Since the mid-1990s, the Melbourne-based artist, Ricky Swallow, has created meticulously detailed, 1:1 scale models of outdated mass cultural forms, all of which have been constructed from the rudimentary materials that we might find in a kindergarten – cardboard, craft glue, plastic tubes and paint. Many of the objects that Swallow appropriates for his works evoke the ubiquity of late capitalism and the infiltration of the commodity image throughout all forms of cultural life; most recently he has taken particular care with outdated technologies and toys, such as the once cutting-edge Apple Mac logo, an upturned pair of Campers-brand sneakers, a lonely ibook, telescope, game boy, and a number of stonehenge-like ghetto-blasters, to name just a few examples. All of these forms are suggestive of a thoroughgoing warping of time: the laborious processes through which Swallow constructs his commodities in 1:1 scale precision off-sets the speed with which late capitalism renders its images obsolete, just as the small-time precision detailed within the hobby models come to recall the big-time equations and myths unearthed by an archaeologist’s fossil.
This paper analyses the multiple ways in which Swallow’s uncanny replications of obsolete technologies stage a tactical engagement with questions of time, the commodity and the virtual in postmodern culture. It suggests that Swallow’s forms undermine the capitulation of time to commodity culture and the subsumption of art to design that, in Hal Foster’s words, mark the "cynical duplicity" generally attached to ‘postmodern’ simulations and repetitions. The paper mobilises Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the commodity fossil, and its associated critique of time and commodity relations as the central critical concept; I argue that Swallow’s handcrafting of outdated commodities, as if they are objects unearthed from an archaeological dig, extend Benjamin’s fossil metaphor into a critique of postmodern/virtual image culture. The paper contends that Swallow’s forms enact a critical distance from the postmodern, and the stagnant temporality of retroversion, in the way that they literalise Benjamin’s metaphor whilst rendering commodity logos into concrete forms. Swallow’s practise of literalisation is further read in light of Michael Taussig’s theory of the tactics of mimesis, which is understood as enabling a new reading of Benjamin’s analysis of time, representation and the commodity in the fossil form. This, in turn, opens up a reading of Swallow’s ‘handmade readymades’ as both ironic and sincere engagements with Benjamin’s dilemma of reification; Swallow’s forms are read as subversions of the stagnation of time in the commodity in the way that they literally draw us to our senses.
visual culture, temporality, commodity culture and art