Abigail Solomon-Godeau is Professor Emerita, Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara. Since 2010, she has lived and worked in Paris. She is the author of Photography After Photography: Gender, Genre, History (2017), among other books, and has written monographs on the Australian artist Rosemary Laing (2012) and the Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen (coauthored with Gabriele Schor, 2009). Her essays on photography, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, feminism, and contemporary art have been widely anthologized and translated.
The future of art seems no longer to lie with the creation of enduring masterworks but with defining alternative cultural strategies, through series of communicative gestures in multi-media forms. As art and non-art become interchangeable, and the masterwork may only be a reel of punched or magnetized tape, the artist defines art less through any intrinsic value of art object than by furnishing new conceptualities of life style and orientation. Generally, as the new cultural continuum underlines the expendability of the material artifact, life is defined as art—as the only contrastingly permanent and continuously unique experience.
1. Periodizing the Contemporary
Few professional activities are as integrally contradictory as that of art historical writing on contemporary art and artists. Insofar as the word “history” assumes some form of temporal distance from the present, and contemporary art is understood to be the art of the present, how and in what terms do art historians claim the evaluative or consensual criteria that secure the presumed legitimacy of historical perspective? The contradictions do not end there, either. While books (of the coffee table, scholarly, and textbook variety) and academic courses on contemporary art have been proliferating for some time, they tend to beg the question of the span of the “contemporary.” If, for example, we examine the art of the 1980s (modern and contemporary art history is firmly wedded to decennial categories), we are dealing with art produced more than a generation ago. Some of the major artists active in that period are now long dead, others forgotten. A thirty-year period is not quite sufficient to establish the critical distance conventionally ascribed to art historical evaluation, but at the same time art produced thirty years ago can hardly pass muster as the “contemporary,” the art of now. The art historian Linda Nochlin often recalls that when, in the 1950s, she began work on her dissertation on Gustave Courbet at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, the art of the nineteenth century was not taught at all. It was considered by her professors to be too recent to warrant historical investigation; the jury, so to speak, was still out.
Putting aside a precise chronological definition of the contemporary, it is obviously the case that the velocity of change—technological, social, cultural, as well as artistic—that characterizes our postmodernity means that art produced thirty years ago can in practice be perceived as belonging to the historical past. For my students, twenty years old or younger, work produced before their birth is almost as historical as, say, Cubism. On the other hand, the span of human life means that many of us can certainly remember the 1980s more or less vividly, and our experience of the art we encountered (or made, if we are artists) at the time is perceived neither as historical, despite its pastness, nor as entirely contemporary. Thus, for artists, critics, curators, gallerists, and other art world denizens, the memories provided by personal experience complicate the opposing conception of historicity and the evaluative conclusions such historicity is supposed to enable.
The work [Bickerton] has produced since 1993 is so strikingly different from the work he became known for in the 1980s.
I preface this essay on the work of Ashley Bickerton with these reflections because his artistic trajectory insistently raises these sorts of questions about periodization, stylistic “branding,” contemporaneity, and historical placement, all of which, needless to say, are fodder for the art historian. The question of stylistic branding has here a built-in irony, insofar as Bickerton first made his reputation with his Culturelux line of art objects (“The best in sensory and intellectual experiences”), among them work bearing the trademark signature “Susie.” And because the work he has produced since 1993 is so strikingly different from the work he became known for in the 1980s, these questions require consideration of how stylistic formations are themselves discursively constructed within their temporal context. My own experience of Bickerton’s work indeed took place in the 1980s, primarily in exhibitions at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, where he then exhibited his work. He was associated, at that time, with a group of artists—Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Philip Taaffe, and Meyer Vaisman—who received, for somewhat obscure reasons, the collective moniker “Neo-Geo.” Given that not many of their works, with the exception of Halley’s, explored geometric forms and structures, the name indicates primarily their personal and professional affiliations, and the fact that they were exhibited (and marketed) as a group.2 However dubious it may be, this name has stuck, and most of the current survey books on contemporary art employ it in the same way they name other artistic groupings of the same period (e.g., “Appropriationists,” “Commodity artists,” “Pictures artists,” “Neo-Expressionists,” “Neue Wilden,” etc.). In these recent surveys, artists are often situated in terms of their place within contemporaneous debates about the viability or significance of painting as a credible enterprise.3 But grouping the Neo-Geo artists on the side of the painters in this debate is hardly an accurate description of the work of Koons, Steinbach, or Bickerton. Nor, for that matter, does this approach produce an adequate account of the wide range of artistic practices of the period, many of which had nothing to do with the revival of painting or with the procedures associated with the artistic groupings given stylistic or other kinds of labels.
In fact, as was the case with Bickerton, the various elements of a single artist’s work could readily identify him or her with quite different—even opposing—camps. In this respect, Bickerton’s years as a studio assistant to Jack Goldstein (one of the artists featured in Douglas Crimp’s influential 1979 exhibition Pictures) are significant, as is Bickerton’s artistic formation at CalArts. The programmatic refusal of authorial presence and subjectivity that characterized his early work was fully part of the artistic pedagogy he had experienced at CalArts, just as it had been for the generation of Minimal and Conceptual artists before him, some of whom taught at the school when Bickerton was there.4 Accordingly, and in keeping with Goldstein’s procedures, the fabrication of Bickerton’s work was frequently “outsourced.” Similarly, the hybridization of forms, materials, and methods of fabrication (i.e., the mixing of the machine-made and the handmade, the industrial and the artisanal, the confounding of the categories of painting and sculpture) has long been recognized as what came to be designated, positively or negatively, as the attributes of artistic postmodernism.
But perhaps the more important feature of Bickerton’s work (like Koons’s or Damien Hirst’s, as well as the work of those artists referred to as the “Pictures generation”)—and the one that would seem to overarch his strikingly heterogeneous production—was and is the frank acknowledgment of the status of the artwork as commodity fetish. This is one of the most prevalent themes and motifs in Bickerton’s work and that of his contemporaries, an issue I will return to in part 3 of this essay. That said, and following the critic Hal Foster’s much-cited distinction between a postmodernism of affirmation and one of contestation or critique, it remains an open question as to whether the sleekly designed and elegantly fashioned objects Bickerton exhibited in the 1980s, embellished with corporate logos hand-painted on their surfaces fall into one or the other of these categories.5 Bickerton has, in fact, long insisted on his artistic identity as first and foremost a painter, but given the often self-mocking or disingenuous tenor of many of his comments, this should not necessarily be taken at face value. Perhaps Bickerton’s works of the 1980s are best described as manifesting a sustained ambivalence about the means and ends of artistic production, such as that the allure of his three-dimensional objects, seductively presented, highly crafted, often somewhat ominous in their effect, is simultaneously complicated by their presentation as blatantly commercial products.
For the critics of Neo-Geo, one of its shortcomings was precisely its failure to signify as a critical practice. As David Beech has noted, “The argument was not that a specific kind of critical art had been negated by its incorporation by the market and by art’s institutions; the very possibility, the very idea of a critical art had been lost. Neo-Geo was a typically profane response to the postmodernist block on radicalism, repackaging one of the high points of modernist radicalism as its opposite: not shocking but familiar, not critical but empty, and not autonomous but decorative.”7 But the “modernist radicalism” here invoked does not seem to have been the referent in Koons’s, Steinbach’s, or Bickerton’s work, and whatever shock value might once have been associated with the work of modernist avant-gardes was surely a dead letter by the 1980s. Moreover, the concept of aesthetic autonomy was one of the modernist precepts subject to sustained critique from many quarters, and had in any case been rendered moot by the economic transformation of the art world. Be that as it may, although the slickly impersonal and manufactured forms of Bickerton’s objects might superficially suggest a certain filiation with Minimalism, their hand-painted elements and embrace of the commodity form contradict Minimalism’s basic premise, its ethos.8
Although there is reason to consider Bickerton’s art, predominantly the work done before 1993, as “belonging” to the 1980s, thereby implicitly accepting art historical style and period categorization, there are compelling reasons to see earlier and later production by Bickerton, as well as others, as manifesting a consistent grappling with the aporias of art making within the encompassing domain of commodity culture. To ascribe to Bickerton, as have certain of his critics, an unproblematic embrace of the art commodity qua commodity (a position exemplified in many of Andy Warhol’s well-known statements) is to overlook the decidedly weird, unpleasant, mordant, and disturbing elements of so much of his work. However one might wish to characterize its various avatars, none of it can be described as a cheerful and unapologetic embrace of the commodity form.
“The artwork,” Bickerton commented in 1986, “has not awkwardly but aggressively asserted itself back into the gallery context: the space of art—but this with an aggressive discomfort and a complicit defiance.”9 Such statements not only confirm the way in which ambivalence has consistently shaped and informed Bickerton’s work throughout his career, but also refer to the psychic structure of (Freudian) fetishism. In other words, “complicit defiance”—a contradiction in terms—simultaneously affirms and denies the inherent fetishism of the work, the correlative of the psychoanalytic formulation “I know, but nevertheless . . . ”10
The artistic deployments of the fetish across styles, formations, media, and decennial groupings extend from Richard Prince’s “product” re-photographs of the 1980s, for example, to Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2009). Indeed, the central role of fetishism, or, alternatively, the insistence on the fetish character of the artwork, can be seen as one of the major preoccupations of art since the advent of Pop. In considering Bickerton’s art overall, it thus seems plausible to take this artistic and cultural preoccupation as a key element, linking nominally and formally disparate works. From this perspective, even the career-long play with the incarnations of authorship can be seen as yet another avatar of fetishism: the author/artist as itself a fetish construction.
2. Ashley Bickerton and Artistic Persona
I, who have been known as Ashley Bickerton, wish to announce to all and sundry that beginning upon the fourth day of May, Nineteen Hundred Ninety-six, I shall thence forth be recognized for all purposes social, professional and legal as Cat Stevens.
Almost as soon as Bickerton relocated permanently to Bali in 1993, it seemed that any discussion of his work was obliged to invoke the name of Paul Gauguin. Indeed, so overdetermined was this connection that Bickerton has frequently made the reference himself, if only to mock, contest, or complicate the analogy (stating, for instance, “Gauguin was the first Eurotrash”). As it happens, Bickerton had alluded to Gauguin well before he relocated to the tropics. However, the more closely one considers Bickerton’s Balinese production (and the more one knows about the work and life of Gauguin in Polynesia), the less convincing is the comparison between the two. To state the obvious, Bickerton’s deadpan parodies, his high-tech production methods, his flirtations with the kitchiest elements of mass culture, his self-mocking personae, and his preoccupation with capitalism’s depredation of the environment are as remote from the primitivist mythmaking of Gauguin as they are from the primitivism of Picasso. For if the “primitive” or the “exotic” was once thought to constitute a primal wellspring for the rejuvenation of (European) modern art, for American artists a century later the various forms of exoticism are merely other tropes, other possible citations in the boundless image bank that provides raw material for the contemporary artist. As such, these references, signifiers, tropes, or what-have-you, possess neither more nor less authenticity or authority than do the corporate logos with which Bickerton earlier adorned his works.
The world, its cultures, its objects, and its signs are taken to exist as a repertoire of ready-made images or techniques to be . . . manipulated at will, while retaining their implied quotations marks, their status as citations.
Accordingly, the specific reference to Gauguin’s work in the title of Bickerton’s interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist—The Gold of Their Bodies—underscores the vast distance between Gauguin’s painting of the same name and the wish-fulfilling fantasies of the interview’s comic-book account.12 Whether fictive or not, the illustrator Ignacio Noé’s depiction of Bickerton and Obrist’s marathon bar, club, opium den, and brothel crawl is in all its tawdriness a tonic antidote to the tropical-paradise iconography purveyed by the tourist industry. Thus, whatever might be said of Bickerton’s installation in the Bukit Peninsula, the “primitive,” the “indigenous,” and the “exotic” play no real part in his work at all. Bickerton’s titles are sometimes sly acknowledgments of this fact; the Made’s Warung paintings (both 2006), for example, adopt the name of a popular expat bar on the peninsula, now franchised to other parts of the island. Which is only to say that while the act of “going native” has been and remains a potent cultural fantasy, with numerous incarnations, one finds in primitivist identifications, as in Spanish inns, only what one has brought to them.
In this instance, what Bickerton brought to Bali, and what Bali might have provided for Bickerton, remains, like much else in his art, an open question. In a number of interviews, Bickerton has emphasized that his earliest Balinese paintings were planned well before he moved there. And while Bickerton adopts or quotes certain motifs, materials, and styles from Balinese art and craft traditions (such as the elaborate wooden frames with inlays of coins and mother-of-pearl and intricate carving used, for example, in Yellow Canoe No. 2, from 2008), such gestures are grounded in the same postmodern syntax that informed the so-called Neo-Geo production of the 1980s. In other words, the world, its cultures, its objects, and its signs are taken to exist as a repertoire of ready-made images or techniques to be pillaged, juggled, collaged, counterpointed, Photoshopped, and manipulated at will, while retaining their implied quotation marks, their status as citations. However surprising or unexpected Bickerton’s Balinese paintings appeared when first exhibited in New York, they are thus as much products of a media-saturated postmodernity as were any of the artist’s previous works imprinted with name brands and corporate logos.
If one were to make any credible connection to the art (though not the life) of Gauguin in Polynesia, it would therefore be in both artists’ sustained use of bricolage. (Bricolage: “Construction or [esp. literary or artistic] creation from a diverse range of materials or sources. Hence: an object or concept so created; a miscellaneous collection, often [in Art] of found objects.” —OED) In constructing his images, Gauguin frequently used photographs of works by other artists, images and artifacts from ancient Egypt, temple carvings from Borobudur, Javanese and other South Asian sculpture, Japanese prints, Mohican pottery, photographs from the Exposition Universelle, and so on, much of it collected at the time of his return to Paris in 1886. In Bickerton’s work, as one would expect, given his temporal and cultural context, the sources are even more heterodox, the materials, procedures, and technologies are greatly varied, and many of his themes derive from the crassest levels of mass and commercial culture. These include his unapologetically salacious representations of exotic femininity, whose “political incorrectness” is so over-the-top, so wildly excessive, as to effectively self-deconstruct.13 In this respect, the figure or persona of the (male) tourist, as in the Blue Man series, might be considered the presiding symbol of Bickerton’s production in Bali. For the tourist is both a product of affluence and an identity shaped and determined by its modes of consumption. In certain of his works, since as early as 1985, Bickerton has explicitly figured the notion that the “subject” is nothing more or less than the sum of his consumer choices, the sedimentation of all the products he consumes. The tourist, moreover, is the consumer par excellence. The tourist exists, by definition, fully outside and apart from the language and culture of the place he visits.14 Bickerton’s blue-skinned, often leering “twentieth-century man,” occasionally endowed with Bickerton’s own features, is unmistakably the grotesque incarnation of sexual tourism accompanied by the signs of his consumption of ersatz exoticism. There are, of course, other representations of high-end consumers in Bickerton’s oeuvre, such as the patron in the eponymous painting of 1997, surrounded by his dog and objets d’art, including a Piet Mondrian on the wall, and illuminated by the light of a television. This viciously funny depiction bears more than a family resemblance to that of the tourist in his work, insofar as its comic elements, trappings, and mise-en-scène merge readily into the realm of dystopian nightmare. Interestingly, it is there, in Bickerton’s over-the-top, delirious iconography of the Western tourist in a tropical paradise, and the no less delirious representation of (male) fantasies of the exotic erotic (or the erotic exotic), that one glimpses something like a visceral disgust, a kind of revulsion that is more conventionally associated with the moralist than the satirist.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his sculptures F.O.B. (1993), Little Fat Body (1993), and Little Fat Body with Coconut Head (1993). It is hard to relate these legless, armless forms of layered, folded, carnal abjection to the resolutely cool sensibility of Bickerton’s nonfigurative objects and images. Nevertheless, the chilly ominousness of the former and the repellent grotesquerie of the latter are linked in their implied conjunction of commodity, consumer, carnal excess, and mortification.
Needless to say, Gauguin’s own self-mythologizing (duly repeated by many of his biographers and hagiographers) was predicated on his insistence that he was not a tourist, nor even an expatriate, but, rather, a “savage” who found in Tahiti, and later in the Marquesas, his true destiny, his spiritual home. Gauguin’s various self-portraits, Christ-like, brooding, or diabolical, are nothing if not earnestly intended. But Bickerton’s various incarnations of the tourist, especially those bearing his own features, are based on a mocking play with the concept of self-representation itself. At least since the Susie works, inaugurated in 1982, and as many of his critics have indicated, Bickerton’s variations on the venerable art historical theme of the self-portrait have consistently operated as pointed subversions of the genre.15
In a number of interviews, and from the outset of his career, Bickerton has discussed his long-term engagement with self-portraiture, beginning with the Susie works. The choice of “Susie” as the artist’s alter ego/persona was especially interesting, given that the Neo-Geo group included no women artists: “When I came up with the SUSIE logo (which came from another piece—the name ‘Susie’ written in hideous neon text and typeset across a white ground), I decided that artists are usually catalogued in the formal surname of the father. By choosing a phonetically casual, female first name, that whole agenda is thrown into some discursive light. In a sense it becomes the artist’s name brand, but it also becomes the name brand. It breaks down the individual creator and they are no more Bickertons than they are Susies.”16
That Bickerton’s depictions of “Bickerton” in different media are variously sexed, given the figurative form of monsters, hydras, caricatures, adverts, and disembodied heads, condensed into abstract logos and trademarks, and so forth, suggests that the image of the artist—in all its incarnations—is only a function of the value of the signature, and the signature is effectively—functionally—another type of trademark. “Bickerton” is thus a brand name, like Bickerton’s own product line, Culturelux, which, like any other commodity in the marketplace of elite visual culture (and whether deplored or celebrated), is the inescapable condition of the art object itself.
In this respect, Bickerton, like so many of his cohorts, inherits a venerable legacy, beginning with Marcel Duchamp and effectively institutionalized by Warhol. At the same time that the definition of the art object has become, for better or worse, entirely nominalist, the identity of the artist has itself become a disembodied trademark. It follows from this that the self that presumptively “authors,” “creates,” and “produces” is entirely elusive, if not absent, just as the mark of the hand (if visible at all) is understood to be as impersonal as the marks of the sign painter or graphic designer. In fact, during his years as a studio assistant to Goldstein, Bickerton specialized in the airbrush painting used in the fabrication of Goldstein’s large canvases of meteorological phenomena. Employed typically in commercial art, airbrushing has none of the “hand,” “touch,” or “facture” associated with the aesthetics and connoisseurship of oil painting, an attribute exploited by Pop artists like James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein, or, in less figural forms, by Ed Ruscha. And while the use of assistants to produce individual artworks has been by no means remarkable at least since Warhol’s Factory (although it was also standard studio practice from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century), in recent art practices it more closely resembles the production of haute couture than mass-production or assembly-line processes. That is, the designer/entrepreneur retains an authorial or “branding” function (not an identity) whose concepts are then materially produced and realized by more or less skilled specialists and assistants.17
Nevertheless, within this form of artistic production, the programmatic impersonality of art practices to have emerged after the 1960s requires some differentiation, inasmuch as the impersonality of, say, Daniel Buren’s stripe paintings does not signify in the same manner as that of Goldstein’s airbrushed thunderstorms. Likewise, the impersonality of Minimal or Conceptual art must be distinguished from that of the work of Bickerton and the artistic generation (and artistic milieu) with which he is identified. This distinction derives in part from the changed conditions of the art world and its markets, which, beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century, produced such phenomena as the art star or art celebrity and new apparatuses for the expansion and dissemination of this newly minted form of celebrity.
For the generation of savvy art students incubated in the new world economy of the contemporary art market—such as those who emerged from CalArts in the 1970s and ’80s—it was taken for granted that artistic identity was less an emanation of the self than another attribute of the commodity form, seamlessly linked to the art object itself. The historical irony here is that Roland Barthes’s 1969 celebration of the “death of the author” was succeeded by a phenomenon that could be called the “birth of the art star,” rather than Barthes’s utopic “birth of the reader’.’ This new role for the artist (generally male), befitting the economic, social, and cultural realities of the 1980s, took its cues from an already established notion of the celebrity (“the spectacular representation of a human being,” as Guy Debord defined it). Artists like Koons and Bickerton were quick to grasp the implications of these new circumstances, as had Warhol as he made the transition from upscale fashion and design to the art world proper (which, not so many years later, returned the compliment by integrating fashion, design, and mass-media celebrity into the now capacious category of art). The mock advertisements that both Koons and David Robbins produced (the latter featuring Bickerton in his Talent series of headshots) were, of course, parodies, but they were nonetheless canny commentaries on the artistic persona now fully integrated into commodity culture.
All of which is to say that the various incarnations of “Bickerton” by Bickerton—playboy, tourist, surfer, druggie, art star, lush, extraterrestrial, monster—are indeed integrally part of the work overall, but by no means are they “in” his work, in the conventional or romantic sense of the (spiritual, psychic) “presence” of the artist. Identity, like a brand name, is located only as an exterior attribute. Similarly, and following from this assumption, there is no question of (or reason for) a “signature style.” This is clearly evident in the diversity of the media Bickerton employs, the oscillation between abstract and figurative representation, the production of both three- and two-dimensional works, the contrast between industrial fabrication and more artisanal forms of manufacture. If the prolix and heterogenous forms of Bickerton’s production over the past thirty years attest to anything linked to the “real” Bickerton, it is to his sturdy and impressive work ethic, his dedicated craftsmanship and perfectionism, and his evident engagement and fascination with the various materials he employed, a palpable pleasure with using materials, making “things.”
If indeed there exists an eroticism to be identified in Bickerton’s production, it is certainly not in the representations of a fantasmatic femininity, much less in his representations of grotesque couplings, nor even in the seductive allure of his objects. Rather, the location of pleasure, including sensual pleasure, may be located in his manifestly engaged, painstaking manipulation of the various materials and techniques he uses, including his recent deployments of digitalization—in his immersion in the process of shaping, making, fabricating, and constructing.
3. Fetishism and Its Discontents
Fetishism, broadly speaking, involves the attribution of self-sufficiency and autonomous powers to a manifestly “man” derived object. It is therefore dependent on the ability to disavow what is known and to replace it with belief and the suspension of disbelief. The fetish, however, is always haunted by the fragility of the mechanisms that sustain it. . . . Knowledge hovers implacably in the wings of consciousness.
As I have suggested, the role of fetishism in both its Marxist and Freudian forms should not be underestimated in Bickerton’s work, or in the work of so many of his peers. With Warhol as the towering exemplar, one could recast much of the art of the past fifty years by tracking fetishism’s various deployments. How would it be otherwise? Once it becomes clear that the art object is no more or less than another object circulating in the commodity system, the artist who is sufficiently intelligent, sophisticated, politicized, or self-aware must take as the point of departure this foundational economic and cultural reality. This in turn produces a finite number of choices. Among them is the option to reject the production of marketable objects per se. This would generally describe certain forms of institutional critique, conceptual art practice, and performance (e.g., Michael Asher, Andrea Fraser, Lawrence Weiner, etc.). The choice of certain media outside the “object” paradigm, such as video, does not necessarily constitute an alternative, inasmuch as this medium has been successfully integrated into the “object” system (in the form of limited editions and other adaptations to the economics of the art market). A “third way,” as it were, has to do with acknowledgment of the commodity fetish as the given condition of the art object (with or without consideration of the role of psychic fetishism as equally at stake in the value of the art object), but this does not in itself constitute a critical tactic, nor does it determine how and in what ways the condition will be articulated.
Bickerton’s shift to figuration in no way diminished his preoccupation with the protean forms of fetishism, in either its commodity or its psychic manifestation.
This is not to suggest that Sarah Charlesworth, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Louise Lawler, Alan McCollum, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince are doing similar things with fetishism, but rather to emphasize how fetishism has been appropriated by very diverse artists for what Clifford Geertz famously referred to as “a good object to think with.” For, as so many artists have recognized, the fetish character of the art object cannot be wished away; it can either be disavowed (therefore effectively enacting the very fetishism that is supposedly not an issue) or in various ways worked upon, desublimated, deconstructed, unveiled, despoiled.
Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to argue that Bickerton’s shift to figuration in no way diminished his preoccupation with the protean forms of fetishism, in either its commodity or its psychic manifestation (or both). In this respect, one might interpret the shift from nonfigurative to figurative forms as tracing a move from what Walter Benjamin memorably described as “the thing as human being” to “the human being . . . becoming a thing.”19 As early as 1993, Bickerton was fashioning objects explicitly designed as fetishes in the stereotypical forms associated with tribal relics or ceremonial objects. Cousteau Totem (Jacques and His Pudenda), Fruit Bats and Palm Leaf, and Self Portrait: Kepala Kepala all date from that year. The Cousteau Totem, with its phallic form, rigid shell, and coconut “balls,” is also provided with soft, inflated elements of plastic and has various apertures on its metallic container. The function of the fetish, according to Freud, is to affirm contradictory beliefs that defend against a traumatic perception. He gives the example of an athletic support belt that could serve as bathing trunks: “This piece of clothing covered up the genitals entirely and concealed the distinction between them. Analysis showed that it could signify that women were castrated and that they were not castrated; and it also allowed for the hypothesis that men were castrated, for all these possibilities could equally well be concealed under the belt.”20
Benjamin’s grim description of the objectification of the human being is perhaps most graphically illustrated in Bickerton’s wall pieces incorporating actual photographs of human faces. In The Limits of the World I (1991), black-and-white portrait images of male artists, including Bickerton himself, cropped so as to reveal the face only from eyebrow to mouth, are printed on wood and mounted on the wall in a gridded ensemble. Aluminum L-brackets, bolted to the images at nose level, serve as hooks, from which are suspended phallic orange sacks filled with sand. Upon these pudenda-like forms are printed texts from newspaper personal ads specifying the writer’s sexual requirements. That many of these are themselves of a fetishistic nature effectively doubles the obvious fetishism of the sacks, as does the vertical bolt that secures the hook mechanism. But that this all-male panoply consists of artists, and that each portrait is mounted and bolted to the wall, unites the art object as fetish (as well as valuable object to be secured), the male artist as a culturally fetishized icon, and needless to say, the denial of sexual difference itself, the very root of the psychic fetish. The human face, that most individuated and expressive aspect of the person, is nullified, reduced to the thing-like status of the artwork that contains—encompasses—it.
It is, however, Style Piece/Head Trip II (1992) that addresses the historical (and racial) aspects of fetishism, returning, as it were, to its colonialist meanings. Here, the sixteen uncropped human faces are from cultures in which facial features are adorned, tattooed, scarred, or otherwise manipulated—practices identified by Europeans as the very markers of the primitive, the diabolical, and the monstrous. These faces, too, are mounted on the wall in a gridded formation, but assembled on the floor in front of them are a matching number of sealed steel cylinders containing ethnographic films. As one critic noted, the industrial-looking canisters suggest not only the kind of containers used for film, but those used for toxic materials as well, which in a certain sense could describe the structuring ideologies of ethnographic documentation. But what is especially interesting in Style Piece/Head Trip II is that, notwithstanding the punning mockery of the title, and unlike so much of Bickerton’s art, it is work that is somber and confrontational. Because the subjects directly address the camera, because they maintain a certain gravitas, and because of our historical and political knowledge (of imperialism, colonialism, racism, domination, subjugation, and so on), Style Piece/Head Trip II is a haunting monument to the forms of fetishism that turn subjects into objects, people into things, and things—including artworks—into fetishes.
The realm of the fetish, which I have identified as the situation, the locus, and the subject of Bickerton’s work in the broadest sense, and as the central stake in much contemporary work, is the realm in which artist, critic, viewer, gallery, and market all dwell, but that leaves open the question as to what escapes its purview. The ruined paradise that arguably lies as an unstated but implicit pentimenti in Bickerton’s art, like the portraits of the indigene he uses as icons of loss, suggests that fetishism has become the absolute horizon within whose boundaries contemporary art must reckon.
1John McHale, “The Plastic Parthenon,” Dotzero Magazine, Spring 1967; reprinted in John Russell and Suzi Gablik, eds., Pop Art Redefined (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), p. 49.
2A modest number of Bickerton’s works from this period do address or refer to the geometric structures of modernist abstraction, but typically in ironic or parodic forms. I am referring here to works such as YO (1989), Wall-Wall Sportif #2 (Panama) (1987), and the riff on Mondrian, a three-dimensional work, Formalist Painting in Red, Yellow and Blue (1988). But as Robert Storr remarked in a talk given at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris: “Neo-Geo gives us an idea of the way in which a label can triumph over any content, thanks to its power of seduction, since with the exception of Peter Halley none of the artists thus designated really made geometric art. ‘Neo-avant-garde’ is now the expression in vogue in academic milieus. But numbers of works from the years 1960 to 1980 to which this label is applied already belong to history, semantically rendering ambiguous the desired differentiation between them and the presumptive historic avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s. Moreover, the catchall aspect of ‘postmodernism’ doesn’t tell us very much, especially when those using it don’t agree on what ‘modernism’ is—as is often the case.” (“Néo-Géo a permis de donner une idée de la façon dont une appellation peut triompher de tout contenu grâce à son pouvoir de séduction, puisqu’à l’exception de Peter Halley aucun des artistes ainsi désignés ne faisait vraiment d’art géometrique. ‘Néo-avant-garde’ est l’expression en vogue actuellement dans les milieux universitaires. Mais nombres des oeuvres des années 1960 à 1980 auxquelles elle est appliquée appartiennent déjà a l’histoire, ce qui rend sémantiquement ambiguë la différenciation souhaitée entre celles-ci et les prétendues avant-gardes historiques des années 1910 et 1920. Et puis, le côté fourre-tout du ‘post-modernisme’ ne nous dit pas grand-chose, surtout quand ceux qui l’utilisent ne s’accordent pas sur ce qu’est le ‘modernisme’—ce qui est géneralement le cas.”) “Le ‘mainstream,’” Art Press, no. 304 (2004), p. 92. [Author’s translation.]
3This retrospective discourse on the art of the 1980s, framed in terms of the debates about painting versus the photographic-based art championed by such critics as Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Rosalind Krauss, and others, is deceptive. It rests on a binary opposition supported by such influential anthologies as Rethinking Representation: Art After Modernism (1984) and thereafter reiterated in numerous surveys of the period. What tends to be disregarded is the parallel efflorescence of feminist practices in all media, as well as important distinctions between different kinds of painting.
4For example, Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, Douglas Huebler, and others.
5See, in this regard, the discussion in “From Criticism to Complicity: After the Pictures Generation,” Flash Art, no. 129 (Summer 1986), pp. 46–49, reprinted in Flash Art, no. 41 (July–September 2008), pp. 152–55; or the later discussions in Flashback: Eine Revision der Kunst der B0er Jahre/Revisiting the Art of the 80s, ed. Philipp Kaiser, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum fur Gegenwartskunst (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2005). See also the catalogue The ’80s: A Typology, ed. Ulrich Loock (Porto: Museu Serralves, 2007).
6In an interview given in 2006, Bickerton repeated his frequent claim that the three-dimensional works are to be understood as painting: “The logo works are handmade. They’re actually paintings.” Joao Ribas, “The Al Interview: Ashley Bickerton,”Artinfo, May 15, 2006.
7David Beech, “Recovering Radicalism,” Art Monthly, no. 323 (February 2009), p. 9.
8See, in this regard, Hal Foster’s excellent discussion in “The Crux of Minimalism,” in Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945–1986, ed. Howard Singerman (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986), pp. 162–83.
9“From Criticism to Complicity,” p. 155.
10The formulation is that of Octave Mannoni (“Je sais bien, mais quand même . . . ”), the title of one of the essays in his Clefs pour l’imaginaire ou l’autre scène (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1969).
11 Ashley Bickerton (Santander, Spain: Autoridad Portuaria de Santander, 1996), inside back cover.
12Ashley Bickerton and Hans Ulrich Obrist, illustrated by Ignacio Noé, “The Gold of their Bodies: A Conversation Before Death,” Ashley Bickerton (London: Other Criteria, 2011), pp. 257–284.
13In an interview regarding this body of work, Alison Gingeras asks, “What are you working on now?” Bickerton replies, “Smaller, pandering and ingratiating color-saturated pieces that will ooze with gratuitous sexuality and hackneyed exoticism. The trick will be to believe fully in what I am doing.” Purple Fashion, no. 3 (Spring–Summer 2005), p. 81.
14The classic ethnographic and sociological study of the tourist remains Dean MacCannall’s The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken, 1976).
15See, in this regard, David Moos, “Ashley Bickerton: Eco-Ego,” Artext, no. 69 (May–July 2000), pp. 62–67.
16Shaun Caley, “Ashley Bickerton: A Revealing Expose of the Application of Art,” Flash Art, no. 143 (November–December 1988), p. 79.
17This is also standard practice in the most prestigious forms of contemporary print production. Bickerton’s tenure at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2006, like comparable artist residencies at Crown Point Press and other highly specialized graphic arts studios, saw his collaboration with expert print, paper, and technical professionals, who worked with him to realize the final prints. See, in this regard, the exhibition catalogue Ashley Bickerton: Just This (Singapore: Singapore Tyler Print Institute, 2006).
18Laura Mulvey, “Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture,” October 65 (Summer 1993), pp. 3–20.
19Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in Benjamin, Reflections, ed. and trans. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken, 1983), p. 156.
20Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 23:157.
Artwork by Ashley Bickerton © Ashley Bickerton; text © Abigail Solomon-Godeau; originally published in Ashley Bickerton (London: Other Criteria, 2011)