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Dora & Maja, Unstill Life, 2010

Infinite Still Life

Object-based art in the age of infinite reproduction surveyed by Amy Knight

Recently separated artist duo Dora & Maja’s UnStill Life (2010) is a 'replica of still life painting in three dimensions'. With genetically modified fruit spewing liquid in response to a vibrating Nokia 3210 on a granite tabletop, its screen glowing green, the parodic scene is one of crude artifice, humour and abjection. The still life model was also adopted by Travess Smalley in his Soft Light Blend exhibition last year, drawing attention to issues surrounding the three-dimensional display of computer-generated works. A series of projectors were placed on marble-topped tables along with emphatically tactile vase-sculptures containing flowers; tulips recall the enthusiasm for this particular flower in seventeenth-century Dutch still life tradition. The vases were placed on the keyboards of laptops, whose lit screens along with projections of vivid floral abstractions on the walls behind acted as substitutes for a window in the background. The still life becomes a mediator, a scene set for the intertwining of tactile and digital-ethereal objects.

As part of his Thoughts For Food series, Alex Turgeon’s A Rose By Any Other Name (2013) is a black and white photograph of highly symbolic objects. Its precisely balanced composition appears to have been set up in landscape orientation but the image is presented vertically, uncomfortably. A single rose, a pomegranate and two figs interact with two reflective sheets of metal or mirror, and beside these - or beneath, as it appears - is a thick chain, its tail end slumped to the ground, snake-like. Turgeon’s use of fruit is inspired by Dutch still life painting, his photographs playing on the allegoric references imbued in this genre to create altered meanings. In both Times Still Life (2012) and Pool of Fruit (2011), the orange makes an appearance: in the latter as part of a balancing act with a banana and a green apple, arranged in front of an open MacBook on its side. Displaying nothing but the rippling clear blue water of a swimming pool, the laptop screen serves as the appealing yet uneasy backdrop to Turgeon’s composition. Fruit, longstanding component in the history of still life, traditionally evoked opulence and the transience of life, but is used by Turgeon as a romantic symbol, referencing its use in both historical painting and contemporary commercial photography. 

The contrived nature of the still life enables it to readily embody the artifice of commerce and screen-based cultural experience, at a time when many artists are adopting the visual language of branding; advertising strategies often form structures for projects and their presentation. But in place of the moralistic memento mori we are presented with synthetic objects that are intrinsically about preservation, memory storing, the infinite scroll; the avoidance of deterioration and death. In Avocado, Apple and Lemon Image Transfer and Banana, Apple and Pear Image Transfer (both 2012), Anne de Vries elicits the seduction of commercial product photography and demystifies it by physically overlaying the inner workings of the global economy that belie this seemingly simple end product. A mass of text, symptomatic of the infinite access to information that decodes contemporary experience, breaks down the sterile logistical facts behind the ‘still life’ that we see. The layer of text acts as a screen: revealing and obscuring, framing and detaching.