Best Before Yesterday, Feature on Caroline McCarthy by Chris Townsend

for CIRCA Magazine, Summer 2006

Best Before Yesterday (Extract only)

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 Lizzies 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 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)….

...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.

…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…

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