much more complex process.

TC: Jeff Koons has said, “People in search of luxury are like insatiable alcoholics who lose all control up to depravity”. Do you think an object of desire and temptation can intoxicate the viewer?

No, I don't believe in this terminology, that’s advertising language. I think the mechanisms behind products are political and propagandistic. Capitalism is defined by the hidden power structures behind each product.

TC: What led you to use the shop window as a conceptual and structural framing device?

JM: I built the shop window displays as a frame of reference to go next to films that I had shot at demonstrations and riots. The films show acts of reclaiming the street and the politicizing of commercial shopping districts. The films show underexposed civil disobedience and protest, the display works overexposed modes of our consumer society.

TC: You have said that the clean surfaces of your shop window “are a provocation for vandalism and destruction. They represent the moment right before a demonstrator picks up a stone and smashes a window.” How do you deal with this tension between the viewer and your work? What will you do if a window is actually vandalized?

JM: What is meant here is that the windows were conceived in relationship to the demonstrator and not intended to be affirmative art objects. The inescapable reason for their existence is in anticipation of their own destruction.

TC: Jacques Rancière compared your display of images to the display of goods on a market. But at the same time, he said that you showed the viewer what he didn’t want to see, what he was ashamed of, to the extent that this satirical display became a luxury commodity belonging to what you denounced. I myself just can't tell if you express some inner disgust for power symbols, or some fascination, some kind of delight to make the viewer’s inhibition resurface. What are the common features with real shop windows that make them so annoyingly provocative? Do you use objects that repulse you? What is your way to “de-fascinate”?

I am not emotionally invested in the iconography of capitalism. I’m much more interested in capturing the present it all its forms as a reflection of our time. Artists have done this for centuries in painting, I’m just doing it in three dimensional forms. The display forms and objects are only signifiers of consumerism and are easily interchangeable. This is a key to the work – the objects themselves are mere signs of capitalism.

TC: Do you agree with Okwui Enwezor who has said about your work that you “employ the language of negation in order to explicitly defamiliarize the image of pop from its critical apparatus, namely, in the circulation of the message of commodity value”?

JM: Yes, the value of appropriated and recycled imagery and objects is central to my work. I’m looking for cultural and sociological end points as a platform to subvert notions of authenticity and value. The idea is to undermine an elitist art vocabulary that is not accessible to a broader audience.

TC: In the context of a fair or an exhibition in a gallery, displaying your shop windows on podiums creates an interesting mise en abyme of the art market. Does this reflect how human desire works?

JM: The reading of the work is circumstantial, as it reflects the respective degree of criticality that the viewer brings to his environment. The display works stand in a non affirmative relation to their own aesthetic and how they function in the gallery or institutional space.

TC: Everyone has a little arrangement of objects, somewhere right up front or stacked in a niche. Why is it that we have to express ourselves through objects by creating a mise en scène?

JM: Agamben describes the early roots of the collecting impulse in The Man Without Content and how the Wunderkammer in the Middle Ages were shelves from floor to ceilings filled statues and paintings next to natural wonders like ostrich eggs and strange rock shapes, etc. He goes on to explain, “this is why the individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe.”

TC: For Hal Foster, the appropriations in commodity sculpture “evoke the ambivalence of the surrealist object, if not the tribal gift. In the first tendency, strong in Steinbach, the art object is presented directly as a commodity – as if in a suicidal strike against consumption that is also an ecstatic embrace of it. In the second tendency, strong in Koons, the lost aura of art is replaced with the false aura of the commodity – a paradoxical move as well, given that it turns the readymade from a device that demystifies art into one that remystifies it. In both tendencies, then, the readymade according to Duchamp is reversed, and explicitly the commodity takes the place of the “allegorical way of seeing.”
In your work, how do you go beyond this aesthetical state described by Hal Foster?

JM: There is less of a recognizable signature work method at play in my work. It meanders and follows a more encyclopedic principle and rejects categorization. In the nineties, for example, my work took the form of a conceptual magazine; aside from the shop windows and display works, there are oil pumps and military bunkers that demonstrate other more militaristic sides of our current culture.

TC: What does being committed/subversive in the field of art mean to you?

It’s no longer necessary to choose between a subversive working mode and a commercial presentation, because they no longer have to negate each other. Artists are taking more control the distribution of their works. Art today has the capacity to move in an out of the parameters of an art market.

TC: What does the pedestal/the podium recall for you? What does it allow?

JM: The pedestal in its original definition and form is as outmoded as the altar in the church. In my work I am reversing its role of elevating form and value of the displayed objects by degrading it to a cheap department store - like appearance.

TC: Through the use of the podium, do you think that presented objects increase their coefficient of visibility?

JM: Worthless things can be ascribed a new significance or meaning if placed on a display platform. But they can also be ridiculed or devalued by putting them in an inflammatory context. There is nothing affirmative about the way objects are placed on shelves or on platforms in my work. Instead they represent artificial ignition points, targets like shop windows at a violent demonstration.

TC: Are you interested, and why, by catwalks and shopping display?

JM: I am employing the concept and strategy of consumer display platforms such as shop windows, vitrines, shelves, etc., to bring out the absurdity of useless consumer goods and the hidden power structures, such as labor conditions, associated with them.

TC: Does the use of the podium bring everything on a single plan to be more legible – a kind of pedagogy?

JM: My aim is to reconstruct simulate situations of consumer display modalities in order to deconstruct and question them.

TC: The plinth, the pedestal, the podium are areas of power, competition, emphasis and authority. Why do you use this typology? Can we elude these principles?

JM: I don’t want to elude principles of authority. Instead, I want to address them directly in my work. My “display sculptures” mostly incorporate or are hung next to photographs and films that I take at political demonstrations. The display forms become vulnerable targets and mockeries of established capitalist structures.

TC: What do you think about Barthes’ statement when he says ‘whatever the sense: things don’t matter, but the place of things does’?

JM: Or who is producing, distributing or consuming them… Things by themselves are indeed of no importance. Only the means of production relations and their consequences are of real interest. The romantic idea of sentimental value does not really factor into my work.

TC: How to avoid – or to play - the game of fetishism and object of desire/of temptation, with the podium?

JM: By demystifying the notion of value and class. Karl Marx described in his 1867 essay The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret, how concealment of the values and powers associated with a commodity is at the center of commodity fetishism. The very design of a product is a mirror reflecting its meanings and desires but concealing the power structure implicit in its fabrication.
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Exhibition view
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