DETRITUS ME THIS!
(BAGGED AND TAGGED… BY DODI RIEFENBERG)
A continuous state of material ubiquity runs like a consumer-fed infection through the modern age. Whereas notions of the many once stood opposition to the few, and was thought of as a counter current to the aesthetics of the unique, an alternative valorisation of repetition has now all but fully taken place. However, while we might want to find comfort in its origins, as in such sources as Dada, collage, bricolage, assemblage, through Neo-Dada, to Nouveau Realism and Pop Art, this is but to put a belated diachronic linearity to something that is now a synchronic commonplace in our lives. We voraciously consume and it may be that we have now reached the liminal extreme of the implications that flow unremittingly from our engagement with material ubiquity.
The art of Dodi Reifenberg takes its starting point from one of the most banal materials of consumption, namely the simple throwaway plastic bag. But far from the valorisations and status allocations of these countless units of mediated consumption, he does not champion their complex textual signs, superimposed printed matter as signifiers, their signified and signage. Reifenberg largely strips away all the immediate psychological paraphernalia of assigned consumption, the marketing logo, or company advertising as text, with their differentiated cultural and/or social status associations. What is clear from the beginning is that any use of textual referent, should it appear, is an oblique and witty political critique, as in Reifenberg's work Herzl Exposed (2008), rather than a celebratory commercial undertaking. 1 Reifenberg's images, reliefs and sculptures are born of a form of active recycling and adaptation, but a recycling that cuts to the very heart of society's wasteful excess. Without any moralising on the part of the artist Reifenberg, that that has the least of values has been knowingly elevated into the different genres through which fine art presents itself – the portrait, the relief (or wall hanging) and sculpture. The effect is humorous and at the same time the most ephemeral of materials are made strangely substantial – intended detritus becomes art.
The portrait works of Reifenberg have a special character insomuch as they are generated from small cut-up elements derived from found and collected plastic bags. In an artistic sense Reifenberg is a bagman in the most literal way. What begins with the use of a photographic source as an aide memoire, and as an instrumental point of departure, is then translated by small cut-up sections (or slivers) of a plastic bags that are meticulously assembled and affixed in a manner that is visually analogous to a collage-mosaic. In consequence each cut-up plastic element forms both the image and the necessary light and dark modelling of the realised representation. Having been placed on a stretcher the ground or surface of the image is also derived from an original plastic bag source. In works like B.H.Obama and H.G.Wells (2008) we are able to see the meticulous and laborious build up of the portrait images, the visual appearance being in part like traditional mosaic and the application of tesserae (save that they are affixed with scotch tape). In the case of the B.H.Obama portrait the left side tessellated head of the sitter is shown in contrast to the flat black plastic field of the surface to the right. Conversely, in the H.G.,Wells image the tessellated plastic bag elements are patterned across the complete surface. Hence we can argue that Reifenberg quite deliberately plays with the idea of collage as mosaic, of recreating a particular image generated through abstract patterning. 2
In the case of the much larger portrait of Walter Benjamin (2007), a work of greater labour requiring three months to complete, we see again the dialectic of the flat and the patterned. Benjamin the iconic Berlin Jew has a particular affinity for Reifenberg, not only because it is the city where the artist lives and works, but also because of the complex historical interactivity between the city and Jewish culture. A visual iconic rupture made evident in a self-portrait which he has simply left untitled and dated 2008, and which includes layered references to personal itinerancy, material re-use and circulation. This said, Reifenberg's choice of subjects is not specifically Semitic regardless of his own ethnicity, and he can just as readily refer to traditional art historical sources as in The Ring (2007) that makes a direct reference through a detail to a famous School of Fontainebleau (c. 1590) painting. The painting is famous because it presents two naked half female torsos in a salle de bain, and where the one on the left tweeks the nipple of her woman friend to the right. That Reifenberg has chosen the detail of the stylised hand gesture tweeking the nipple is not without its own personal irony. It is important to stress again, however, that while the photographic images of departure have been chosen by the artist, there still remains something of a sense of initial found-ness about them. For example in I Put My Hand On You (2007?) of a young bespectacled man running, with its adapted finger-knuckle foreground invasion of the image, there seems also to be an intended inference as to the moment of finding or discovery.
If references to Mosaic and to cut-up patterning form one polarity in another sense the idea of plaiting and screening form a counter pole. In works like Scan and GHOST clothes (2008) plastic bags have been quite literally plaited or knitted together to form wall hangings or screens. The multi-coloured work Scan is three metres long and one metre seventy wide, and hangs from ceiling to floor. Acting as an actual screen, or architectural divider, it appears more like a carpet as if seen from an aerial viewpoint. While the work GHOST Clothes is smaller and uniform in its patterning, it has been plaited from a single patterned but repeated plastic bag. Again it is interesting to think through this unconventional practice by Reifenberg, for what appears one thing almost invariably ciphers another. Plastic bags turned into a knitted dress, turned into a reference to the object it might have originally contained, but non-utilisable because it functions as an object hanging on a wall. We are clearly placed in a field of semiotic slippage. But it is a strange place where the obtuse non-utility of the work Ghost clothes, gives it again a direct re-entry into the discourse of fine art. For long ago Oscar Wilde wittily observed 'all art is quite useless' 3 In this manner the contemplative Kantian ding-an-sich (the 'thing in itself') nature of an art work is able to assert again its unknowable contents. 4 By extension, the knitting-crocheting together of these plastic bag elements had previously asserted its art-based authenticity in works like Reifenberg's Soutine Schinken (2003) and Bacon's bacon (2007). These of course reference the paintings of Chaim Soutine's famous side of beef, and Francis Bacon's subsequent appropriation and retransmission of the same subject; a somewhat strange outcome, perhaps, for what are discardable or throwaway plastic bags.
The principle of accumulation is also important to Dodi Reifenberg's art, and that is not merely in the huge accumulation of plastic bags he undertakes. Rather accumulation for the artist is an extended aesthetic principle, something he makes clear in his sculpture project A copy of the answer, where he introduces a chicken wire and wooden frame container into the gallery space. In this container discarded plastic bags are presented and visitors to the exhibition are invited to add to them. In this way not only visitor participation but by extension aesthetic involvement is implied. The aesthetic of accumulation and repetition has its origins in Nouveau Realism and the work of Arman in the 1960s, at which time typological objects were simply accumulated and presented. 5 The idea of accumulation(s) as portraiture also comes from this Arman period, where objects owned by specific people were presented in the manner of associated identification, a sort of 'I am what I own'. In works like Earth (2008) and his earlier Green World (2003) Reifenberg configures literal florescence-like accumulations out of single coloured plastic bags. In other works this is extended to association with other objects, as in the four seat-less dining chairs and plastic back assemblage called Setting (1999/2008) or dustYpink (2003), where what appears to be a feather duster is encased in a florescent pink plastic bag universe.
Both the concept and performative action of discarding and 'discardability', is also something that Reifenberg has taken up in his work. In a series of works first begun in 1995, and called simply Tosser, we find not only the notion of a bag simply discarded, but also a perverse word play on the verb to toss or throw away. But as every Englishman also knows, the term 'tosser' is also commonly a soft slang for a masturbator, an idea that reinforces perhaps a further sense of waste and the discardable. Also it is surely not coincidental that the discarded Tosser examples illustrated in the exhibition are bags coloured gold and silver, colour metaphors of the precious and valuable that are simply discarded or tossed away. However, the idea of composition and pictorial association is also evident in Reifenberg's work. A work like Mini Morning (2008) plays deliberately with many of the modern tropes of picture making. The torn plastic bikini-ed Wesselman-like figure on a beach or bed, and the Polke-like transparency of the seen stretcher beneath, have been transported into the language of cheap discarded and brightly coloured plastic bags. A work like River Years (2008) takes matters even further, being summarily draped and loosely attached onto a stretcher frame, the title suggesting also a river location as a place where many of the discarded plastic bags might end up. In a work made of bin liners and plastic bags, that for the most part are intended to contain other discarded materials, the appropriative attitude of Reifenberg the artist is most fundamentally stated.
Perhaps, one thing remains to be said, and adds greater irony to all these earnest visual assertions on my part, namely Dodi Reifenberg's deliberate pun made on the idea on plastic and plasticity. The visual arts are themselves also the plastic arts, defined as "those visual arts that involve the use of materials that can be moulded or modulated in some way, often in three dimensions:" Thus humour as simile (the concept and the thing) is never far from Reifenberg's mind, as he pursues his plastic 'plastic arts'. The works aim to exercise aesthetic expression in an adaptive form of plasticity through the cheapest and meanest of plastic materials. At a certain level Reifenberg's work is bound to be seen in relation to Pop Art and Nouveau Realism, which were among the first movements to elevate the role of plastics and synthetics into art materials. Similarly, the 1960s idea of vitrines of personal waste and detritus derived from thrown away material sources, portraits of "we are what we consume', also played a part in changing perceptions towards such materials. To Dodi Reifenberg the throw away plastic bag offers access to the ephemeral core of modern consumption on the one hand, and its simultaneous celebration and subversion on the other. The plastic bag may represent in retrospect the strange futility of valueless abundance that besets our age. To turn plastic bags into works of art therefore adds a sense of meaning to the superflous, elevates the banal, and paradoxically creates an immaterial aesthetic substance, from that that would otherwise have no value as substance whatsoever. In short making art from artlessness is a practice that the artist Dodi Reifenberg continues with daily diligence to achieve.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
1 Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) born in Pest was the Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist who is seen as the founding father of modern Zionism.
2 It makes reference to Mosaic as an art form if only to make clear by analogy the process of application and juxtaposition that Reifenberg adopts. The traditional Mosaic applications may be defined as follows: Opus Tessellatum Tesserae laid in straight lines like bricks; Opus Regulatum vertical and horizontal lines in regular grid; Opus Vermiculatum flowing lines of tesserae wriggling over the surface; Opus Musivum Vermiculatum used totally over image and background; Opus Palladianum irregular fitting shapes like crazy paving. It is this last category that seems most applicable to Reifenberg.
3 "We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless." Oscar Wilde: Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
4 Immanuel Kant in his "Critique of Pure Reason" describes it as the reality of the thing - the essence beyond the knowledge of appearances. The ding an sich is unknowable though certainly existing, providing a unique angle for the contemplation of art in general, and specifically the relationships between artists, audiences, and the work itself.
5 Arman and Pierre Restany, Arman 1955-1991: A Retrospective, ex. cat., Houston Museum of Fine Art, 1991. See also, Donald Kuspit, Arman: Monochrome Accumulations 1986-89, Stockholm, AH-Grafik, 1990.