Best Before Yesterday, Feature on Caroline McCarthy by Chris Townsend

for CIRCA Magazine, Summer 2006

Best Before Yesterday

It is surely now a truism to acknowledge that we live in a commoditised world. Indeed, we inhabit a world so structured around the exchange of objects, so saturated with signs, that people themselves have become commodities. Warhol, perhaps presciently, indisputably inadvertently, demonstrated this with Marilyns, Elvises and Lizies stacked up like so many towels or pop-posters.

There is a double action between human and object in this commodity culture: humans become ever more like things, instrumentally useful sources of profit; things become ever more like humans, anthropomorphised and invested with ‘character’. Time, embedded in object and human subject alike seems, however, not to obey this law of oscillation. Rather, it is a one-way trip to obsolescence.

Both human and thing are disposable commodities.

Caroline McCarthy’s work plays with this awkward relation of us and it, with the problem of disposability in a culture where the human, as readily as the fast food product, can easily slip past its sell-by date. Formally, much of McCarthy’s art is based upon the principles of collage and assemblage: it employs the found, everyday object and follows a modernist approach towards it.

McCarthy takes the disposable commodity and transforms it into art object. In recent projects such as

Promise (2003) she created an extraordinary landscape using the cartons from supermarket ready-meals. By cutting round the garnish that accompanied each photographed, idealised, product, raising it from a ‘soil’ of packaging, McCarthy illustrated how readily our conventional signs for nature had been harnessed to the marketing of commodities. What we see in Promise is a debased mimesis of nature growing out of a system of signs that exist and communicate for a purely commercial purpose – that have no other intended function as sign. McCarthy’s fragile saplings exploited the latent meaning in those signs that design would seek to close in its pursuit of single-minded salesmanship. Here, as elsewhere, McCarthy shows how the designation of the sign by the designer relies upon a clichéd cultural imagination of nature. These food products are about as distant from ‘nature’ as you can get; assembled from a multitude of ingredients in a sterile factory by cut-price labour and machinery in a matter of seconds. Any connection with the countryside is almost tangential; what really matters in the product is the ‘added value’ realised for its manufacturer and retailer through the

application of cheap labour in the name of convenience.

At the heart of this endeavour was, in part, an interest in the ideological inscription carried by something as seemingly innocent as food packaging. By ‘ideological inscription’ here I mean the way in which the use of signs within such objects exploits existing cultural codes both to facilitate our imaginations of particular subjects (here ‘the natural’, elsewhere ‘the exotic’) and constrain us, to help us think in particular ways (so that we associate the factory-made to the organic). In doing this,

McCarthy doesn’t only participate in the same formal economy as modernism, she seems to share an ethical stance with artists as different as John Heartfield in Berlin in the 1930s and Wallace Berman in California in the 1960s. Crucial to the modernist project in the early twentieth century, before it enters the wholly self-referential phase of linguistic obsession, as formulated by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, is a concern with closing the gap between art and life. Furthermore, collage and assemblage isn’t just grounded in the materials of mass culture because that’s what everyday life is composed of. The modernist strategies of abrupt juxtaposition and disorientation, that we find everywhere from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Hugo Ball’s poems, Dziga Vertov’s films and Joyce’s prose, themselves reflect the everyday experience of the subject with these materials. Modernism’s treatment of the everyday is ‘ethical’ and in some senses ‘political’: it presumes for art an elevated status which, through its treatment of both the objective world and subjective experience within

that world, can redeem the diminished and demeaning condition of modernity.

McCarthy is, of course, far from unique as a contemporary artist deploying the historically established techniques of modernism. But given the changed historical circumstances between the moment that those techniques were forged and the present, can a form still adhere to ethical principles that developed to meet a particular demand (in this case the denaturing effects of modernity)?

Critics such as Peter Bürger see all art after 1945 that adopts the techniques and aesthetics of modernism as nothing more than a parody driven by the demands of the art market (1). And, as Hal Foster has astutely pointed out, a central characteristic of modern life, of post-modernity if that’s what you really have to call it, is that the gap between art and life has indeed been closed. The problem (and it’s really only a problem if you believe in the individual dignity of human subjects, believe in people as something other than commodities) is that the closure was achieved not by art, but by “the spectacular dictates of the culture industry”(2). Capitalism itself, already responsible for the denigration of subjective experience through certain effects of industrial modernity, occupied the very field by which modernist art hoped for the redemption of the masses and mass culture. It did so

by utilising to its own ends the strategies first employed by the avant-garde: ‘art’ became ‘design’, the image shifted from being something that could change your life to something that sold you something else. As the old-school Marxist critic Frederic Jameson has observed, what really characterised postmodernity was the integration of culture into the market society, so that art itself became a consumable commodity rather than an external, critical field through which some hope of

redemption (whether secular or spiritual) might be offered to the subject (3).

Where does this leave McCarthy, and indeed other contemporary artists who might hope still for something more from modern life than an endless and pointless cycle of consumption and repetitive mimeses of ‘experience’? In using a modernist methodology, and adhering to what is, seemingly, a redundant ethical stance, is she wholly a part of the problem, rather than offering genuine criticism, far less a solution?

Three recent projects have developed the ideas of ideological scrutiny that were manifest in Promise. They suggest that here is an artist with real insight into our everyday experience, and furthermore one not afraid to use a wry, gentle humour. Furthermore, it becomes clear that McCarthy’s concern with making assemblages out of the redundant detritus of daily life is not an appropriation of modernist strategies, but rather an important, and critically useful development of them. McCarthy’s use of everyday materials in art can no longer presume that such an elevation will redeem either those materials or the lives associated with them. She evades charges of cynical pastiche or naïve irrelevance through the way her work looks at signs. She is not interested in the transformation of the sign itself (which could be understood as a utopian longing, with the capacity for that transformation vested only in the singular figure of the artist) but in revealing to us the ways in which we, as a culture, apprehend the sign. So, her subject is not the ethics of the sign, but our ethics; not the aesthetics of the sign per se, but the aesthetic codes through which we read signs.

Grand Detour, Vedute And Other Curious Observations Off The Grand Route, 2006, a project undertaken for the Parker’s Box gallery in Brooklyn, was a clever play upon the different modes of consumption of experience – a comparison between the tours of Europe undertaken by young aristocratic gentlemen in the eighteenth century, the urban drifting of the nineteenth century flâneur, and the ‘democratic’ encounter with largely pre-arranged experiences of the tourist. The central subject of McCarthy’s attention in this was litter; in particular the discarded cartons and polystyrene beakers of fast-food outlets. Walking the streets of the city, around newly fashionable Williamsburg – home to New York’s now largely exiled art community – McCarthy mapped the location of drink containers blown into weeds, burger boxes hooked in the bottom of link fences. After photographing these overlooked, useless things, the artist turned a number of them into small drawings, some with a sepia wash, and made a selected eight of them into etchings. The largest of these works was only on A3 paper; most hovered somewhere just beyond the scale of the postcard.

Seen at a distance, and McCarthy exhibited them in a dense hang on one red painted wall in Parker’s Box, these drawings appear to be studies of nature, rendered in the traditional materials of pictorial art. As McCarthy remarks, it was important to her that they “tapped into a knowledge of what a ‘proper’ picture should look like,” so edges of pavement, for example, were used as horizon lines. This means that the works look very much like landscapes, but landscapes in which the microscopic and

fragmented come to stand in for the synthesis of subject and world that even the most humble sketch of scenery attempts. (Hence the reference to the vedute in her title, itself rambling and inclusive in the manner of eighteenth century literature. A vedute or ‘view’ is a term used by art historians to describe topographical sketches.) McCarthy’s efforts might have been those mannered studies of Alpine scenery or Tuscan hills that young squires and margraves attempted whilst touring Europe –

and especially the Europe of classical tradition – in the hope of acquiring education and moral improvement through studying the ruins of earlier civilisations. They might also have been a sample of those works by professional artists, living or ‘old masters’, that the wealthier tourists purchased in their year or two away and bore back to England or Germany to line the walls of their grand houses. Even now, familiar with McCarthy’s drawings, I cannot help seeing them as something like Piranesi’s elaborate studies of Roman ruins, real and imagined. (Which in a sense, they are, as representations

of the way in which the new Rome, the Empire of neo-liberalism, is already crumbling at the edges.)

Hanging the drawings on a red wall, with the images seemingly jumbled one against another, reinforced this impression. Low, crowded hanging on dark backgrounds was the norm for the eighteenth century collector. The size of the works hinted at what has replaced the Grand Tour of the privileged individual: the ‘democracy’ of mass tourism. We still send or take home images of our travels, but now these veduti are in the individually valueless commodity form of the postcard. The economy of signs remains, but now it has shifted from the aura and value of the unique artwork to the endlessly reproduced same, the ideologically valorised image represents and sums up your pre-planned experience. Within mass-tourism this image becomes as utterly disposable as food packaging. It’s perhaps too simple to see the postcard as a consequence of the expansion of travel to

a widening, eventually almost universal, class within western society after the mid nineteenth century. One might see tourism as a consequence of the postcard, or at least of the growing popular desire for ‘views’ which leads to an increasing mass-mediation of representation, the growth of mass-mediating technologies, and to travel. Both tourism and the postcard are imbricated symptoms of a culture which becomes increasingly saturated with industrially produced imagery, to the point where the image exists almost as a chimera, without value or effect; the visual equivalent of shopping music.

This saturation was the starting point for the 2005 project Flowers, first realised at Keith Talent Gallery in Hackney. The work was inspired by seeing a waste bin on the Beijing subway, decorated with a reproduction of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers. The shift of the image between original and reproduction here is self-evident. What was at one point the most expensive picture in the world (sold at auction in 1987 for $39,921,750) is reprinted on a waste bin, gradually acquiring a patina of subway dirt. What was once wholly auratic in Walter Benjamin’s terms (its effect dependent upon its singularity and its presence)(4) is now mechanically reproduced across the globe. Crucially, for McCarthy, there’s a further shift involved, within the attention we pay to reproductions. The democratic dissemination of imagery is accompanied by an indifference to it; the loss of aura causes a

complete collapse of effect, or even its inversion. Everyone gets to see ‘great art’; no one notices.

McCarthy’s response was to make an image out of waste bins, or rather waste-sacks. Finding sacks made in the four colours of the palettes of inkjet printers, she used hole punches of varying size to create enough coloured dots to compose a picture, which she then ‘painted’ onto an outline. The chosen image for reproduction looked something like Sunflowers, but it was important to McCarthy that it wasn’t Van Gogh’s painting she attempted. Rather, she wanted something that was ‘just an image’, the kind of thing that might crop up in generic advertising or a manual; an illustration of what an image might look like. Furthermore, it looked like the kind of image an inkjet printer might produce, especially of a pixellated image downloaded from the web.

If the displacement of a classic work of art from gallery original to subway reproduction represented a near perfect example of the process of reification – whereby a unique art object or idea becomes a commonplace item of mass production – McCarthy’s Flowers was a parodic reversal of that process. She tried to create a unique art object out of wholly industrial objects, and indeed one which remained faithful to the look of industrially produced imagery. She exhibited the ‘painting’ along with the waste sacks, which at least had the appearance of being restored to their intended function. As with the drawings of food packaging in Grand Detour, there is here a reintroduction of time to the object that mass-production eliminates. (We might compare her work here to those early assemblages of an artist like Mike Kelley. I’m thinking in particular of his More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid – but McCarthy’s work is thankfully devoid of the sentimentality that pervaded so-called ‘abject art’, and instead is laced with humour.) In this reintroduction of time there is an exchange between the mass-produced and the hand-crafted that is certainly ludic, and perhaps even ludicrous. McCarthy uses the humour of her ridiculous endeavour to point towards the serious matter of the devaluation of visual rhetoric.

Where a critique of reification and mass culture might tend towards the justifiable gloom of Adorno and Horkheimer, say, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and of the loss of our rhetorical capacity within culture towards the revolutionary pessimism of Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, in McCarthy it provokes a parody. Whilst that parody is illuminating of the false promises of facility and accessibility that accompany the mass-production of culture (and this is vastly different from the democratisation of culture), we might say that it also laughs at art’s own incapacity to either rectify this situation or indeed prevent its own subordination to the culture industry.

If art, as a serious practice producing singular objects, is incapable of redemptive acts, McCarthy’s project Happiness (after Dodd), made for the re-opening of the DeLeWarr Pavilion in the English seaside town of Bexhill, suggested that our loss of rhetorical felicity within high culture might be regained in other areas. Asked to provide work that fitted with a curatorial rubric of ‘variety’, McCarthy turned to popular culture and the now obsolete mass-cultural form of the variety artist.

In particular, she appropriated the feather duster that in the nineteen seventies became the motif of the Liverpool comedian Ken Dodd as his ‘tickling stick’. A number of these dusters, mounted on long sticks, were arrayed along the walls beside an installation. That installation consisted of domestic furniture and found objects, neatly fitted within the floor plan of the artist’s kitchen. (An effect

achieved by the expedient of removing her kitchen lino and re-installing it in the DeLeWarr.)

All of these items came from McCarthy’s home; they were most of her domestic furniture – though not the bed – and ‘things’, whether useful or redundant, working or broken. The only criterion for selection was, as McCarthy put it, that on a moment’s consideration they seemed innately sad or gloomy. By sending these objects to Bexhill, a notable seaside resort, McCarthy hoped to give them a holiday, a break from domestic life that might cheer them up. This process was to be facilitated by visitors to the exhibition who were invited to use the ‘tickling sticks’ to dust, and therefore tickle and amuse the furniture and the objects it bore.

Happiness is an interesting step for McCarthy, in its use of ‘performance’, or intervention by the spectator. The work extends and reprises those transformations of everyday objects into forms of liberation. But where in her projects with food packaging she examined ideas of utopia and our use of design and the sign, here she is concerned with the transformation of an object of domesticity into one of comedy – a more momentary, but perhaps achievable freedom from the effects of modernity.

Modernism dreamed of redemption on the grand scale, through utopian projects that, inevitably, were compromised or corrupted (usually to such an extent that art was as suborned to explicit ideological

expediency as it was, elsewhere, to the more subtle dictates of the culture industry). McCarthy proposes a small-scale, human resistance to what might be understood as overwhelming effects. For her, it is the human use of the everyday (our transformation of signs, conscious or otherwise) that might be redemptive, rather than the special effects of high art. Hope here lies in the reclamation of the obsolescent, those things (and perhaps those people) past their best-before date, and in the subversion of the single-minded sign of the culture industry, as it fills the world with a language so

blatant we can’t see it. But the question lingers if this will be enough…

1 Bürger, P. Theory of the avant

garde, Minneapolis: Minnesota

University Press, 1984

2 Foster, H. Design and crime

and other diatribes, London:

Verso, 2002, p. 19

3 Jameson, F. ‘Transformations

of the image in postmodernity’

in The Cultural turn: selected

writings on the postmodern,

1983 – 1998, London: Verso,


4 Benjamin, W. ‘The Work of art

in the age of its technological

reproducibility’ (third version)

in Eiland, H., & Jennings, M.W.

Walter Benjamin: selected

writings, Vol. 4: 1938 – 1940,

Cambridge, Mass.: The

Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 2003

Chris Townsend is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.