Whitecross Gallery

As the countdown to Christmas begins, and the streets overflow with frenzied shoppers and revellers, an aptly themed exhibition, The Art of Consumption exists until the 22nd December at the Whitecross Gallery, near the Barbican in East London. Despite the title, the exhibition takes a bravely critical approach to explore different aspects of consumerism in contemporary culture. On entering the gallery you are not plunged into a blatant and garishly kitsch extravaganza of excess, as you might expect, rather you are fluidly guided through a multi layered visual and sensual experience with sophistication and charm. From the lure of temptation at its most seductive, you are gradually exposed to darker territory. Critically astute, and at times confrontational, without being didactic, the show succeeds in its stated aim to convey a sense of ambivalence within the heart of the consumer/consumed. The works are engaging and highly desirable, yet at the same time force an acknowledgement of complicity within a system where success is defined by wealth and glamour, at the expense of justice, compassion and humility. Pei-Shih Tu’s vibrant collages are directed at the consumerist focus of the gallery system, and to the wider context of the global art market, clearly questioning some of the effects of western capitalism upon poorer parts of the world. In It’s the Future a row of be-suited men sporting overly large grins, pose for the picture outside Frieze art fair, clutching copies of Frieze magazine and other telling paraphernalia. Their speech bubbles depict vacuous statements, and reveal their enthusiasm for the latest trends. Pei-Shih’s video Another Beautiful Day is made using the same labour intensive process of hand collage which is photographed and animated frame by frame. It combines cutesy caricatures with uncompromising politics. Korean artist Kira Kim employs his technical wizardry and magnificent visuals to also highlight pressing political issues, and encourage contemplative thought. His Coca Killer, a large LED lit sign, a variation on the well known Coca Cola logo, is a truly mesmerising piece, as its colour gradually evolves, from yellow to green, to cyan, mauve, and pink, with electricity cables running down the wall, to the floor, reminiscent of blood dripping – seductive but deathly, just like the sugary products that destroy children’s teeth and threaten our immune systems. The piece casts a glowing ‘red light district’ aura over the entire room and beyond, as its reflection passes through the window and across the street to the hairdressing salon opposite the gallery. Its insidious permeation of its surrounding environment resembles the way the logo has become embedded in our consciousness as a symbol of capital. Kim has no doubt witnessed first hand, some of the wanton destruction of community and environment that has become so alarmingly commonplace as multinational companies of such stature outsource factories to countries where labour is cheap, or even forced, and workers and locals are powerless to resist. However this piece also brings to mind the South American Killer Coke campaign, a reflection on a growing underground movement utilising such tools as the internet to successfully assert their voice and fight back. Similar territory is covered in Flowers by Jörg Obergfell, where a sad little bunch of flowers in a Tesco bag is attached to a fence railing as a customary tribute to a local deceased. In this case the mega brand Tesco has permeated the social psyche, space and shopping habits, to the point where even the dead are not spared. A humble tribute, and understated reflection on life in the era of Tesco-isation. Obergfell’s model sized sculptures are made from branded publicity and packaging materials, and positioned in unexpected places, such as his bat Fu that hangs upside down from the ceiling, its solar powered eyes glistening alternately. Or Born to Shop, quite possibly an image of himself dumpster diving for materials. The presence of a Brancusi’s Column also suggests his character scours the history of art for ideas and metaphorical significance. Each artist takes a refreshingly individual approach to their field, and there is a wide range of media on display, all of which are appropriate to the ideas conveyed.Argentinean born Cesar Baracca, for instance, creates mosaics out of credit cards which he cuts into tiny pieces, thereby destroying their potency as a symbol of power in the process of creating yet another, similarly desirable object, an illustrious artwork that shimmers and glistens as one moves past its reflective surfaces. The screen-like surface of Helen Murphy’s generic celebrity portraits also come alive as you move around the room. Their pretty faces turn grotesque as the printed image on their fine fabric layers changes and distorts with movement.Her elaborately patterned I Dream of Genie wallpapers cover two partition walls as if to theatrically frame the Coca Killer piece, again utilising cut and paste to explore the commodification of people, and consumption of images. Meantime Lucy Leonard’s kitchen drawer animation, hidden behind the partition wall, efficiently sorts itself into a maze of compartments, busily working to a background soundtrack of the clicking of a keyboard.

Viral Ivar, her miniature sculptural intervention reveals a fascination with anxieties associated with an accumulation of possessions and a desire for order and control. The delicacy of her construction, and the quirky nature of her video reveal a perfectionism and sensitivity to materials that is rare these days, and undoubtedly influenced by her architectural history.

Finally Etienne Clement whose accomplishments as an award winning architectural photographer secured his representation at the Baltic in 1998. As an artist, he now combines architecture with portraiture with equal distinction. For his Toy Stories series of photographs Clement uses techniques of perspective to distort scale, whereby ageing figurines appear as life size characters. The figurines, each conveying their own story, or stereotype gone sour, touch on narratives from popular culture. Some, such as Houellebecq’s World and My Beach Business are inside private spaces like bathrooms, where symbols and decor aid in the construction of characteristics or identities, others such as Green Geisha and Initials G.I. are set in larger more public spaces, like graffiti ridden, dilapidated subways, conveying a sense of unease and danger, and disrupting the seamless surface of the cycle of sheer consumption we are caught up in on a day to day basis. A thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended experience.