James Lynch

Real life is everywhere
Grey Area (Art Space Inc.), Melbourne

Under a studio spotlight a pile of rubbish lies on the grey tiled floor. It is a glimmering, colourful collection, loosely gathered together. On opening night, a crowd of visitors stand ceremonially around it, while in the corner a video screens a silent image of a hand slowly and silently fondling various items of the packaging, one after another: a Coca Cola can, a chip packet, and so on.

Real Life is Everywhere approaches everyday consumption through its residual surfaces. Rather than offering merely an appropriation of the aesthetic forms of consumer culture, Lynch presents its packaging as art. Hence the detritus, in the form of a Twisties and CCs packet, a can of Coca Cola, Grinders coffee cups, cola cups, chocolate wrappers, an empty videotape box, a (designer) clothing bag (RPM), a Big-M flavoured-milk carton, a Pizza Hut cardboard box, a distinctive red McDonald's fries packet, a disposable yellow Kodak camera, a half-crumpled movie ticket, a VB stubby, straws, a phone card, Melbourne tram tickets, cigarette packets ('Luckies' and a crushed up packet of Holiday), and a photography envelope from the chemist. Finally, there are some objects of a rather different status-some coins, a credit card, a Commonwealth Bank key card, and a set of keys. Such egalitarianism in the 'everywhere'- a thoroughly surrealist attitude towards subject matter-reveals a list of the small things that might weekly pass through the hands of a young urban Australian.

The objects are already thoroughly aestheticised, with their bright, bold colours and graphics. But only upon inspection does it become clear that all of the wrappings and other items (right down to a coffee spillage attached to its cup) have been meticulously reproduced by hand - carefully constructed from cardboard and paper, and coloured with texta - with an occasional 'real' bottle or lid. The detail is so extraordinary in this mini-universe of simulation, the fidelity to the 'original' so striking, that one craves to discover, looking more closely still, where these simulacra depart from their 'original' (reminiscent of children's 'spot the differences' puzzles). And the irony, of course, is that the unique copy of the copy has itself become the original. Like a response to a provocation, the assertive title of, the show prompts the question: whose 'real life'?. And since the video both genders and specifies the consumer, one way of viewing this show is to interpret it as a self-portrait of the artist as a young man. In any case, the work is certainly place and date stamped, Melbourne 1998, signed by the ephemeral packaging, and also, more literally, by an old yellow tram (conductor) ticket- already charged with nostalgia- and a movie stub for Boogie Nights. A global market is here scaled down to a heterogeneous personal world.

The notion of rubbish as autobiography recalls certain magazine advertisements in which full colour spreads display a celebrity's sanitised rubbish - suggesting that fetishism can extend to waste as well as consumption. At the same time, and as ltalo Calvino has noted, the disposal of one's rubbish can be interpreted as a rite of purification, a satisfaction analogous to the logic of defecation - the abandoning of the detritus of oneself today, so that tomorrow one can identify fully only with what one is and has. One is what one does not throw away. Precisely by not destroying the product, Lynch ruptures this smooth process. If, as Marx long ago observed, the production of the commodity is completed only in its consumption, perhaps, at a time when advertising has become the official art of capitalism, consumption is completed only in the conspicuous reproduction of its packaging.

The powerful fascination exerted by Real Life recalls the link Marx theorised between the masking of social relations in the commodity form and its assumption of an aesthetic meaning as an autonomous object. Yet while the show explicitly foregrounds package fetishism, it is no didactic critique of waste (though this is how an environmentalist might respond). On the contrary, it seems to revel in the barely repressed utopian quality of the packaging. Of course it also speaks of the institution of art itself in the tension between the aesthetic of the unique object and the repetitions of mass production, and the blurring between the sacred and profane. But, despite the obsession with correspondence in the 'original copy', the accompanying video seems finally more concerned with consumer agency, where this 'thing' that is everywhere-real life, reality, sensuousness, packaging - is actively produced.

The video plays a monotonous forty minute loop. In the avant garde tradition, nothing happens: there's no narrative development - the items are introduced, serially, slowly rotated and mechanically fondled - and the result is a series of silent, excruciatingly slow portraits of the various items, where profound indifference reigns. In a sense it is an awkward and melancholic elegy for the products - bare, studio-style, stripped of advertising hype. And apart from representing a further remove from unmediated reality, it also underlines the ersatz status of the packaging. A cardboard match - frozen alight-suddenly appears extremely fake, drawing attention to its reification (the packaging in itself?). Other items do not respond to touch in the way we are accustomed. The move from the package to its use - focussing on the subtle, ingrained, and automatic gestures of consumption that produce us as consumer-subjects - is dramatically illustrated at one point when a face belonging to the hand appears in view and drinks through the straw of a Coca Cola cup. Even a drinking straw subtly conditions our mode of being.

Real Life effects a challenge to the privacy of our consumption habits in its intertwining of production and consumption, of economics and everyday life. Just as products rehearse us as good consumers, their packagings package us. Several French theorists maintain that everydayness is defined by difference in repetition. This certainly describes the mode of the fetishised consumer-citizen, whose 'liberty' lies in the freedom to consume. The paradox of this consumer is that of a subjectivity fascinated by a world while condemned