The idea for this exhibition has been in the back of my mind for about as long as I have been working on Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990, currently on view at the V&A. That project culminates with the work of 1980s commodity artists like Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, and the young Ai Weiwei. This generation borrowed its repertoire from Pop Art, but took that early movement's enthusiastic embrace of commercial culture into newly frank terrain. Just as Andy Warhol, at the end of his career, was creating giant paintings of dollar signs, and society portraits run off by the yard, so did these younger artists begin to deal much more explicitly with the commercial status of their own work - what it really meant for an object to be for sale.
Three decades on, what has become of the '80s impulse to critique the interdependence of art and capitalism? That question may seem to have been settled decisively in favor of unconcern. The market goes from strength to strength, despite the down market (when stocks fail, contemporary art seems a good investment). And given the scale and power of that market, it is easy to conclude that artworks now function as complicit commodities, just like any other. But of course, we have new reasons to subject the flow of capital to scrutiny, and art is still a crucial means of doing so. Every artwork is a materialization of value, but commodity art is special. Its subject is the process of capitalization itself.
When BISCHOFF/WEISS approached me to curate a show for their gallery in Mayfair, the heartland of conspicuous consumption, it seemed a good opportunity to examine these issues. The commodity chain flows rapidly through the neighborhood, and I wanted to show how artists can slow down that passage. For the '80s generation of commodity artists, this friction was applied principally through image and concept. Production was certainly a big part of the picture - Warhol's silkscreens, Koons' stainless steel casts, and Ai's defacing of pottery have attracted no shortage of commentary. But the practical interplay between the three ways of making art (handmade, readymade and management, or what the theorist John Roberts calls skill, deskilling and reskilling) were not very explicit, and rarely took center stage in critical discourse. Today, it seems to me, there is a greater sophistication in the way that artists consider the fact of art production itself - the process by which they introduce value into the world.
Chain Chain Chain is an attempt to showcase that inquiry. Its triple-barreled title points to three different usages of a single word, along an escalating scale of abstraction. First, there is the literal presence of metal chains in the gallery, a conscious echo of the luxury shops just outside the door. Lucie Gledhill's three-metre long chain in fine silver was fabricated by hand using the traditional technique of wire-pulling. Each link is ever so slightly larger than the previous one, with the smallest marking the limits of Gledhill's dexterity and the largest the limits of her strength. This simple progression provides the means by which she transforms her own skill into the material of imaginative empathy and astonishment. Isabelle Cornaro's photographs also feature chains, along with other pieces of her family's jewelry, arranged to form landscapes in South Africa. By simply manipulating these readymades on a wooden board, she turns them into representational devices rich with associations. There is something irreducible, inexchangeable, about both Gledhill and Cornaro's chains - the first because of its indexical relation to the body, the latter as a result of psychological freight, the burden of memory.
Second, there is the way that certain works in the show suggest the action of the commodity chain, by mimicking its margins and underpinnings. Gyan Panchal and Nicole Cherubini both contribute sculptures that evoke shipping containers or packing material, but which are also highly aestheticized and precious objects. The surfaces on these two sculptures are particularly nuanced, inviting one to take care in handling and looking at them - the opposite of Clement Greenberg's famous dictum that an abstract painting should hit you between the eyes, all in one shot. Leo Fitzmaurice also gives us packaging, in his case a selection of "value range" goods from three different supermarkets. By removing the identifying labels on each box, he removes the distinction and identity normally imposed by branding. The act of excision instead bestows upon these everyday objects the guise of modernist sculptures or architectural models, of a too-familiar De Stijl derived idiom. Thus one sort of generic language has been replaced by another.
A third and final type of chain that exists in the gallery is to be found in the mutiple connections between the works on view. I've already mentioned a few of these, and viewers will notice others. There is one obvious example in the visual and conceptual rhyme between Susan Collis's stack of A4 paper, topped by a single crumpled and gilt sheet, and Loz Chalk's sculpture, one of a series in which he encases an object within a thoroughly scratched plexi box. If Collis's work operates in freeze frame - a rejected idea, captured and rendered into a relic - then Chalk's is more like slow motion, as if the works of perception had been gummed up. Collis has also executed an exchange of her own, taking a chunk of plaster wall out of BISCHOFF/WEISS and trading it for a similar chunk from Seventeen Gallery, which normally represents her. Faint signs of the repair work are visible at both sites. This double displacement marks of her own passage from one end of London to the other, and from one commercial space to another.
Collis's decision to mark the gallery-to-gallery loan of her own presence suggests how eager many contemporary artists are to take the measure of their own economic footprint. That attitude is best exemplified by a final contributor to the show, Zoe Sheehan Saldaña, who retro-engineers commercially available products through exhaustive research. By remaking a lifejacket from scratch, she is able to learn what is really involved in making it generally available on the market. Ironically, the act of creating an ersatz copy serves as a form of truth-telling. Something similar could be said for all of the works in this exhibition: all depart from the normative condition of the commodity through some variety of intentional dysfunction, but thereby achieve a degree of penetration into the logic of the commodity form itself. Some are too intensely made for comfort. Others are too personalized. Still others exhibit a self-conscious doubt of their own value. But of course, these are exactly the registers in which we do encounter commodities in daily life. They do not manifest themselves in our lives as abstractions, but as objects of sensuous and psychological depth. Karl Marx famously wrote that a commodity is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." If he was right, then we might want to turn not to just to economists and political theorists to understand the place of the strange things in our lives - where after all has that led? - but to artists as well.
Glenn Adamson is co-curator of the V&A's exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, open until 15 January 2012