by Daniel Jewesbury
Daniel Stier says of the forlorn items that he photographs, And it’s true, these things are so immediately recognisable that they can sometimes seem invisible. They need no promotion, no marketing to their potential consumers. They are the basic elements of capitalism, the stuff that we have to buy, and then buy again. Stier’s re-presentation of them, as lurid plastic still lives, frozen in hard direct light like suspected criminals, is patently ludicrous – the heroic grouping of slices of white bread, gazing into the middle distance; the factory-farmed chicken on its princess-and-the-pea tower of polystyrene takeaway boxes – but it is also selfconsciously tragic, precisely because of the fundamental importance of these products: not for what they actually are, but for what they signify economically. It is these goods, these crappy disposable consumables, which keep markets functioning from one day to the next, not high-value luxury items. Ours really is an empire built on budget baked beans.
Products such as these have inherited the earth, over the last sixty or seventy years. Their entry into art is nothing new. When Warhol exhibited his Brillo boxes, by bringing the meaningless and superficial into the privileged space of ‘serious’ art, he demanded that the packages he had replicated be understood as simultaneously the most vacuous and the most complex products of American culture and society, the zenith of human endeavour throughout history; and by forcing a comparison with the minimalist sculpture of the day, he suggested that art itself was less ‘transcendent’ of the economic order than its advocates had hitherto been arguing; and all this, of course, was delivered in the most calculatedly disingenuous deadpan of the twentieth century.
Similarly, the banal baroque and trashy camp post-Pop of Jeff Koons had a sharp edge, charting the revival, and excess, of American capitalism’s fortunes after it had seemed about to self-destruct in the 1970s; and Koons, like Warhol a true prophet of capitalism, packaged himself as indivisible from his product.
Today, the product, as if it were a diligent student lifting from all this recent art history, revels in its own auto-critique, in revealing the ‘trick’ to us. Advertising and marketing do not need any sleight of hand, any subtle devices, any more: and so glamour and trash, sexuality and disposability, have become fully interchangeable. Beyonce and Lady Gaga, and a galaxy of lesser performers, earn their living by making the cheap aspirational. It’s no longer an ironic pose, but is made truly, thoroughly desirable. Through them, the commodity performs itself directly, dramatises its own fetishism, appeals to be completed through consumption: so far, so familiar. But now, the commodity boasts proudly of its own insubstantiality, it delights in its cheapness. And this cheapness, of course, is the guarantee of our civilisation – it is the guarantee of democracy itself.
It’s perhaps in this way that we can understand Stier’s images. Their ugliness is a form of appeal. What use are beautiful products? We know well enough that the advertised image is only a costume worn by the commodity, which, when we have it in our hands and really get to know it, is unsatisfactory, and unfulfilling. Stier’s images have about them a little of the flashgun-glare of that pre-internet phenomenon, ‘Readers’ Wives’. These products are not given soft lighting or cheesy storylines. They don’t need them. These products are there to be used, immediately, and we want to use them, without much thought or consideration, to satisfy our basic needs, so that we can get on with the rest of our lives. These products are our lives.
Returning to the potted Pop history that I rehearsed above, we might think also of the photography of David LaChapelle, our age’s third-hand Warhol, when looking at Stier’s absurdly pathetic product shots. LaChapelle (when not directing live shows for Elton John) has created some of the most hyperkitsch, vibrantly acidic, sexually excessive fashion and glamour shoots, featuring the world’s most famous celebrities. His garish, vivid colour palette alone, all plastic and petrochemical and joyfully, ecstatically synthetic, encourages a link to Stier’s images. But there the comparison ends; if we want to find a more telling kinship in the crossover between art and fashion photography, it may be Richard Kern who is more of a true cousin. After all, Kern’s cleverly dumb, low-key artporno is really just a Taschenisation of the ‘Readers’ Wives’ genre. Stier’s images are similar in lineage. They are not real product shots, true, but there is no reason why they should not be. Their low humour is shortlived, rapidly turning in on itself to reveal something sadder, emptier contained within them: us, the high-water mark of human culture and civilisation.