How does one choose to represent oneself? Where the Habermassian public sphere has largely collapsed in lieu of a perpetual public arena on and offline, one is constantly on display. One signals one’s tribal belonging (or lack thereof), an ascribed identity that one is either flocking to or escaping from, through gestures, tastes and consumer objects.
In Georges Perec’s novella, Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965), Jerome and Sylvie, the young, upwardly mobile couple lust for the good life. “They wanted life’s enjoyment, but all around them enjoyment was equated with ownership.”2 Elegantly slumming, they subsidise their lifestyle by sending out market research questionnaires.
In the works of Eric Bell & Kristoffer Frick, consumer objects are arranged in a manner evoking trompe l’oeil Dutch protestant painting. Surreal and uncanny, the photographs employ a consciously flat product shot aesthetic to reflect upon post-Bourdieusian notions of taste and a contemporary obsession with taxonomic selfhood. Dutch reformist paintings such as Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Drinking Horn, Lobster and Glasses (1653) signify the opulence of Ming dishes and silver ewers alongside a peasant dish, which itself became rebranded as a luxury delicacy. In a series of bread works, Bell & Frick undercut this style, wryly replacing desirable luxury objects with “artisanal passing,” industrially produced loaves purchased from supermarkets.
Aside from the clear religious references to daily bread and the body of Christ, there are surrealist associations with the body in Max Ernst (Le Pain Vacciné, 1926) or Filippo De Pisis (Pane Sacro, 1930). The artists play around with the soul-searching quest for authenticity within the wellness culture industry, and how one can find one’s innere Ruhe. Again, opposing signifiers of luxury and indulgence nestle up with spartan, Protestant notions of basic nourishment. In Cove (2022), bread is broken alongside a high-end honey serving orb, which curiously resembles a New Age divining pendulum. This is no coincidence: Problem solving chart (2021) presents a spectrum for pendulum dowsing and transposing metaphysical ailments, which could also have the unintended effect of inviting the viewer to self-diagnose. Writing in the 1960s, Theodor Adorno savagely dismissed astrology as an element of social control in his essay “Stars Down to Earth,” warning against a retreat into the esoteric in the face of existential uncertainty.
In today’s climate of geopolitical uncertainty, we see a renewed interest in how a search for meaning and the self can again easily become packaged as a product under the rhetoric of individualised “self-care,” a willing urge to tick the terms and conditions of societal norms via self-taxonomizing and diagnosis. This social bondage is referenced in the work Gear (2022), a staged grid photo of objects that mimics a profile pic as found on hook-up apps such as Grindr. Manifested through everyday consumer objects repurposed as S&M toys, the user signals what kinks one is “into.” The self is an object, represented through objects to communicate a permissive social contract of sexualised play.
Craig Owens wrote about the erotic thrill in peep shows as the actual act of voyeurism itself, which, having been to Folsom Pride, I can vouch for. The erotic act isn’t in the sex act; it’s in the posing and being viewed, like how we scroll and swipe on a screen. When one views oneself as just another brand in the marketplace, why not represent oneself through an object–it’s all the same after all, right?
With the realia catalogued in the contemporary sphere, and against the Modernist rant of yore searching for an incessant avant-garde, Bell & Frick instead present a soft subversion, wryly mocking yet engaging in the dominant culture and undoing the incessant cataloguing of a constructed self, much like the loaves of bread they photograph, which self-present as authentic.
Text by Steven Warwick