Dossier | All Around Bling-bling: The Art of Humanityin Civilization’s Cultural Surplus | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | All Around Bling-bling: The Art of Humanityin Civilization’s Cultural Surplus

  • Pierre et Gilles, Full Moon, Wonderful Town series, 2007. Photo: © Pierre et Gilles, courtesy of Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris

All Around Bling-bling: The Art of Humanityin Civilization’s Cultural Surplus
By Thibault Carles

The structures of the global societies in which we live today are quite obviously the outcome of the dangerous and deliberate coexistence of constantly advancing state-of-the-art technologies and old, even archaic models of governance and society. One need not refer to statistics released by international organizations to affirm that, generally speaking, in democracies of the neoliberal era, disparities between populations, with respect to wealth, access to health services and information, life expectancy and quality of life, have long-since reached levels that have, as Mike Davis keenly observed, exhausted our “capacity for indignation.(1)" Because humanity has adopted a monoculture with its civilization of mass production (2), and because the latter can scarcely meet the real needs or ensure the facilities (3) of the humanity it represents, we are living in a surplus of cultural signs — luxury trash — that constitute our societies’ very identity. Bling-bling is the human condition in the twenty-first century when humanity’s own needs are expressed through representations of its symbolic desires. The craving for utopian fantasies codified by commercial and promotional imperatives annihilates identities and personalities, which fade into the everlastingly “large promise” (4) of a bright and glittery global all-round. To take up a leitmotif in thinking at the end of the last century, humanity’s alienation is complete when it envisions its own destruction as an aesthetic experience.

Early this year, Parisian Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont presented the recent works of the artist duo Pierre et Gilles, a new series of large-scale painted photographs (5). Their “Wonderful Town” exhibit offers a dreamlike trajectory in which characters and moods at the confluence of the sublime and the terrifying are set against a postindustrial decor — schizophrenic and apocalyptic cityscapes (6), office and residential buildings, abandoned factories and ranged construction cranes. The oases of dream and fantasy, nests of imagination and sublime kitsch, sparkle on the dull backdrop of the civilized world’s arid debris like colourful sequins and garlands fluttering in a cloud of smoke. In this spectacular image, an image created from the extreme, even saturated accumulation of capital (the image in which Modern Times has placed its trust) (7), the only means of escape is a hopeful dream that can match any deep religious faith or its ecstatic and sacred mise-en-scène. Bling-bling is a hard version of the spectacular image, its transformation into an icon. Art is here the imperturbable extension of Creation, in all its metaphysical and spiritual dimensions: more than ever, the contemporary art gallery exudes a presence, “possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values... some of the sanctity of the Church.(8)" As closed and redundant a system as that proposed by Boris Archour, who stood in front of luxury boutiques in Paris wearing a vest on which he had sewn the phrase: “Les femmes riches sont belles” (“rich women are beautiful,” Les femmes riches sont belles, 1996).

Inspiration for these painted photos came from a trip the duo made to Japan, travelling through inhuman cities where people were “obliged” to invent a world of pleasure, dream and joy in order to escape an untenable reality. Here again, the contemporary megalopolis, the world-city, is a flashing jewel of exuberance in a geopolitical environment undermined by both visible and invisible conflicts, wars of interests and power, and, especially, by hordes of increasingly poor individuals suffering ever-more intense violence. As the joint authors of Evil Paradises point out (9), luxury is truly a refuge in which a privileged minority prefer self-segregation to a world that is devolving into meaninglessness. The accumulation of individual egotisms and fears often translates into an architectural and urban spectacle. Artificial worlds, like that of Hong Kong’s California, the gated communities scattered throughout the U.S., shopping centres where gargantuan sumptuousness replaces ordinary reality with a commercial reality transfixed by the rhythms of desires and the fetishization of attitudes and values. A Prada boutique isolated in the middle of the Texas desert, emblematic of the work of artists Elmgreen and Dragset (Prada Marfa, 2007), reproduces on smaller scale the play of exacerbated veneration exercised in contemplating the new edifices of ruling societies... like a little Dubai.

This luxury store could very well have been a contemporary art space (from which it borrows the formal vocabulary). Whether it consists of a boutique in the middle of the desert, a furnished Venetian pavilion (The Collectors, 2009), or a sunken white cube (Traces of a Never Existing History/Powerless Structures, Fig. 222, 2001), the structures these northern artists create remain fixed in a white, luminous aura, the diffuse and most efficient mechanism of the prevailing egalitarianism and standardization. Because our culture needs to define the forms that constitute the art that we look at, and, at the same time, because these forms are no longer visually defined and categorized, the gallery becomes the sublimated container on which our habits of critical thought coalesce. The “global white cube”(10) remains the worldwide standard that governs the exhibition of ever-more varied, revamped, and exotic practices. Bling-bling comes about when structures supplant the identities they are supposed to convey: cosmopolitan art, the expression of the plurality of singular identities in the world, is confronted with predefined and designated modes of appearance and existence, echoed in both established and alternative venues, here too as the “surplus” of industrial infrastructures and often giving their original name to the areas prepared for exhibition. Slaughterhouses, hangars, docks, garages, stores, halls, and what-not are as transformed by “aesthetic tuning” as the roaring cars in Fast and Furious.

Customized is also the Hallal-brand bling-bling garment and accessory collection that artist Kader Attia launched in 2004. For several weeks, Galerie Kamel Mennour was transformed into a hip street wear boutique whose large window displays showcased the representation of an entire culture under the yoke of western branding strategies (11). These fetishized objects and attitudes flaunted by such black rappers as Lil Wayne and Juvenile in their aptly named clip, Bling-bling, like the luxury cars and yachts, the grillz (12), the dream villas, the tattoos, the jewels, and the women, simultaneously express a libertarian revolt and the imprisonment of the identity of entire communities within the confines of Western civilization’s most tenacious codes, where material values replace moral ones. The work of American visual artist David Hammons also illustrates these tensions between the possessing and the dispossessed; many of his works blend American and African cultural signs and registers, like the broken piggy bank that spills out to reveal an economy based on seashells (Too Obvious, 1996). Young rappers’ still-born bling-bling revolt leaves as its sole image that of an identity straddling extreme wealth and the most dire poverty, where the slimmest chance of survival is relegated to the miraculous, like immigrants crossing oceans in makeshift canoes in search of the promised land. Freedom is presented as a total package by the aesthetized structures of its commercial distribution, as witnesses the mercantile cynicism of mob-like organizations that sell American, and sometimes European resident status to the people of Africa and the Far East (13). In such contexts, human destiny is smothered in scintillating and pricey dross, like Damien Hirst’s diamond-crusted vanitas entitled For the Love of God (2007).

In Sylvie Fleury’s work, one comes across gold shopping carts mounted on white pedestals (Ela 75K (Go Pout), 2000), clusters of luxury brand bags (It’s Clinique Bonus Time, 1991), Vogue magazine covers (Vogue, 1992), and citations of emblematic works of the twentieth century covered in industrial ointments or gaudy furs (Eternal Wow on Shelf, 2007). All these containers reveal the forms of fashion, advertising and aesthetics with which our identities are now constructed. “I am a woman, I live in this century, I am a feminist” is the characteristic title of an interview the artist gave Fabian Stech in 2003 in Geneva (14). Bling-bling distils the most profound interrogations on the essence of being human along with the most frivolous desires for representing this humanity. Like the paper of a shopping bag, it is an interface that displays the inner world on its outside. We know that this mystic and religious enquiry is one of the driving forces in the process of mass consumption. As French billionaire Gérard Mulliez, founder of a world distribution empire, said: “Consumer society is an economic system that aims to place more and more goods in the hands of more and more people. A whole organization whose only goal is to have more and more people participate in creation, in direct line with the will of our Lord. (15)" Valérie Belin’s photographs of made-up plastic mannequins and Vanessa Beecroft’s motionless mannequins of flesh and blood have the disconcerting appearance and distant look of sacred Byzantine icons.

The Pareto principle (16), which finds varied applications throughout the market economy and the media, governs the choices and actions of decision-makers. It takes on uncontrollable proportions when it is applied globally in a system where “technical progress supersedes human progress.(17)” All around Bling-bling denotes the condition of the world when all structures of life (18) are governed by this approximate yet terribly exact principle: 20% of the world’s population consumes 80% of its resources. Through the superstructures and infrastructures deployed between environmental resources and civilization, this minority imposes its choices and its identity, a fundamental imbalance that regulates and organizes the lives of all of humanity. In other words, contemporary luxury can only be reduced to its ostentatiousness, to its abstract capacity for representation, for it rests on no reality, on no rational or concrete justification. This tension between technical progress and its “morality” pervades Wim Delvoye’s usually subversive productions. Like construction site machinery borrowing from the sumptuous architecture of cathedrals (the Caterpillar series), Delvoye uses the contemporary aura of human technical genius, often relating it to the fundamental egotism of Ikonenmaker (19). Most of his works, like the controversial Cloaca machines, and even his own image as an artist, are subject to heavy publicity, making use of logos (Cloaca — New and Improved logo, 2002) and derivative products, from polished industrial design to mass-produced “Wim Delvoye” children’s figurines sold in “Wim Shops.” Like Jeff Koons, who exhibited next to the Sun King at Versailles, the Belgian startiste confided that he sought to achieve maximum visual efficiency so that art, thanks to the image, could remain understood by everyone. Knocked down, redefined, or eradicated by most twentieth-century avant-gardes, representation is an internationalized mode of life, and advertising is its chief mode of communication.

The idea of representation, once often considered an alienation of the image and of our rapport with the world, has become a sine qua non for artists’ existence: for many, art is only a word if one is not represented by a gallery, on the Internet, in art fairs and national and international biennials. Dozens of artists go to Venice every two years to represent countries. Representation is also supposed to be the basis for all forms of democratic, and therefore acceptable, government. The corollary of representation, today, is a mise en scène that introduces a semblance, or pretence, of freedom in the array of representations that surround us. Freedom of the artist’s condition is bling-bling when the locus of art is confused with the locus of its mise en scène. And because art opens onto regions that escape both time and space, the crux of the current -avant-garde, of the global fact and the cosmopolitan imagination, bears less on art itself than on the ways in which we may inhabit it without turning it into a representation — and thus an efficient tool — of ideology.[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

1. Mike Davis and Daniel B. Monk, eds., Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York: New Press, 2007).
2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (Paris: Pocket, 1984), 37.
3. The organization of facilities lay at the heart of Buckminster Fuller’s “World Game” system: “make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.” The idea has been taken up by many followers of various different societal models — including John Cage, who frequently referred to it in his conversations.
4. Raymond Williams, “Advertising: the Magic System,” Advertising & Society Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Project Muse, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
5. Pierre et Gilles, “Wonderful Town,” exhibition presented at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris, 27 November – 23 January 2010.
6. See Courrier international, No. 998-999 (December 17-31, 2009): issue devoted to prophesies, apocalypses, and the end of the world.
7. “Spectacle is capital to such a degree of saturation that it becomes an image” (“Le spectacle est le capital à un tel degré d’accumulation qu’il devient image.”), Guy Debord, La Société du Spectacle (Paris: Gallimard-Folio, 1992), 32.
8. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 14.
9. Davis and Monk, eds., op. cit.
10. The expression is borrowed from Elena Filipovic’s essay, “The Global White Cube,” published in Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic, eds., The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 63-83.
11. Hallal, 27 February – 27 March 2004, Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris.
12. Decorative dental caps made of precious metals.13. One may cite the work of the group Société Réaliste, created in Paris, in 2004. Their “green card” lottery (EU Green Card Lottery – The Lagos File, 2006-2009) is a major project studying international immigration:
14. Fabian Stech, J’ai parlé avec... (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2007), 37-49.
15. Richard Whiteley, La dynamique du client, une révolution des services, with an introduction and comments by Gérard Mulliez (Paris: Éditions Maxima, 1994), 23.
16. The Pareto principle, or law, is a mathematical and empirical principle that states that, in all human activity, 80% of the effects are due to 20% of the causes. The principle is nearly universally accepted in the commercial field.
17. See Conversation Hans Ulrich Obrist-Raoul Vaneigem (Paris: Manuella, 2009), 20 [in English: Hans Ulrich Obrist, “In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem,” translated by Eric Anglès, e-flux , online at]
18. I employ the term “structure” in a broad sense, to include architecture and urban development, industries, transportation and distribution networks, information networks, the media, forms of government — in short, all the frameworks deployed on Earth by human activity.
19. Ikonenmacher: the artist’s German neologism to designate an “icon-maker.”

Thibault Carles lives and works in Paris, Lyon, and London. An artist and essayist, his work is less concerned with the production of artwork than with establishing a frame of mind.

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