Four young female artists explore 'girliness' as consumer paradigm, sexual fantasy and economic necessity
‘Teenage’ no longer just refers to that period between the ages of 12 and 20. For better or worse, the economy has thrown a scrunchie in the works and, at least in the UK, the normative route to adulthood – choosing a career and a partner, buying a home and filling it with kids – has become unaffordable for a considerable chunk of the population. According to a 2015 survey by the Office for National Statistics, one fifth of 25 to 29 year olds in Britain still lived at home with their parents. The teenage bedroom has been granted a decade-long extension, as have all manner of pubescent mores. In recent years, the effects of prolonged adolescence have become subject matter for a number of female artists in their late 20s and early 30s, all connected to London through the Peckham-based galleries Arcadia Missa and The Sunday Painter. These artists have had time to pick over the remnants of their own teenage years while continuing to face late capitalism’s hard sell of female youth. The idea of the girl as model consumer was popularized by the French collective Tiqqun, whose Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, first published in 1999 and released in English by Semiotext(e) in 2012, presents ‘Young-Girl’ as an identity sold to us all, irrespective of age or gender: a way to keep us dependent, naive and, ultimately, shopping.
Samara Scott, who is based in south London and studied at Camberwell College of Arts, is an expert shopper. Her compositions, often liquid and almost always perishable, are made from the barrel-bottom of cheap, girly products. Scott stretches the consumer’s art of accessorizing to queasy proportions, selecting a brand of domestic cleaner to compliment a particular shade of eyeshadow, or the right colour dog-poo bag to match a fizzy drink, as if choosing shoes for a dress or cushions for a chair. For her exhibition ‘Silks’, at Birmingham’s Eastside Projects in 2015, Scott excavated chunks of the concrete gallery floor, filling them with rainbow-hued pools of feminized flotsam. As with all of her work, the materials list was immense. The 143 items named in an accompanying index included nail caviar (decorative beads for setting into nail polish), Bloo cistern block (a toilet cleaning capsule which comes in hot pink and powder blue), cream cleaner, Innocent smoothie and glitter toothpaste.
‘The modern artist’, Jackson Pollock said in 1950, ‘is working and expressing an inner world,’1 – an idea to which ‘Silks’ provides a decidedly materialistic rejoinder. These works describe a psyche saturated by mass-produced tropes of girliness. For all their sparkle and riotous good looks, they have a bulimic relationship to consumption, as if anything sweet and shimmering has been swallowed up and released back into the world in puddles of noxious gloop.
It is an irony that some of us get better at being teenage as we get older – when we’ve spent long enough staring at screens and shop shelves to have learned the lines and perfected the look. For artists, turning to the juvenile in adulthood has its spoils: elevating the hurts, hubris and hedonism of youth necessitates a reappraisal of what we consider serious, intelligent pursuits. As the artist Beatrice Loft Schulz has said: ‘The taking of pleasure, particularly female pleasure, is a political act.’ Acts of conspicuous gratification are an opportunity to give the finger to staid notions of female decorum – and the po-faced fantasy of the toiling genius to boot.2
As part of ‘Ways of Living’, a show curated by Arcadia Missa at David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) in London earlier this year, Loft Schulz covered the gallery walls in a rude explosion of acid-yellow and lavender squiggles. The work, satin seed stipple arsehole hair plait (2016), was made using a fire extinguisher converted into a giant spray canister, a graffiti technique used for large-scale wall coverage. It formed the backdrop to a number of historical works on show, turning messy cartwheels behind a sober set of Bernd and Hilla Becher photographs of water towers, as well as colour co-ordinating with a pair of Paul Thek’s ‘Big Bang Paintings’ (1987–88). DRAF’s walls are not the only place Loft Schulz’s pleasure-seeking doodle has appeared. For her solo exhibition ‘Living Arrangement #’ (2015) at Arcadia Missa, Loft Schulz and gallery founder, Rózsa Farkas, along with the director and two assistants, had the motif tattooed across their arms.
In a series of performances titled ‘The Story of Joan of Arc’, first staged at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 2014 and reprised at Yvonne Lambert in Berlin in 2016, Loft Schulz updates one of the oldest stories of youth and martrydom. Loft Schulz’s Joan of Arc is a different kind of believer: a girl whose dreams of becoming an artist lead her to modern-day New York. ‘Joan of Arc identifies herself in the image of teenage rebellion,’ the artist declares midway through a monologue that is part-poem, part-proclamation. Joan of Arc shaves her head, falls in love with the work of Andy Warhol and makes art from pictures she cuts out of magazines. Despite her sincere attempts at forging an individual identity, she is consumed by pre-existing narratives and images. She takes to dressing like a prisoner because she ‘identifies with oppression as a style’, reads Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1769), and hides her diary in the hope that one day someone will find it. Finally, dismissed as a fake, she starves herself to death, at which point Loft Schulz recites: ‘Joan of Arc is claimed as a paragon.’ From the stake to the troubled art star, even at death the story is not her own.
In 2013, Holly White, a friend and collaborator of Loft Schulz and Farkas (White also exhibited in ‘Ways of Living’) published the OK Cupid Diaries, a transcript of two weeks’ activity in which she apologized to every person on the eponymous online dating site whose messages she had previously ignored. In a fast-paced forum geared towards hooking up, White’s analyses of what went wrong, often sent months after contact was initially made, are touchingly out-of-sync – not least when her apologies take a turn for the fractious. ‘This was weird,’ begins one of her least sorry sorrys:
I’m hoping you were trying to initiate a role play and not telling the truth that you’re on here and lying to your partner about it and cheating on her and hating her [...] but I didn’t want anything to do with you after in case it was true and also a) you were sarcastic about it and b) everything.
White’s varied output has all the traits of the teenage anti-hero – awkward, crappy and tender as a bruise. She writes fan-fiction about Lana Del Rey and makes sculptures out of cardboard boxes and friendship bracelets. In 2013, she produced her own computer game, Supermarket Memories, in which players can experience her solitary trips to the supermarket after a loved one has departed, navigating car parks and bus stops by moving a crudely Photoshopped image of her head around the screen. ‘What better antidote to being alone,’ Olivia Laing writes in The Lonely City (2016), ‘than entering the replication machine of the internet, by which the virtues of celebrity could be made available to all.’3
White’s artworks frequently refer to the idea of the postapocalypse, using this epic dystopian scenario as a metaphor for enduring emotional difficulties as well as current social inequality – the hyperbolic nature of the subject matter colouring her lo-fi production methods with pathos and humour. As part of her exhibition ‘No One Is Going to Go There Any More’, at London’s Evelyn Yard in 2014, White showed the film The Estate Agent (2014), set in a future London on the brink of Armageddon. In it, we are taken on a property tour by an employee of a company named ‘Safe Homes Enterprises’, who is selling luxury shelters in preparation for life after the coming catastrophe – to those who can afford them. White filmed these scenes outside some of the many newly built, privately owned residential blocks in the capital, at a time in which the production of ‘affordable’ housing had reached a record low.
This summer, popstar Ariana Grande’s body was stickered across London as part of an advertising campaign for MAC make-up, photographed against a powder-pink drawing of her face in profile, eyes wide enough to house a puppy farm. ‘The Young-Girl resembles her photo,’4 write Tiqqun, and we all know the picture. If the teenage girl is the prototypical consumer, her image is also voraciously consumed, a tendency that Argentinian-born artist Amalia Ulman exploits in her work. As part of an exhibition at Showroom MAMA in Rotterdam, Ulman – who has worked with Arcadia Missa since the gallery’s inception – made the film International House of Cozy (2015), casting two porn actors as a female curator and her ‘wonder boy’ graphic designer boyfriend. The couple live in a state of uninspired perfection. They have the right moisturizer (Aesop), the right magazines (Artforum), the right brand of jam (Bonne Maman – they later lick it off each other’s bodies). International House of Cozy is lifestyle porn, disturbing not because it is sexually explicit but because it is explicitly conventional, depicting a life in which desire and identity can be boiled down into a selection of readily available, upmarket products. After a brief spell of stilted dialogue, a massage develops into a professional sex-by-rote routine, and the film ends – where else? – with a cum-shot over a Muji notebook.
When the website Pornhub published its annual statistics for 2015, over 87 billion videos had been viewed. (This equates to roughly 12 per person on Earth.) Worldwide, the second most popular search term was ‘teen’. ‘Teen’ is an impossible object: innocent nymphomaniac, professional virgin. In Ulman’s best-known work to date, Excellences and Perfections (2014), the artist embodies this hyper-sexualized global fantasy of young womanhood. Over a period of six months, Ulman used her Instagram account to post photographs of herself acting out scenes from a vacuous luxury lifestyle: in hotels laden with shopping, practicing pole-dancing, revealing her new (fake) breast implants. She switches between popular female types, from the bunny-stroking blonde in knee-high socks to the gun-toting bad girl. In a photograph taken from behind, the artist lies in bed in a thong, her vest pulled up for maximum exposure. ‘Bettr sore than sorry,’ [sic] reads her accompanying caption, a motivational phrase borrowed from the workout world. ‘Fantastic ass’, a follower comments, casually dissolving the border between empowerment and objectification.
Being a girl, Ulman has said, ‘is not a natural thing’, and the appeal of Excellences and Perfections derives from how well she pulls off the plasticity.5 By the time the artist revealed she had been using her Instagram account to stage a work of performance art, following the project’s final post in September 2014, she had amassed almost 90,000 followers. If, as Tiqqun say, the Young-Girl resembles her photograph, for six months Ulman became it: a popular, synthetic fiction.
Beatrice Loft Schulz, born in the year of the tiger, lives and works in the year of the monkey. In 2016, her work has been included in shows at David Roberts Art Foundation, London, UK; Yvonne Lambert, Berlin, Germany; and Glasgow Project Room, UK (with Alice Brooke). This month, her work will be part of the Artist’s Moving Image Festival, Glasgow, and she will have a solo show, ‘Chew and Spit’, at Tramway, Glasgow, in April 2017.
Samara Scott is an artist based in London, UK. This year, her public installation, Developer, was on show in the Pleasure Garden Fountains, Battersea Park, London, from August to September (with Pump House Gallery). In 2015, she had solo presentations at Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh, UK, and Eastside Projects, Birmingham, UK. Her work will be included in the group show ‘Entangled: Threads and Making’ at Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK, from 28 January to 7 May 2017.
Amalia Ulman is an airport-based artist with an office in downtown Los Angeles, USA. Her work has been included in recent group exhibitions at Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery, both London, UK. In 2015, she had solo exhibitions at venues including Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, USA; Showroom MAMA, Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and James Fuentes, New York, USA; and produced a public sculpture for Skulpturen Park Köln, Germany. Her solo exhibition at Arcadia Missa, London, runs until 5 November.
Holly White is an artist based in London, UK, and is one half of the music project Goth Tech. In 2015, she had a solo exhibition at ANDOR, London. Her solo show, ‘I Need Your Love Is That True’, runs at Jupiter Woods, London, until 6 November. Her book, Recipes for You: A Vegan and Gluten Free Recipe and Story Book with Additional Life Skills, was published by Arcadia Missa in September.
Lead image: Samara Scott, Lonely Planet II, 2014, cement, water, oil paint, watercolour, food colouring, nail varnish, soft drinks, spray paint, sand, clay, soil, eyeshadow, and packaging. Courtesy: the artist and Sunday Painter, London
1. Leonhard Emmerling, Pollock, Taschen, 2003, p.22
2. Felix Petty, ‘Beatrice Loft Schulz: Pleasure, Craft and Living Arrangements’, i-D, http://tinyurl.com/huj9a6w, 24/09/2015
3. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2016, p.233
4. Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2012, p.33
5. Alastair Sooke, ‘Is this the first Instagram masterpiece?’, The Telegraph, http://tinyurl.com/hrms2dg, 18/01/2016
First published in Issue 183