New YorkThe Swiss Institute
December 13, 2018 – March 10, 2019
A familiar voice insists, with a practiced sangfroid, “Authenticity is critical.” In the two-channel soundtrack in Cally Spooner’s exhibition SWEAT SHAME ETC., Ivanka Trump promotes her book Women Who Work (2017), touting her brand-building, schedule “architecting,” and self-”leveraging” skills. Personal and professional success, Trump coolly affirms, is “about performance”—a term whose meaning fluctuates between self-realization and dissimulation. As the First Daughter leans in, her counterpart gasps for breath. Layering uncomfortably with Trump’s poised elocution, a second audio channel transmits the panting, skidding noises of another woman’s physically taxing dance routine. In the microcosm of Spooner’s piece, titled He Wins Every Time, On Time, and Under Budget (2016), an affluent career-mother’s smokescreen of self-sufficiency eclipses the sweat of another female labor force—one that is invisible and unsung.
Let’s think about shame—the other evocative half of the exhibition’s title. We could imagine it as the flip side to self-esteem, the “psychic income” that philosopher Michel Feher identifies as a key return on investing one’s human capital (i.e., one’s particular skillset and even personality) as a worker in the neoliberal economy.1 Shame as self-consciousness, shame as a deficit, as a state of being constantly monitored, assessed, and found lacking. In SWEAT SHAME ETC., fluorescent tubes harshly illuminate the space and the people within it. On the walls three uneven horizontal lines, in pencil and what turns out to be spray tanner, trace the perimeter of the space like tidemarks. The press release notes that these striations track three datasets that correlate to the artist’s thyroid levels, her career rank on artfacts.com, and the value of the British pound against the Euro. Self-managed and overexposed, the subject evaporates into empty metrics.
SWEAT SHAME ETC. represents the first object-based solo show in the United States for Spooner, a British artist whose work typically privileges text and live performance. More excavation site than stage set, Spooner’s installation has the anemic, stagnant quality of “dead time”—a lull after a main event, or interval of non-productivity. (DEAD TIME (a crime novel) is also the title of the artist’s new performance, debuting at the Art Institute of Chicago in April.) Dislocated ears, cast in bronze and 3D-printed in milky plastic, punctuate Swiss Institute’s sparsely populated main gallery. They lie atop stacks of paper on the floor, beside full-bleed images of urban high-rises under construction, or perch on sallow, waxy pedestals made from olive-oil soap. Absent movement-based performance, these skin-like plinths and sculptural ears serve as proxies for the body—one that is fragmented, counterfeited, and vulnerable to warping and disfiguration.
Among the piles of paper situated around the gallery are a series of printed texts. A clinical transcript describes a paranoid-schizoid patient who compensates for his fragmented personality with “phony behavior.” Nearby, a series of case studies tracks a cast of “over-engineered, under-maintained” protagonists with unhealthy discharges and performance anxiety. A jerry-rigged drinking fountain continuously cycles the same chlorinated water, while an off-kilter heap of pears, so lustrous as to seem artificial, literalizes the motif of stilled, stale life.
Spooner’s exhibition sketches a matrix of late capitalist living that has by now settled into the popular imaginary. Atrophied support systems, soft skills, the Big Data panopticon, chronic burnout: these conditions are no longer subliminal to contemporary existence but are familiar tropes of our times. As such, Spooner’s objects often feel overdetermined as surrogates for readymade ideas—an art that dutifully follows theory rather than produces it. This makes some sense, given the artist’s heavy emphasis on research and process: SWEAT SHAME ETC. coincided with a robust docket of discursive programs hosted at the gallery and directed by Spooner under the designation “OFFSHORE IN NEW YORK: PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY.” Among the zeitgeisty themes probed in conversations, lectures, screenings, and performances were carceral time and predictive policing, deregulation and emotional labor, and the affective implications of deep time and self-sabotage (both are linked to dread, whether of imminent planetary crisis or personal failure).
The content of these “study sessions,” however rigorous and engaging, was somewhat scattershot, reinforcing the catch-all tendency of the exhibition (and in turn, the disarming magnitude and self-reflexivity of neoliberalism itself). At their best, Spooner’s performances appropriate specific, concrete cultural artifacts, already congested with contradictory meanings—a corporate slogan, a political gesticulation, Soul Cycle drills and team-building “exercises” —and refract them, dissecting how the historical present congeals in our bodies as affect and muscle memory. The works and ideas on offer at Swiss Institute, however, are both politically fraught and disconnected, serving viewers a bewildering accretion of metaphors for contemporary conditions that could each use more deconstructive scrutiny. If it was meant as a workshop and residency for a work-in-progress, SWEAT SHAME ETC. succeeds, but as an exhibition, the intense dialectic its title proposes is engulfed by the etcetera.
- Michel Feher, “Self-appreciation; or, the aspirations of human capital,” in Public Culture21, no. 1 (2009): 21–41.
Kaegan Sparks is a curator and writer based in New York. She is a PhD candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.