Slug & Frisco
VTO Gallery, 8th April – 12 May 2000
What moves the world? The individual or society? These questions lie at the heart of Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged (1957), which forms the starting point for Volker Eichelmann’s solo exhibition ‘Slug & Frisco’. These are big questions on which to base an exhibition of contemporary art, but Eichelmann is an ambitious artist, whose activities habitually deal with the broader social and political contexts in which artistic and cultural activity takes place. With ‘Slug & Frisco’, Eichelmann continues his interest in subjects that point in some way to the realities of capitalist society, doing so through the ideological objects of fascination and spectacle which it nevertheless engenders.
The figure of Ayn Rand (1905–1982) is exemplary in this respect; A Russian émigré to America after the Bolshevik revolution, she remains best known as the author of The Fountainhead (1943). in America she enjoyed a reputation as the exponent of an ultra-libertarian philosophical world view and the defender of ‘egoism, reason and capitalism’, ideas which the Ayn Rand Institute continues to promote. Rand’s peculiar brand of utilitarian rationalism sees man as the maker of his own purpose, with his individual happiness as his only aim. It results in a highly polemic combination of sub-Neitzschean egoist morality, a staunchly humanist defence of science and reason, and the celebration of capitalism as the realisation of individual freedom and human creativity. Rand’s ideas are relentlessly driven home in the thousand pages of Atlas Shrugged, in which she attempts to demonstrate what would happen to the world were its most gifted and creative spirits to remove themselves from the thankless responsibility of being the ‘motor of the world’. It’s a curious piece of social-science fiction, portraying a streamlined mid-century America, full of sky-scrapers and heavy industry, which chronicles the fall of civilisation as the energies of its ‘prime movers’ are gradually destroyed by the parasitic encroachments of their less able rivals. A kind of parable about the decline of the American Way, and a call to arms for its regeneration, Atlas Shrugged reposed the classical conservative equation of individualism and capitalism at a moment when western conservatism seemed to have lost its way, and proved popular during the neo-conservative revival of the Reagan/Thatcher years.
Taking this wacky, overheated saga as a starting point, ‘Slug & Frisco’ probes the relationship between the ideals and aspirations of individual subjects, and how those identifications are realised in the context of capitalist society. These questions take shape in three discrete bodies of work at VTO. ‘The Denver Clan’, 2000, is a series of framed pencil portraits of characters from 80’s Glam-soap Dynasty. These are consciously rendered in an awkward, adolescent hand, imperfect transcriptions of originally seductive publicity shots, which hint at an obsessive fascination, bordering on worship, on the part of whoever made them. The poor draughtsmanship effectively (if conventionally) diverts the viewer from the original signification of the portraits to the subjective intentions of their supposed author and their effect deflates the hubris inherent in these icons of the ‘selfish decade’, whilst implying the self-delusion and isolation that comes of aspiring to the ideal of these empty symbols of success and power. The same dichotomy between a failed individualism and the alienating impossibility of attempting to achieve its ideal is drawn out further in ‘Step 23: Quest for World Domination (Christy’s Diary)’, 2000, a computer monitor that presents an endlessly scrolling text taken from the website diary of a Californian college student. In this unstoppable biographic stream, Christy details the minutiae of her personal and college life, full of late night essay deadlines, coffee, script-writing courses, complaints of loneliness, musings about the value of friends and much other undergraduate navel-gazing born of the predictability of campus life. This would be an unremarkable ‘Dear Diary’ if it weren’t for the fact that Christy voices a clear attachment to Rand’s philosophy of life and identification with the characters of her fiction. Of course, translated into the restricted terms of college existence, the fearless independence of Rand’s heroes becomes a recipe for Christy’s intolerance and seclusion, whilst her desire to emulate their near superhuman physical and intellectual capacities drives her to ever greater fits of exhaustion and self-reprobation. Inasmuch as it presents without mediation the authentic voice of its author, the piece is supposed to expose ‘the difficulty to live according to a philosophy based on radical egoism and selfishness.’ But this interpretation, as with ‘The Denver Clan’, only arises because such individualistic attitudes are out of step with the cultural climate of the social democratic ‘third way’. Both pieces are at pains to agree with the current consensus that the ideals that both Christy and the erstwhile portraitist strive towards are not only unattainable, but undesirable; that the aspirational model of free-market individualism, whilst offering everyone the fantasy of rich rewards in the future, only served to mask the destructive social effects of increased competition between individuals, and the psychological isolation that results from a culture based on self-interest.
It’s this acute sensibility to current social discourse that is the exhibition’s main strength, as well as its weakness. Though the work appears to make it’s point successfully, one begins to realise that this is because it is saying something that everyone already knows anyway, or rather, that the pretended documentary blankness of the work permits a loaded interpretation which relies on externally shared assumptions, rather than on any specific quality within the work. It may be that to deal with such broad questions as ‘the individual in capitalist society’ one has to make use of an audience’s pre-existing perception of the issue, but this ultimately limits ‘Slug & Frisco’ to making second-order reference to a discussion which can, and already has taken place elsewhere. This isn’t to say that art should steer clear of addressing political life, but nor should it be content merely to align itself with a position without following through its implications within its own context. This should be of particular importance to ‘Slug & Frisco’, given that it’s subject matter deals with the individual as the root of human creativity; but just as Rand extols capitalism as the product of individualism, so Eichelmann condemns individualism as the mere product of capitalism, giving him little room to investigate the nature of the creative individual, either in the context of art, or in society more broadly. This is perhaps why ‘Slug & Frisco’ depends so much on presenting the creative failure of others in relation to a bogus ideology, rather than permit itself the contradiction of individual artistic success in the face of a society that profoundly limits the scope of human creative realisation.
The one other work in the exhibition, however, starts to touch on these problems in a way which doesn’t reduce them to a simple either/or: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, 2000, is a video sequence based on the titles of each chapter of the book, which combines shots of an austere and empty urban world with various pop songs, from Madonna’s ‘Take a Bow’ to Scott Walker’s ‘Tilt’. Evocative rather than rhetorical, it gradually describes a world of shining modernity over which the few human figures that appear have little control, coloured by moments of romantic nostalgia and longing. Without imposing its meaning on the viewer, it makes visible the deep gap between the beauty of what human endeavour is capable of, and the inaccessibility of it’s full realisation in the present system. For once, the audience is offered a contradiction that it must try to resolve for itself; that is, that one should be seduced by, and feel excluded from, the wealth that is by right the product of its endeavour. As the characters of Atlas Shrugged often say; if things appear contradictory, one should check one’s premises.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated