Hana Earles: Victim of Late Capitalism
⬤ Meow2 9 Jan - 7 Feb 2021
Victim of Late Capitalism (2021) is Hana Earles’ latest solo show at Meow2, which she curates with Calum Lockey and Brennan Olver out of a small West Melbourne terrace house turned studio gallery. The bulk of her new works are collages of advertisements ripped from magazines and duct-taped over deconstructed stretcher bars and carboard in place of traditional picture frames.
Lovely Monster (2021) immediately puts the frame and the gallery centre stage by assembling a medley of magazine ads for products like perfume and Dyson hairdryers around the cardboard-stretcher bar outline at imperfect angles and odd contours, with the picture at the centerpiece replaced with a square gap through which the gallery’s blank white wall can be glimpsed. My Repression Album (2021) and My Repression Diary (2021) do much the same but with an emphasis on the collage that was somewhat obscured by the duct tape in the previous work, so that we can clearly see magazine cut-outs of Rihanna and someone brandishing a gun along with ads for bracelets, Saint Laurent, the Samsung Galaxy, the iPhone and an actual old iPhone stitched around the frames. Two other works, My Repression Mixtape (2021) and I Hate My Parents (2021), displace the border between inside and outside even more by having the frame slice through the centre, slicing in two the blank white square of the gallery wall in a way that brings to my mind Mallarmé’s ‘A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance’, as it sees the poem jump across the spinal abyss separating the two pages. This is all amidst an aura of commodity fetishes for more Dyson hair dryers, Diesel, Pokémon, Apple, HP laptops, jewellery, natural medicine, Rolex watches and Hollywood celebrity Übermenschen Adam Driver and Charlize Theron, as well as a botched polaroid.
While at first glance another work, White Heated Cyber Angel Baby (2021), stands out as a monochrome hexagram star often associated with occult happenings at the limits of perception, its six uneven points are perfectly in line with the other works. By the time we come to I’d Care (2021), the edges between the artwork and the frame are so frayed that the collaged borders of ads for Vogue, handbags, washing machines and Dyson fans and hair dryers come to completely infect the centrepiece like a covid-19 superspreader, leaving only a few small gaps through which the gallery wall can still be glimpsed. What unites all of these works is precisely the disunity of the centrepiece as their edges are displaced through grotesque angles and gaps emerge to turn the frame and the gallery into the stars of the show.
In his 1902 essay ‘The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study’, Georg Simmel writes that the frame’s purpose is to provide a sturdy, typically wooden protection for the artwork from any outside influence and external context so that its meaning can stand on its own within an enclosed space: “The frame, through its configuration, must never offer a gap or a bridge through which, as it were, the world could get in or from which the picture could get out”. José Ortega y Gasset’s 1921 essay ‘Meditations on the Frame’ similarly argues that the frame’s role is to fortify the painting’s aesthetic unity by fading from view into the invisible outer edges:
The frame does not call attention to itself. Proof of that is simply, if each of you were to reflect upon the painting you know best, you would find that you cannot recall the frames in which they are set.
For Simmel as for Gasset, the frame is a form of quarantine that locks down the artwork, socially distancing it from the infectiousness of real life. Such a trad conception of the frame is undermined in Jacques Derrida’s 1987 book The Truth in Painting where he writes that the frame, or what he calls the “parergon” as opposed to the work or “ergon”, constitutes the unity of the artwork whilst also disrupting it, insofar as it is ultimately undecidable whether the frame ought to be considered part of the work or not:
The parergon inscribes something which comes as an extra, exterior to the proper field … but whose transcendent exteriority comes to play, abut onto, brush against, rub, press against the limit itself and intervene in the inside only to the extent that the inside is lacking.
If someone as straight edge as Simmel felt uneasy about cloth-based frames for being too soft to rigidly demarcate the bounds of the artwork, he would have been utterly aghast at Earles’ new show. Not only do her works draw attention to traditionally invisible frames through their jagged angles and displacements, so that we can never be certain where they end and the works themselves begin, but the gaps in the works mean that we cannot escape the context of the gallery space either. Whereas for Simmel and Gasset the frame is designed to protect the art from outside infiltration as nonchalantly as possible, to lose oneself in Earles’ works is precisely to confront the gallery and the frame as its contours or lack thereof enable life to leak into the art as well as art into life. It is in this sense that Earles fulfills Derrida’s thought experiment to
take away from a painting all representation, all signification, any theme and any text-as-meaning, removing from it also all the material (canvas, paint) which according to Kant cannot be beautiful for itself, efface any design oriented by a determinable end, subtract the wall-background, its social, historical, economic, political supports, etc. What is left? The frame, framing, plays of form and lines which are structurally homogenous with the frame-structure.
By abolishing the steadfast, straightforward frame, Earles paradoxically makes the frame, as well as what’s outside it, the focus of the art itself.
So, what dimension of life comes flooding into Earles’ works when the dam is finally broken? As the bricolage of commercial iconography tells us, it is not authentic, everyday life but the capitalist spectacle as it leaves no room for anything outside itself, art included. Earles is strictly a formalist, but, as Marxists never tire of telling us, capitalism is pure “commodity form”. Consumer culture and social media self-promotion have been staples of Earles’ art at least since her work Meow (2018) at Neon Parc’s Carny, a simple painting of the word “Meow!” to advertise her then newly-off-the-ground gallery. There, by having the gallery ever-present through the gaps in the works, Earles evinces the way that the very means of advertising art and promoting the artist as a brand have become aesthetic ends in themselves. It is only fitting that the poster advertising the show on Meow2 and Earles’ Instagram accounts depicts the Guggenheim that technophobe Lewis Mumford ridiculed in his 1959 New Yorker piece ‘The Sky Line: What Wright Hath Wrought’ for allotting “the painting and sculptures on view only as much space as would not infringe upon his abstract composition”, as if the architectural means of displaying the artworks were more important than the works themselves.
This is not necessarily a critique of the commodification of art as it could just as well be a celebration of the artistic nature of capitalism that Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter did not call a relentless rollercoaster ride of “creative destruction” for nothing. Since the aim of capitalism is to make more capital ad infinitum, it can never rest content with simply producing the same old goods and services and the desires, identities, social relations and cultures that come packaged with them. It must constantly create new goods and services, and hence new desires, identities, relations and cultures, which melt all the old ones into air before they too are melted in turn by still newer goods and services. Any resistance to capitalism is thus not some extrinsic limit that could contradict and negate it once and for all, but an immanent limit that capitalism itself conjures to become ever stronger by critiquing itself more brutally than any post-cancellation apology and adapting itself accordingly. As Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism in Anti-Oedipus (1972), in what could just as well be a description of Earles’ frames as they welcome the everyday life of commodity fetishism into the works, “capitalism for its part has no exterior limit, but only an interior limit that is capital itself and that it does not encounter but reproduces by always displacing”. In our age of capitalist surrealism, there is no alternative to constant alternatives. The only reason economist Werner Sombart could already write obituaries to “late capitalism” at the turn of the twentieth century is because the death of capitalism is the creative life force of capitalism’s immortal soul. By collapsing the distinction between art and everyday life, a distinction that for quite some time now has only meant the distinction between art and the all-encompassing capitalist Idea, Earles becomes the ultimate edgelord by literally having no clear edge in her work.
The shift in the conception of the picture frame and what it lets in from Simmel and Gasset, to Derrida and Earles, is metonymic of the more general cultural shift from the great avant-garde modernist movements to poststructuralism and postmodernism. Both the Dadaists and the situationists frequently made collages out of newspaper scraps to expose the arbitrary and contingent nature of how the original texts and images were presented, thereby stripping them of any legitimate claim to monopolise the end of history in a frozen spectacle. The bourgeois myth of individual agency best exemplified by the lone artistic genius was also undermined through their use of ready-mades and found objects, automatic drawing practices and psychogeographic walks without a destination, all of which elided the conscious control of the individuals involved. As Sadie Plant sums it up in her 1989 dissertation Critique and Recuperation in Twentieth Century Philosophical Discourse, for the modernists, “art therefore represents a realm from which reality can be reassessed and criticised”. In the wake of the seventies and eighties neoliberal counterrevolution against the sixties protest movements, however, pop artists and poststructuralist pranksters concluded that capitalism was capable of recuperating every aspect of our lives such that there was no longer any position of resistance outside the spectacle from whence it might be critiqued. Plant goes on: “The poststructuralists developed an account of alienation and spectacularisation which denies the existence of an authentic reality to which such terms might be opposed”. So it was that subversive Dadaist techniques and situationist détournements were recuperated by commercial advertising, MTV, pop art and fashionable pomo nonsense. So it was that the great sequestrations of Paris’ Renault car factories gave way to Warhol’s elite New York studio The Factory.
As Audrey Schmidt points out in her review of the first show at Meow2, Everard’s Art show (2020), Everard’s works evoked the situationists’ efforts to express something more authentic outside of the institutions by drawing on memories of her childhood represented by her North Melbourne Primary School logo in Errol (with Caesar) (2020), personalised graffiti tags and handwriting in Journalist (2020) and naturalistic collages of soil and twigs in City wide (2020): “At work in Art show is a clear tension between the attempt to create/represent a transgressive space of relations and the tendency to recuperate and recodify it within existing value systems”. By contrast, there is no sense in Earles’ new show of anything outside the capitalist spectacle as the borders of her works bleed into everyday life only to see its free space bought up by advertisers and algorithms. No wonder the logo for Brunswick’s A1 bakery in one of Everard’s works is replaced by a QR Scan on the catalogue for Earles’ show, as if to remind us that our data is being harvested even when we eat out with friends. All that psychogeography now allows us to see as we wander the streets is evermore billboards for psychocapitalism.
This brings us to the show’s audio work ‘Am I Allowed to Cry??????’, hosted on Earles’ Patreon. As the only membership options are the “\$1 victim tier” or the “patron of the art \$10,000”, and the audio work is freely available, it is more a satire of the artist’s Will-to-Brand than a genuine funding drive. The audio work itself consists of a woman’s voice freely associating over a twenty-minute monologue as if to her psychoanalyst. But what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that you have to use your phone to scan the QR code on the show catalogue to access the soliloquy. As I check a few notifications while I’m at it, I am once again reminded that our everyday life is always being harvested as big data for advertising companies, and indeed now more than ever during the post-lockdown new normal of Zoom and contact tracing apps. Given that the means of accessing and producing art like smartphones and social media self-promotion are front and centre in Earles’ works themselves, we have a process whereby the very means of artistic production become an end in itself in a way that perfectly mirrors capitalism’s sidelining of the ends of man in favour of the means of production for its own sake. Since no capitalist corporation exists in a vacuum but must compete with other corporations on the market, they have no choice but to invest the vast bulk of their profits like sacrificial offerings to a demanding god into improving the means of production so that they are more efficient than their rivals at producing better goods at cheaper costs. Seeing as any corporation that wants to stay competitive must invest its profits into improving the means of production, what at first appears as production for the sake of our consumption or the capitalists’ profit is really what Deleuze and Guattari call “a sort of art for art’s sake”: “It ceases to be tied to enjoyment or the excess consumption of a class, … it makes luxury itself into a means of investment, and reduces all the decoded flows to production, in ‘production for production’s sake’”. Far from subordinating the means of production to satisfying our desires, capitalism merely throws us a few scraps and Instagram likes as a means to lure us like rabbits transfixed before a fast-approaching headlight into pursuing its own ends of relentlessly revolutionizing the productive forces.
It is therefore only natural that the gallery was haunted by a certain melancholic atmosphere as if after a breakup or a lost future—or, worst of all, both. After the opening show, I hear Earles shouting about throwing her phone away and tattooing the Unabomber’s manifesto on her back. As her audio work puts it, “I don’t want to achieve anything. I don’t want to consume. I just want to make idealisations and ideologies and then focus on them and deconstruct them while they fall apart in front of my eyes and I can indulge in the suffering until it feels less lonely”. But lest we forget that throwing away her phone would mean this audio work could not have been accessed and My Repression Diary featuring an iPhone could never have been made at all. Indeed, it is unlikely most people would have even known about the show without scrolling past Meow2 or Earles’ Instagram accounts.
My beloved philosophical soulmate Nietzsche traced the birth of tragic art to the Ancient Greeks’ masochistic drive to delight in their own suffering as they gathered to watch anti-heroes like Oedipus and Prometheus rebelling against their lot by claiming the seductive and fire-bearing powers of kings and gods for themselves only to see their humanistic hubris brutally savaged by nature itself:
Art alone can re-direct those repulsive thoughts about the terrible or absurd nature of existence into representations with which man can live; these representations are the sublime, whereby the terrible is tamed by artistic means, and the comical, whereby disgust as absurdity is discharged by artistic means.
In the same vein, Freud saw art as a sublimated expression of traumatic childhood experiences in the artists’ past by means of which they try to work through such libidinal catastrophes: “A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfillment in the creative work”. For Freud as for Nietzsche, art is cope. Earles practically says as much in an interview for Guzzler’s Recent Tendencies in Women’s Painting (2020): “I love to make work focused on a wound. There’s lots of sick girl artists who focus on recovery and fantasy and stuff. I don’t think my work is like that. There’s always some leaking hole at the centre”. If art and technocapital melt into one another like once broke-up lovers back into each other’s nostalgic arms, it is because they both transvaluate all our infernal suffering on this shithole planet into a source of ecstatic creation.
As I turned from the gaps of the blank gallery wall in Earles’ works to mingle with the patrons themselves, the lo-fi tragedy of it all could not have been starker. Whereas previous shows at Meow2 and particularly its former incarnation Meow involved someone asking people questions and filming them (as Earles puts it, “like they were fucking Edie Sedgwick”), that was no longer necessary insofar as everyone knew they were there to play a part. And play the part they did. While I overheard and participated in a few brief conversations about Earles’ new works, the grotification of VCA or the greatest performance art of our time up on Capitol Hill (QAnon Shaman is the new Marina Abramović), the most frequent topic was bitcoin, cryptocurrency, stocks and trading. “I’m going be richer than all of you!” a certain RMIT fashion student turned Wolf of Dryburgh Street shouts only half-jokingly after checking on his recent investments before taking a sip of champagne listed on the bar menu as “champain”. Though most of us in attendance were either students with part-time jobs, precarious workers or Centrelink survivors, I couldn’t help but find a perverse pleasure in the way we were all too willing S&M victims of that lovely monster technocapitalism. As Deleuze and Guattari gleefully admit, there is “a pure joy in feeling oneself a wheel in the machine, traversed by flows, broken by schizzes”, in “placing oneself in a position where one is thus traversed, broken, fucked by the socius”. When the limits to capitalist growth are outrun by the growth of capitalist limits in everyday life as in Earles’ latest show, the only ones eagerly nearing their own demise are the edgelords of late anti-capitalism.