Isabella Darcy: Luxury & Labour
Disneyland Paris opened in May this year and is likely Melbourne’s newest gallery. Although gallery is more of a proxy word. The space is located in a disused serviceman’s restroom—AKA toilet—on the ground floor of the Thornbury block of flats where its founder, David Attwood, lives. In decades gone, planning law dictated that residential blocks of a particular size include a separate toilet and basin for visiting tradespeople, presumably to maintain the separation of the classes. Thornbury, once a working-class environ, has not been immune to artists moving in, bringing with them the gentrification that drives up rental and prices. In this case, even the tradie toilet is vulnerable to the art community’s middle-class tastes. Having said that, the space also serves as a prime example of arts workers’ resourcefulness during increasing economic austerity and, as such, it exists as an opportunistic response to that same middle-class bulge.
Many people will know Attwood as an artist who has regularly created works around the theme of shit. For the 2018 Kyneton Contemporary Art Triennial, for example, the artist developed a mascot of types, dressing up in a custom emoji-poo outfit, which he walked around the town in. So his now having established an art space in the site of a disused comfort station is befitting. Attwood white-cubed the space, removing the toilet and basin and painting the walls. But the pipes that connected to the toilet and sink remain as a warm reminder of what once was. Although Disneyland Paris was a pre-COVID idea, one is tempted to contextualise it in the current scheme of things. For when the gallery opened in May, Middle Australia was licking its wounds after panic buying toilet paper (I must credit my co-editor Chelsea Hopper for prompting me to write about this event with the following message: “if you don’t mention that you r dead 2 me). The gallery’s name is also a nod to that same excess that caused Aussies to biff in the Woolworths bathroom aisle. For Disneyland is perhaps the epitome of a consumer paradise aimed at the suburban masses. And if Emily in Paris has taught us anything, it is that Paris remains the ultimate new-money fantasy destination for anglophones looking for a bit of culture.
Currently showing at Disneyland Paris is Luxury & Labour, a collection of three works by Melbourne-based artist Isabella Darcy. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the works embody the inextricable link between the demand for high-end consumer products and the human sacrifice that goes into making such items. In her practice, Darcy works with a lot of reclaimed textiles. For Luxury & Labour, she has sourced two towels from a Good Will in New York, while a third came from Savers in Brunswick. She then created each work by stretching the towels over the canvas and stapling them to secure them in place. The insertion of the towel into the space of the former lavatory is amusing, not least because I am guessing that a bathroom reserved for tradespeople was probably not serviced with such niceties. Despite this, Darcy avoids any didactic equivalences between the gallery space and her work, leaving that up to me, the toilet humour connoisseur.
In their original incarnation, these towels pointed to material wealth (without actually embodying it). However, by the time Darcy found them in thrift stores, this allusion to luxury had been greatly diluted. The fluctuating symbolic status of a material object points to an ever-increasing conflation of consumerism with class. Each of the towels bears a very specific image that relates it to high-end material wealth. In E-Class (2020), for example, the unmistakable hood ornament of a Mercedes Benz is presented to the viewer. Meanwhile, Replica (2020) is made from a counterfeit pink Chanel towel: the fashion house’s double-C logo sits at the top of the canvas, while the large N and E of the brand’s name, although upside down, are instantly recognisable. In both instances, the images are symbols of class, but their very bizarre application to towels disavows any sense of lavishness: champagne has been downgraded to Passion Pop. The third work in the exhibition, Work Life Balance (2020), shows the silhouette of two people net fishing. This image conjures up outdated fantasies of island holidays that include romantic idealisations of “local life”. Tourism embodies a form of kitsch luxury. It is an activity developed in fantasy but eventually met with the reality of queues, blisters and McDonalds in every major city. As Darcy’s towels were beach towels, they were created with the intention of being displayed in public and, presumably, to impress. The industry for counterfeit goods, of which the Chanel towel is a product, demonstrates the human desire to peacock. Finally, in stapling her towels to canvases, Darcy pushes them even more in the direction of the fetish because now their purported function—to dry the body—has been virtually erased.
Luxury & Labour reminds us that even the most basic tools for daily life can be commodified. And the very weird ways in which these tools are commodified—here, with images of the universally-recognised cheaply reproduced on towels—is what makes it so interesting. We mostly use towels in domestic settings. They are personal items reserved for use by usually a single person. And yet even the domestic will be monetised. Only this week I encountered a bizarre Guardian filler piece titled “My Three Most Useful Objects”. In it, beauty influencer Lauren Curtis lists her favourite beauty products, including “an ‘in-between’ towel,” a microfibre towel with a clip that she slips into post-shower for the sole purpose of doing her hair and makeup. In an increasingly voyeuristic culture of “behind-the-scenes” — see: Architectural Digest’s tours of influential people’s homes or Harper’s Bazaar’s celebrity night-time skincare routines — previously everyday products have been specialised to the point where adding a clip to a towel makes it a unique product. But—and this is obviously the point/a biproduct of our capitalist economy—for a moment there I did think that Curtis’s clip-towel might be something that would improve my life. Both Darcy’s works and Disneyland Paris are part of a tendency in contemporary art to critique a flawed culture that we also willingly engage with, not because we are monsters, but because this system is so ingrained.
For all this towel talk, Luxury & Labour is not about towels; it is about the cultural logic of class and consumerism, as well as its effects on our social identities. I also want to avoid the temptation to say that the direct application of the towel to the canvas—i.e., that the physical canvas is the ultimate artistic embodiment of surface—represents some kind of equivalence between consumerism and superficiality. Indeed, in these works, the image and the material hold equal value, and it is the tension between them that creates meaning. Upon closer inspection, the materiality of the towel—that is, the uncut cotton loops that give it its absorbent quality—is on full display. Wrapped haphazardly around each canvas, the towels form subtle bulges and warps, revealing the fact that the material is layered. The edges of the canvases are also covered in towel and this lends to an oddly appealing sculptural quality, a “thingness”. If anything, the Darcy emphasises the material bulk and, therefore substance, of her chosen medium. The logic of substance is what connects these works to the labour component of the exhibition’s title. Indeed, if we cast our mind’s back to Marx’s notion of base and superstructure, we will see how Darcy has formulated her exhibition around the towel’s materiality as the base structure that gives rise to the superstructure of the luxury image ingrained within the towel. Indeed, it is not a stretch to imagine that these towels were produced in exploitative labour conditions and that this should contribute to our reading of luxury as always part of a binary.
If labour conjures up images of exploitation (and, indeed, the people fishing in Work Life Balance are suggestive of this), then we might also consider these textiles as an index of the inextricable relationship between labour and environmental damage. It is not only people in developing countries who are most at risk of being exploited to produce textiles. Their natural environments also bear the grunt of textile production’s disastrous effects. Cotton requires vast amounts of water to produce—approximately 2120 litres for every kilogram of raw cotton fibre—and is largely grown using unregulated labour, mostly in China and India. In Bangladesh (one of the world’s largest textile producing nations) waterways formerly relied upon for fish and fresh drinking water have been poisoned by dye runoff, with reports of rivers turning black and becoming the consistency of tar. I doubt Darcy was trying to make a rote Climarte-style statement, but I sense a subtle comment about the inherent cost of materials used to the ends of human comfort. This is represented by the disparity between the depicted luxury images and the worn appearance of discarded material carrying that image. Having been stapled to its support with minimal care, the towels cloak the canvas with a sense of fatigue, suggesting the logic of the exhausted resource that these sites of production represent.
I want to conclude by considering the way in which Disneyland Paris’s very unique space creates a dialogue with Darcy’s work as a comment on competing public and private selves. And, this, I will do by making a (possibly farfetched) comparison with Marcel Duchamp. It is clear that Attwood has a propensity for the readymade. As a practising artist, his own work includes Kong dog toys, baby Nike sneakers and vacuum cleaners. Since opening, Attwood has exhibited a number of readymade-adjacent works from Tim Woodward, Natalie Thomas and Adam Cruces. But it is the gallery’s echoes of Duchamp’s infamous final work Étant Donnés (1946–66) that interest me. Upon approaching Disneyland Paris, the viewer is met with a decrepit door that is reminiscent of the wooden door that contains Étant Donnés. To view the diorama within, the viewer must peer through a peephole, meaning that only one person may view the work at a time. Disneyland Paris also eschews the collective viewing experience. The fact that it is located right next to someone’s apartment means that viewing should be done in silence. What’s more, Disneyland Paris is possibly Melbourne’s smallest gallery. Measuring just 1.6 x 1.2 metres—the size of perhaps an elevator—the only way to social distance is to visit the gallery alone. Even in an imagined post-COVID future, it would be impossible for more than a few people to occupy the space and view the work comfortably at any one time. The viewing experience is even more fractured by the fact that the door swings inwards, meaning you see one half of the space as you enter and then must duck behind the door to see the other half. You must close to the door and create a fortress to view the exhibition in its entirety.
Luxury & Labour works perfectly within the setting of Disneyland Paris because both embody a kind of uncomfortable clash of private and public. The showiness of Darcy’s towels is countered by the very solo viewing experience established by Disneyland Paris. Nobody will stare in awe at one’s (fake) Chanel towel here. In the case of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, the perversity lays firstly in the slow realisation of what is going on in the erotic/violent scene behind the door and, secondly, in the fact that the viewer must comprehend this confronting scene alone. Meanwhile, Luxury & Labour represents the perversity of the contemporary readymade. The commodity, often intended to be paraded around in front of crowds, is here presented to the single viewer.