Charged political topics such as globalization, capitalism and subjectivity are tackled in the work of Melanie Gilligan. Her most recent exhibition, 4 x exchange/abstraction – with its underlying theoretical, capitalist critique – at Galerie Max Mayer was no exception. In the titular HD video from 2013, a fragmented plotline played out across four flat-screen monitors dispersed through the gallery space, accompanied by a series of lenticular prints. On one monitor, two women at the side of a busy motorway exchange goods back and forth: a pair of scissors, a ball, a container of cleaning solution marked TOXIC in capital letters. On another, the same women place these objects in a bathtub, as if rubber ducks. These scenes alternate with 3D animation: a balled-up fist scampers through a desert, finds a plant, waters and eats it before getting into a fight with other fists tending their own plants. Gilligan boldly illustrates the absurd realities of supersession, ‘might makes right’, goods exchange and neoliberal capitalism.
In these works, Gilligan adopts the current vogue in visual practices of focusing on a few specific images, on sampling sampled from reality television, home shopping channels and digital 3D animation and on applying pre-set editing effects. In recent media-critical installations, artist Simon Denny has intelligently pushed to absurd lengths the aesthetic of contemporary consumer electronics and tech start-up culture, as well as strategies of digital consumption. But whereas Denny’s approach goes so far that the viewer can no longer distinguish between the product, the advertisement and the art work, the carrying of these languages to such extremes was precisely what was missing in Gilligan’s work. The film 4 x exchange/abstraction apparently attempts to clash together contrary elements, focusing on an implied, simple computer game-like storyline. But just when viewers might enter the interplay of vagueness, clarity, superficiality and reversal, the menacing fist of didacticism slams down. It’s as if the artist’s own act of critique eclipses the presentation of what is being critiqued. Gilligan’s version of digital whimsy strengthens this impression: again and again, the images collapse dramatically, suddenly, fray into their constituent digital parts, and blur into abstract streaks. But on the whole, it suggests the artist’s lack of confidence in the impact of her game plot. Even the collapse of images is ineffective as a reference to the dark capitalist nightmare and the disruption of circulating systems of commerce.
Gilligan’s earlier multi-episode film dramas Crisis in the Credit System (2008) and Popular Unrest (2010) achieve the concision that this exhibition lacks; in absurd scenes reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre as well as scripted reality TV, Gilligan’s actors recite cryptic dialogues at a frenetic pace. The dialogues expose the megalomania and paranoia of a financial system that has become utterly unhinged from reality. Gilligan joins in the aesthetic and linguistic codes of the system, from easily digested TV dramas, stockbrokers’ slang, corporate jargon and motivational training for executives. Here, however, the differing registers of affirmation and criticism seemed to short-circuit: neither the artist’s pseudo-affirmative homage to commodity fetishism nor her broad-brush references to capitalism’s brutal circulatory systems were effective. And in this exhibition Gilligan’s own lavishly produced ambiguous images come across like a product of the very same strategies that she so solidly criticized in previous works.
Translated by Jane Yager
First published in Issue 14