Since the late 1990s, Melbourne‐based artist Ricky Swallow has mined the forgotten junk of his childhood memory as the basis of a series of meticulously detailed, 1:1 scale models. Many of these models are crafted in the image of recently defunct technological toys and commodities from the 1980s, such as hand‐ held computer games, ‘ghetto blasters’, cassette tapes, a metal detector and a BMX bike. 1 Meticulously constructed from binders board, glue, plastic tubes, craft‐ wood and paint, all of the objects − which are the result of several hundred hours of labour − are suggestive of the ‘pass‐time’ of a hobby craftsman, or the mimetic forms of play enacted in a kindergarten. A more recent corpus of this series has been modelled after freshly obsolete commodity logos, such as the Apple Mac icon, the 2000 Apple Power book, a Game Boy, and a discarded pair of Campers brand sneakers.2 All of these commodities once stood as icons of their time; they [End page 15] once epitomised the cutting‐edge in technological innovation or the latest, greatest, and often biggest commodity on the market.
Figure 1. Ricky Swallow, Vacated Campers 2000 (binders board, paper, glue) 10 x 32 x 35 cm.
Swallow’s painstakingly detailed models of outdated commodities are pertinent to debates in contemporary critical theory because they reinvigorate questions about time and the commodity form in postmodern art and culture. This paper argues that Swallow’s models open up debates about time, commodity culture and art as they have been articulated by Hal Foster,3 and marked out by the artists Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach specifically − both of whom, according to Foster, have epitomised the limitations of 1980s versions of postmodern politics in their appropriations and framings of commodity fetishes as art objects proper. Whilst Swallow’s models of commodities may evoke the ‘commodity sculpture’ genealogy, that Foster traces as one of the quintessential and problematic moments in postmodern culture, this paper also investigates the ways that they complicate the concepts of time and periodisation that Foster attaches to these practices. Given that Koons and Steinbach’s commodity sculptures are read as confirming the death of avant‐garde transgression and innovation in art, marking the final capitulation of art and history to the stagnant temporalities of late capitalism (what Foster otherwise identifies as postmodernism’s unquenchable thirst for ‘retroversion’ in art and culture), this article holds that Swallow’s forms engage this problematic of time and the commodity in productive ways.
Specifically, I will trace the ways in which Swallow’s forms reconfigure the commodity sculpture’s stagnation of history in the way that they literally mark time in and of the commodity form. I will suggest that this marking of time is carried out by Swallow in his hand‐crafting of outdated fetishes. His models open up the possibility of time in the way that they foreground the labour‐time required to make the commodities, just as they also critically frame the temporality of the commodity by demonstrating the way it is made obsolescent in its very process of appearing ‘new’.
In this way, I contend that Swallow’s arrested commodities are best understood as timely enactments of Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the commodity fossil because they critically frame the way that capitalism freezes time in its process of creating endlessly new commodities. This concept is useful not only because it historicises postmodernism and unhinges the stagnation of art and time in the commodity form, but because this process of ‘crafting time’ also complicates the distinctions between avant‐garde transgression (Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ [End page 16] pieces) and postmodern retroversion (the ‘already‐made’ commodity sculpture forms of Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach) that, according to Foster, immobilises contemporary critical relations.
Swallow’s renditions have stripped the commodities of their aura. Having been bleached of all colour and robbed of sound and movement, they are made to recall the extinct pieces of nature that are on display in nineteenth‐century museum exhibits. The distance between the primitive nature of the technologies used to make these models and the purportedly advanced micro‐standards of current technologies, is further emphasised by the crude materials and rudimentary processes through which the forms are made. This emphasis on the elementary production methods of the models also functions to subvert, with irony, the childish dreams of omnipotence and transcendence that most likely attached themselves to the toys once upon a time. These objects no longer confirm the dictate that, to paraphrase Swallow, ‘big is better’,4 nor do they evoke a boy’s backyard dreams of mastery and control, but rather, as Daniel Palmer notes, the objects rest as if suspended “in a state of imaginatively short‐circuited historical progression”.5 They are defunct objects with no prospect of leading civilisation forward, or of signalling “a coming of age”6 as they once did for Swallow, but rather, petrified and scattered on the gallery floor, they testify to the mythical past and its buried dreams − dreams which lie dormant in cupboards, garages and market‐stalls.7
The failure of commodity dreams − the commodity’s fall from immaterial transcendence to material immanence − is humorously dramatised in Swallow’s cardboard replicas of an empty pair of Campers brand sneakers, titled Vacated Campers 2000. One of the sneakers lies petrified on its side, tragic, untouched, as if it bears some precious evidence of a civilisation that once walked upright, or, as Justin Paton suggests, “the last upright step in the story of some evolutionary downfall.”8
Eviscerated of their auratic glow as commodities and made to appear like hollowed‐out fossils, the sneakers are suggestive of the downward spiral of late capitalist society bent on consuming dreams of ‘upward mobility’; dreams that are ceaselessly vanquished and hollowed‐out in small plastic forms. In a related gesture, Swallow takes the obsolete rainbow coloured Apple Mac logo out of the flatness of the hyper‐realm and crystallises it into three‐dimensional form. Branded with the iconic, potentially biblical title Apple 2000 2000, the object is left to rest among all the other obsolescent icons that have fallen from grace. [End page 17]
Figure 2. Ricky Swallow, Apple 2000 2000, edition of 12 (pigmented resin) 9.5 x 7.5 x 7.5 cm Courtesy Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.
Out of the flat land of the computer screen the old corporate logo is stripped of its spiritual glow and takes its place amongst the mortal world of things where it lies as a ‘wooden’ object, patterned and layered into the multicoloured, fragmentary and ephemeral strata of archaeological time. [End page 18] Swallowʹs act of forging a critical distance from the stifling grip of the commodity is held to be ʹtimelyʹ because it enacts a more productive engagement with Jeff Koonsʹ and Haim Steinbachʹs commodity sculpture movement and their interpretation of Duchampʹs readymade pieces; Swallow’s tactical engagement with the commodity is productive because it alludes to Fosterʹs notion of the ongoing mimetic dimension of the avant‐garde. I will briefly outline Koons and Steinbach’s reconfiguration of Duchamp’s ‘readymade’ in their ‘commodity sculptures’ in order to productively situate the way in which Swallow’s act of ‘crafting time’ complicates the figuration of temporality in both movements.
Ricky Swallow’s models recall Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach’s commodity sculptures in their evocation of the commodity fetish and its relationship to art and culture. His Campers sneakers explicitly recall Steinbach’s appropriation of Air Jordan sneakers (set on a formica shelf next to five plastic gold goblets and titled related and different 1985). His various entertainment technologies, computer pieces and BMX bike allude to late capitalism’s fascination with the commodity logo that is auratised in Koons’ vacuum cleaners (displayed behind plexiglass and titled New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker 1981). Swallow’s commodity fetishes bear a further similarity to Koons and Steinbach’s fetishes because many of his objects have been appropriated from the same era − the 1980s. However, whilst Koons and Steinbach’s sculptures are ‘of their time,’ Swallow’s objects are drawn from a bygone era, and this temporal distance − Swallow’s act of working from the vantage point of the present − is one of the first critical divergences that his models enact.
Indeed, Koons and Steinbach’s symbiotic relationship to their time is one of the central problems that Hal Foster identifies in the commodity sculpture ‘movement’. In “The Art of Cynical Reason,” Foster argues that both Steinbach’s Air Jordan sneakers and Koons’ vacuum cleaners epitomise some of the limitations of the postmodern politics of the 1980s.9 Situated in a cultural milieu that is dominated by the consumer excesses of the Reagan era, these so‐called ‘commodity sculptures’ epitomise the stagnation of art and history in late capitalism; they embody the notion that there is no form of innovation in art and history outside of commodity culture, and they mark the death of the avant‐garde [End page 19] and its impulse to transgress received cultures. Foster argues that they commemorate the rehashing of the image‐reserves of culture as the only accounts of innovation in post‐war art.10
Commodity sculpture’s purported co‐option of the critical potential of the avant‐garde is, according to Foster, primarily played out through their ironic reduction and reversal of the readymade and its articulation of the relationship between art and value.11 Whereas Duchamp’s readymades opened up the question of the value of art in culture, commodity sculpture consigns art to commodity relations. The readymade’s substitution of an object, of aesthetic and/or exchange/exhibition value with an object of use value (a urinal in place of a sculpture) in order to pose the question of the aesthetic value of the object is inverted in Koons and Steinbach’s sculptures, since they present objects of exchange/exhibition in the place of art in a way that cancels use value entirely. Foster argues that their foregrounding of the exhibition quality of the objects − their status primarily as commodity spectacles − alludes to the way that art has become an integral part of the commodity sign. They gesture toward the structural chiasmus between the economy and the sign, and along with the thoroughgoing meddling between commodity exchange and signification, they evoke the way that art has become yet another commodity signifier for consumption.12
Foster goes on to argue that commodity sculpture’s shift in interest − its awareness of late capitalism’s meddlings between art and commodity relations − also cancels out its own critical impetus. Whereas Duchamp’s readymade opened up a nihilistic attack on the autonomy of art and its associated notions of originality and creative genius, commodity sculpture’s attempt to decentre the established culture by working on it from within compromises the critical efficacy of postmodern culture.13 In place of the avant‐garde temporality of revolutionary rupture − the modernist avant‐garde “endings of art” − Foster argues that Koons and Steinbach’s forms mark postmodernism’s ineffectual “endgamings in art.”14 Despite the invitation to read commodity sculpture’s attempt to thematise the fetishism of the signifier as a parody of the commodity‐art system, Foster argues that commodity sculptures fail to maintain a productive contradiction between high art and the commodity. The sculptures fail to critically acknowledge the ways in which “the art system trades in commodities, just as the political economy circulates in signs” because they trade on both sides of the equation; they preserve “the aesthetic categories and social distinctions of art” even as they point “to the [End page 20] structural implosion of high and low forms in this new order of exchange.”15 By borrowing from the best of both worlds, Foster argues that commodity sculptures do not necessarily transform the political economy of the commodity sign but mark its epitome, since they often reduce art practices to simulacra for exchange.16 He claims that commodity sculptures are often limited by a “triumphant defeatism” because they seem to commemorate the impossibility of “transcendence in art” or “transgression into society.”17 According to Foster, given over to the ceaseless appropriations of popular culture, these artists suggest that the appropriation of the commodity is “the only option for making in a political economy of the commodity sign.” 18
Ricky Swallow’s commodity models forge a critical distance from the commodity‐art system that Koons’ and Steinbach’s forms purportedly commemorate. They mark this distance not only because they appropriate recently outdated commodities rather than current fetishes as their subject, but because their emphasis on the labour of constructing obsolete commodity forms tactically subverts the subsumption of art into the late capitalist image that purportedly limits Koons and Steinbach’s commodity sculptures. The manual processes through which each of Swallow’s objects are constructed suggest an ironic play with the postmodern dictate that, a “suicidal embrace” of the commodity is “the only option for making in a political economy of the commodity sign.”19 Swallow’s objects trivialise and ironise late capitalism’s strangulation of the image by invoking the dematerialised art‐logo in the craft aesthetic from pre‐industrial culture. By working on the forms from (post)industrial orders of reproduction/simulation in a pre‐industrial mode of production − by making commodity spectacles out of the rudimentary materials that a hobby craftsman might use − Swallow’s forms achieve a sense of critical distance from the dematerialised commodity spectacle that, according to Foster, Koons’ and Steinbach’s ‘postmodern’ sculptures fail to enact. His ‘handmade readymades’ signal a re‐evaluation of the object‐status of art and the possibilities of ‘making’ in a manner that also animadverts late capitalism’s nostalgia for the authentic, handmade artefact. [End page 21] Most important, however, is the way that Swallow’s ‘crafty’ relation to the commodity sculptures of Koons and Steinbach frame the problematic of commodity culture (and its impact on art and history) in terms of a preoccupation with the question of time. This ‘timely’ dimension of Swallow’s hobby craftsmanship is made visually explicit in the way the forms bear traces of the contact hours required to make the pieces and in their allusions to an earlier moment in the history of production itself. It is also evident in the way their handcrafted obsolescence track the movements of late capitalism itself; they oscillate around an ironic disjunction between the speed with which late capitalism renders its commodities obsolete, and the enormous amounts of contact‐time − the care and labour − that is required to make these objects look démodé. By labouring upon the discrepancy between the acceleration of time in late capitalism (the ceaseless turnover of the commodity image), and the leisurely pace that the hobby craftsman works at in order to make concrete objects, Swallow’s forms enact a literal slowing down of time; his tactile reproductions invoke the dilemma of reification with both a sense of irony and sincerity − they encourage us to witness the dexterity with which late capitalism divorces us (both literally and metaphorically) from our ‘senses’.
Indeed if late capitalism is the culture of speed and the associated conditions of altered visual perception and stability, as Paul Virilio characterises it in The Aesthetics of Disappearance,20 the accelerated pace of commodity culture is finally short‐circuited in the exhibition of Swallow’s forms − their complete stasis − and the way that their frozen appearance is evocative of a series of ancient fossils. As Marah Braye, Heide Zuckerman Jacobson and Justin Paton have all independently noted, many of Swallow’s outdated commodities have been made to look like extinct fragments excavated from an ancient civilisation, evidencing mythical and magical properties in their obsolescence. 21 Swallow’s BMX bike, Peugeot Taipan 1999, his cardboard renditions of Campers brand sneakers, Vacated Campers 2000 and his various entertainment technologies, X‐Bass Woofer 1998 and Digital Derby 1998, all appear as mythic and as ancient as the remnants unearthed from Pompeii. Other pieces, like Swallow’s rendition of the Apple Mac laptop, has been made to appear like extinct flora or fauna in a natural history museum; crafted out of balsa wood and displayed upside down, Swallow’s Silence Kit/Upturned Power Book 2001 rests as evidence of a technological ‘survival of the fittest’ game − a stark reminder of the increasing speed of commodity obsolescence.22 [End page 22] This fossil aesthetic gestures to another way in which Swallow complicates the reification of time within the commodity, namely, his allusions to the critical concepts of time and modernity that are theorised in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. 23 Benjamin develops a metaphoric connection between the outmoded commodity and the extinct, fossilised pieces of nature on display in museums as a critical intervention into the stagnation of time in the modern commodity fetish. He holds that whilst modernity’s phantasmagoric images of the fashionably ‘new’ or the technologically ‘advanced’ are reproduced in order to sell its own teleology of historical progress, modernity is actually at its most stagnant and ancient when caught in the fetishism of the ceaselessly new commodity. He argues that this commodity fetishism can be critically immobilised if the commodity is unhinged from its illusion of ceaseless progress and revealed to be the mythic and static temporality that it actually is. The resuscitation of recently outdated commodities is capable of performing this strategy because they are likely to illuminate the ancient longings and archaic dreams that are locked into the commodity form. Recently outdated commodities are likely to take on the appearance of fossils if resuscitated from the rubbish heap, and in taking on the appearance of the mythic and the ancient, they are able to reveal the way that history is at its most stagnant when naturalised as the endless development of commodity culture. 24
Swallow’s forms can be viewed as literalisations of Benjamin’s metaphor of the fossil and its potential of forging a critical distance from the economy of the commodity sign. By crafting recently outdated commodity fetishes as though they are ancient fossils, we are encouraged to view the economy of the art object as if we inhabit a later cultural moment − as if this postmodern impasse in history has, in fact, passed. This ethnographic framing of the commodity gestures toward a critical distance from within the economy of the commodity that also appears to foreclose it; it alludes to the ancient and utopian seeds of time that are ceaselessly buried in the commodity fetish and brought to life in recently outdated forms. It is suggestive of the defunct dreams and wishes that a Surrealist artist might hope to resuscitate.
The timely pertinence of Swallow’s replicas of ‘already‐made’ commodity fetishes not only rest in the way they offer a ‘crafty’ inversion of the stagnation of art and time in commodity culture, or what Foster otherwise terms the final turn to retroversion in postmodern art practise. Swallow’s historicisation of the ‘postmodern’ temporalities of Koons and Steinbach’s commodity sculptures also [End page 23] has ramifications for the way we conceptualise postmodernism’s relationship to the avant‐garde. His markings of time in and of the readymade commodity form reinvoke the critical potential of the avant‐garde in light of recent postmodern cultures.
To be specific, the ‘craft’ of Swallow’s forms rests in the way they recall Duchamp’s readymade forms but refuses to consign them to a failed and ossified moment in the history of the avant‐garde − a moment that, as Peter Bürger argues in Theory of the Avant‐Garde, is defined as a failed attempt to perform a revolutionary break in aesthetics. 25 Swallow reconfigures the readymade by staging a complex play upon the avant‐garde’s association with revolution; the ‘radical’ temporality of the readymade is presented as being made manifest in the nostalgic ‘pass‐time’ of the hobby model‐maker, thus offering a humorous play upon the tensions between the purportedly progressive, ‘radical’ temporality of rupture (conventionally associated with Duchamp’s modernist attack on the art institution), and the supposedly regressive, nostalgic temporality of reproduction that is played out, not only in Foster’s reading of postmodern retroversion, but also in the miniaturised worlds of the hobby model maker. In his humble, ‘small‐time’, handmade renditions of the ‘readymade’, Swallow’s pieces suggest that replication bears within it the potential of small revolutions.
This tactical engagement with the readymade − Swallow’s practice of literally drawing forth some of the arresting moments that have been deemed impossible in postmodern culture − enacts a staging of Foster’s theory of the endless potential of avant‐garde temporality, a notion that he otherwise terms the “mimetic dimension” of the avant‐garde.26 This so‐called ‘mimetic dimension’ is critical for Foster because it acknowledges the way that the avant‐garde is “contradictory, mobile and otherwise diabolical.”27 Rather than taking the avant‐garde’s romantic rhetoric of rupture and revolution at its own word − rather than dismissing it as false, circular and otherwise affirmative − Foster argues that the shock of the avant‐ garde, and, in particular, the readymade, is never absorbed in its initial stagings. It “is never historically effective or fully significant in its initial moments,” but becomes significant in its retroactive stagings.28 Its attacks must be understood as “contextual and performative.” 29 This awareness of the ongoing performative potential of the avant‐garde/readymade is crucial for Foster because it enables the reappraisal of time in a postmodern cultural milieu that proclaims to mark the end of time.30 [End page 24] Each of Swallow’s ‘handmade readymades’ draw attention to Foster’s notion of the ‘mimetic dimension’ of the avant‐garde, alluding to the way in which its critiques are tactical interventions into a particular moment in time, rather than a radical and final rupture. That is to say, Swallow’s ‘handmade’ reproductions of readymade forms recontextualise Duchamp’s readymade act in the way they transform its temporality of radical rupture to a form of reproduction that becomes original and authentic in its very repetition. This mimetic aspect of the readymade, its capacity to work both within and against the grain of culture, as both original and copy, is displayed, most evidently, in Swallow’s fossilised replica of the BMX bike, titled Peugeot Taipan, which has been bleached white, robbed of its brand‐ name stickers, and left to rest as a mere silhouette propped against the gallery wall. The bike stands, quite explicitly, as a mimetic enactment of Duchamp’s readymade bicycle wheel, and like Duchamp’s wheel, Swallow’s framing of the found object recalls Duchamp’s conceptual work about the work of art itself. However, as a mimetic enactment of Duchamp’s readymade bicycle wheel, Swallow’s full‐size replica of the BMX humorously extends Duchamp’s piece in both conceptual and material terms. The white bike rests camouflaged against the gallery wall, miming and making literal the necessary institutional support of the art work, even whilst, at the same time, it appears like a strange growth which has infected the institution itself, enabling a timely revisioning of the monolithic cohesiveness of the museum. The leaning BMX highlights the art work’s dependence upon the museum and its transformation of it.
Swallow’s fossilised BMX enacts a second tactical engagement with Duchamp’s readymade in the way that it extends the isolated wheel not only to address the ongoing question of the meaning of ‘art’, but in order to question the place of art in contemporary commodity culture. If Duchamp’s ingenious strategy rested in emphasising the intellectual dexterity of the artist in an art world reliant upon the trace of the hand, Swallow’s ‘crafty’ move rests in his act of foregrounding the manual dexterity of the artist in an art world driven by the sheer speed of commodity spectacles. The agility of Swallow’s readymade bike rests, not only in the way in which it alludes to the contingency of the art work, but to the tactics, the manual dexterity, or the ‘craft’ in slowing the speed of the commodity spectacle. His forms are ‘skilful’ in the way they craft time in a postmodern milieu that proclaims the end of innovation. For without the presence [End page 25] of the artist’s hand, Swallow’s bike alludes to the way in which the critical potential of the readymade wheel is left somewhat bereft.
I have argued that Swallow’s forms gesture towards the historicisation of postmodernism in the way they literally craft time in and of a range of commodity fetishes. They open up the markings of time by emphasising the contact‐time through which the commodities were constructed, and in doing so they enact a critical distance from the speed of commodity obsolescence. By way of conclusion then, it can be argued that Swallow’s ‘crafty’ engagement with the all‐ encompassing reach of late capitalism enacts a critical strategy that productively relates to Michel de Certeau’s concept of ‘tactical subversion’.31 Swallow’s ‘crafty’ engagement with late capitalism can be seen as a literal enactment of de Certeau’s notion of tactical subversion because, like de Certeau’s theory of tactics, Swallow’s forms subvert the rules of a hegemonic order by working within them and by using tools that are readily ‘at hand’. Indeed, Swallow’s excessive contact with commodity culture, saturated in both the form and content of his works, is the means by which he subverts its ubiquity; he reproduces and recycles the icons of late capitalism in the fragile materials of paper and glue, and it is this tactile crafting of the commodity that literally makes all the ‘difference’. Swallow’s ‘tactical engagements’ with the commodity − his crafty markings of time − enable him to forge a sense of critical distance from within the commodity that also forecloses it, and it is these complex markings of time in and of the commodity form, that evidence the ‘true skill’ of Swallow’s hobby model‐making craft.
About the Author
Marita Bullock was recently awarded her PhD (English deartment, UNSW) on questions of time, collecting and trash in contemporary art and culture in the context of theories of modernity/postmodernity and Walter Benjaminʹs The Arcades Project. She is currently in the process of revising sections of the project for publication as a book.