In our new dark ages, enthusiasm is hardly what it once was. Whereas our relation to the socio-economic realities that structure our world could oscillate between surface engagement and disengagement, today we are expected to receive almost everything with a smile and a cheery face. Our mistakes and failures are no longer sources of pain and fracture but valuable opportunities for learning, as everything negative must be instantly positivized. Miserable training sessions and away days must be enjoyed and every mind-numbing activity approached with passion and an abundance of energy. Even selling products no longer involves vaunting their virtues – ‘Our ice cream is the best!’ – but turning, instead, to the seller’s relation to them: ‘We’re passionate about ice cream!’
In this false universe of positive gloss and shallow passions, where can a real enthusiasm be located? Artists can, as ever, help us here, by refusing to buy into the discourse of happiness and wellbeing and showing us the darker realities at play beneath the smile emojis and beaming selfies. This is not just to point to the underlying sexuality and violence that orientate human behaviour, but to remind us of the past, the lessons of history and the uncountable lives that constitute it. Over the years, frieze has created and maintained a space for a critical reflection on these cultural and social changes, consistently avoiding becoming a public-relations vehicle for both private galleries and institutions.
If so much of digital culture pays lip service to the past while rendering it as mere surface, many artists enjoin us to consider its depth and complexity, while at the same time avoiding the tropes of romanticism and nostalgia. A striking example of this is The Possibility of an Island, a 2009 installation at Peer by the London-based artist Jeff McMillan. Over several years, McMillan collected painting-by-numbers images from the 1950s and ’60s, sourced primarily on eBay and the internet. Rather than simply amassing all examples of this practice, he focused on specific templates, collecting dozens and sometimes hundreds of versions of a single image. As the copies mounted up, differences in tone, in colour, in brushstroke, in highlighting would appear, together with clues as to the identity of the individual artists. Tiny marks, small signatures or words left on the reverse would offer a tantalising aperture onto the place that art had in the life of each painter. They had all been obeying the same instructions and using the same templates, yet each image was different, a small window onto a unique practice. In McMillan’s installation of these images, a paradigm of non-art became art.
Main image: Jeff McMillan, The Possibility of an Island, 2009, found paintings (detail). Courtesy: the artist and Peer, London
First published in Issue 200