Manufactured Self

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye

at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Each of the 13 artists in “Manufactured Self” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography offers a different perspective on the relationship between who we are and what we have. But while the nature of the self invites complex philosophical inquiries, photography is best at posing questions about appearances. As a result much of the work here is at once too serious and somewhat simplistic, opposing without exploring consumerism. In the 70s British critic John Berger identified a “gap between the real conditions of society and its daydreams of consumption.” But Berger tied the problem not to consumer items themselves but to labor practices predicated on alienation and boredom. Many of the images here simply evoke an unfocused anxiety about the material world or sadness for the people who’ve fallen for the empty promises of consumerism.

Maybe because humor undercuts rational assumptions, the photographs that work best have a sense of levity. The Ghanaian subjects of Philip Kwame Apagya’s studio portrait photos pose with various possessions: an airplane, an entertainment center, a giant boom box. All are elements of obviously fake but appealingly naive and exuberant painted backdrops, and the people posing are unself-consciously delighted with their artificial signs of affluence and modernity. The photographer’s approach echoes 19th-century American studio portraits in which serious-looking working-class people pose against the backdrop of a middle-class parlor or lean on a Victorian prop like a broken Greek column–but the Ghanaians are laughing.

Briton Walead Beshty also takes a humorous approach in “The Phenomenology of Shopping,” depicting himself with his head stuck inside items on display in stores–a washing machine, a pile of stuffed animals. His pose suggests the fundamental gratification of shopping while his almost obscene flouting of the usual decorum in stores clarifies all the unwritten rules consumers must obey before satisfying themselves with their objects of desire.

Peter Menzel traveled the globe to depict families posed with all their belongings arrayed in front of their homes. His 14 high-quality 18-by-24-inch digital prints explore the relationships between possessions and people, between production and consumption, without oversimplifying our material lives or draining them of their rich variety and significance. Because his wide shots include both details and a broad overview, they show the connection between the environment, the household’s family structure, and the material culture. A shot (taken collaboratively with Peter Ginter) of the California Skeen family–mother, father, and two children–and their yard jammed with multicolored stuff shows the low, barren mountains bordering their subdivision.

Menzel captures the scope and similarity of the things people own: kitchen implements, musical instruments, books, televisions. Radios are among the most common of Western items. The range of people’s homes is fascinating in itself: yurts, mud houses, a beautiful painted blue building in Turkey, a Samoan house that looks like a roofed porch surrounded by palm trees and mountains. The Icelanders are lit by a low winter sun while the Mongolians pose under a cloudless sky.

While “Manufactured Self” turns on questions about how our identities are formed by our stuff, “Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye” at the Museum of Contemporary Art asks how we understand the world and shape it as a result. It’s a good question to address in any medium, and the exhibit’s grand scope–there are 68 artists–presents myriad possibilities. Curators Francesco Bonami and Julie Rodrigues propose that tourism is a state of mind so deeply ingrained in the Western world that its forms frame how we see. Many works here tackle tourism head-on while others drift, approaching the subject at a more conceptual level. An installation by the Swiss team of Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Visible World, consists of 6,000 mostly traditional travel shots meticulously arranged on a 92-foot-long light table. The images are so extensive they seem to exhaust the earth’s pictorial resources yet imply that we can’t know the world by amassing photographs, even though our acquisitive nature leads us to collect them.

Another Swiss artist, Thomas Hirschhorn, also looks at the process of collecting and reassembling as a way of knowing. His multiroom museumlike installation, Chalet Lost History, is made largely out of painted cardboard and filled with fake orientalist booty–a reference to the looting of Iraqi sites after the 2003 bombings. One room holds six model pyramids made of boxes, concrete blocks, beer cans, and a jumble of other iconic stuff; another room features sarcophagi. Each room is festooned with streamers of packing tape to which counterfeit money from all over the world has been affixed; texts, including fragments of poems, are taped to everything. Wildly anarchic and almost childish, Hirschhorn’s critique of technology, globalism, and representation is enlightening in its very messiness: the process of reproducing the actual world out of prosaic materials like cardboard and packing tape suggests both trashy tourist replicas and an appealing creative energy.

Chinese sculptor Zhan Wang travels the world with a collection of stainless steel pots, pans, chafing dishes, teapots, and other kitchen utensils and assembles them in a depiction of each city he visits. Wang’s model of Chicago, displayed here, includes towers of pots, which allude to the Marina and Sears towers. Behind each “city” he places some stainless steel mountains–representations of the Beijing range–and the room is walled with mirrors. The result is a gleaming, mysterious assemblage.

Matthew Buckingham’s film installation, A Man of the Crowd, alludes to an Edgar Allan Poe story, Baudelaire’s interpretations of Poe, and critic Walter Benjamin’s comments on Baudelaire: Buckingham proposes that we know the world only through layers of reflections and projections. Buckingham foregrounds the projection process: before viewers enter the viewing chamber they encounter an industrial-model projector and a loop of film; inside they see a silvery black-and-white film of a young man following an older one through the labyrinthine passages of Vienna. Because the projection beam travels through a two-way mirror, there are identical projections on opposite walls; the viewers’ shadows mingle with the film images.

The show’s catalog is a collage of essays and brief quotations from the vast contemporary literature on leisure, authenticity, consumption, spectacle, universality, and many other subjects. Neither the show nor the catalog takes a rigorous approach, but their associative logic is wonderfully stimulating, like a tour of something rich and strange.

Manufactured Self

When: Through 3/3: Mon-Fri 10 AM-5 PM, Thu till 8 PM; Sat noon-5 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan

Info: 312-663-5554, 312-344-7104

Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye

When: Through 6/5: Tue 10 AM-8 PM, Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids 12 & under free. Tue 5-8 PM free.

Info: 312-280-2660

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery/New York, Musuem of Contemporary Photography Collection, Courtyard Gallery/Beijing.