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Scale Matters

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In the prescient 1981 satire “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” the lead character, a middle-class housewife played by Lily Tomlin, becomes so overwhelmed by the toxins and detritus of all the everyday consumer goods in her life that she begins to shrink, to the point that she takes up residence in a dollhouse. Literally overwhelmed by the scale of commodity culture, it is as if the pure products of America have taken over her life and now threaten to consume her. Trapped in a world of gigantic cereal boxes, orange juice containers, and tampon packages, buried beneath a trash bin’s worth of all the discarded containers and waste, with the ambient TV and radio chatter constantly promising ever-whiter teeth and ever-more regular bowel movements, we see our consumer culture mirrored back to us, well beyond human scale, where we might be just one more item to be consumed and discarded.  

In Charlene Tan’s “400%,” her ongoing investigations into this particularly American brand of consumerism literally expand in scale, putting the mundane goods of our everyday urban environment on display in uncanny replications and proportions. Poised somewhere between sculpture and installation, handicrafts and the ready-made, ‘high art’ and cheap goods, her new work unsettles even as we recognize our everyday consumer world reflected back to us, greeting us with a “super-size me!” come-on.

Tan’s black and white copies of product boxes hang from pegboards or rest on display shelves, beguiling us with their over-excited claims of “new and improved” or “max size”. For each object, Tan has undone and flattened the cheap packaging, run them through the Xerox machine, often changing their size in the process, and then literally repackaged the results in three dimensions. This play between the (literal and conceptual) flatness of banal consumer goods and the resulting lightweight boxes, emptied of their contents but with heightened emphasis on form, draws heightened attention to the disposable containers and their (literally) empty promises, destined for the dustbins of our personal histories.

However, this is not a case of simply taking the drugstore into the gallery, or defamiliarization through mere re-contextualization. Tan’s inflated sculptures, “larger than life” even as they sit inertly in their cheap paper packaging, torque our own relationship with each item, as our sense of our bodies is no longer in proportion to the products — flu meds, chapstick, maxi-pads, etc. — our bodies use everyday. Just as the miniature draws out a sense of playful mastery over the world of things (the dollhouse, the architectural model), the gigantic threatens to dwarf our sense of power in relation to those things that we’ve materially produced for ourselves.

Additionally, the draining of all the bold colors that saturate our experience of shopping lends a kind of funereal cast to Tan’s sculptures, as if her installation were an archeology of our present, scanned and reprinted for the archives of some future museum dedicated to the pre-collapse era of landfill aesthetics. At the same time, the presentation of what the father of mass production and replication Henry Ford called “one goddamn thing after another” takes on an additional charge in the gallery context, where we ‘know’ that the work in front of us is for sale (or at least can rarely escape the economic value-systems of the art world), even as we wish to pretend otherwise. This is not to say that Tan’s work can be reduced to some ironic fire-sale of discounted artworks, or a commentary on the art-commodity-money nexus, for the work at hand does not rest on its conceptual frames as much as push them into tactile and palpable presence, the materials of materialism folded back in upon themselves, as their shelf-life expands outward. “No ideas but in things” — these works aren’t only re-packaged ideas, just as even the most banal of goods aren’t only the sum of their ad-copy. Someone makes these things, cuts and folds and puts together our plastic boxes and the plastic items inside, and increasingly those someones are women of color working in factories well beyond the borders of the US market. Increasingly the conceptualism of commodity aesthetics comes from the idea factories of American marketing firms, who ship (or more likely, email) their ideas overseas to the peripheral manufacturing zones that help guarantee us such low, low prices.

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Indeed, part of Tan’s interest in these mundane objects comes from her personal background, as a child of immigrants who lived for years in Manila before returning to the US. For her, “assimilation and culture shock come as naturally as breathing. Accepting and having the American taste for fast food came as a hallmark of socio-economic assimilation, a badge of honor.” Thus for Tan the throwaway culture of cheap products is not simply an element of American culture to deride, but a place where ethnic and class identifications work themselves out in the intense ideological nexus of consumerism and “American values.” This may help account for the more playful, if not nostalgic, element of Tan’s work, where a child-like wonder in the everyday made strange (things too big for children’s hands, adult things shrunk to children’s playthings) rubs up against the more somber black and white anti-gloss.

Strangeness and rescaling are two strategies for Tan that subtly hint at contemporary globalism—literally rendered as the ever-expanding scaling of transnational capital—but simultaneously and paradoxically reduced to the scale of the individual, always a body in relation to the commodities we hold in our hands, preparing to trade cash for the right to rip open the packaging for the (now empty) promises within. As in the minimalist tradition, Tan’s serialist displays tease that line where abundance becomes a mass agglomeration, where one can no longer separate an individual sculptural unit from the whole, one specific box of Ben-gay from the repeatable, limitless “Ben-gayness” that every supermarket shelf secretly suggests. Tan’s copies, with insides removed, become stripped down to representation itself, so that the container itself is the work, its super-sized logos and brand-names reduced to nothing more than signification. All that was solid melts into air freshener.

Some time ago, while visiting my family in Minnesota for Christmas, I wandered the giant expanses of the Mall of America, drifting and losing myself in the vast arcade of holiday lights and sales. In the center of the mall, amidst the roller coaster and other giant amusement rides, there were numerous children working variously on an enormous replica-mall made out of Legos. Would it be too much to suggest that somehow this Lego-world seemed more real than the absurdly-sized mall itself? That the presence of hundreds of tiny fingers, laboring to fit tiny plastic piece to tiny plastic piece, like Santa’s unpaid elfin labor force working overtime, in order to build a gigantic fantasia of interlocking industry-standard blues, reds, and whites—that this anarchic assembly line of mini-construction workers seemed more representative of the daily toil and thrills of globalization than the five separate Orange Julius franchises in the mall, each with their own super-size drinks for sale? A big-box full of big-boxes, packaging our experience in spectacle — the gigantic sale, the cornucopia of plenty — giant containers that now contain us, our every need and desire mirrored back to us, as if we are now the products re-packaged and ready to open. Tan’s work pushes us back against these conditions, with levity in place of judgment, uncanny wonder in place of cold calculation. I agree with her 400%.

— David Buuck : Feb 2011