Inorganic Seductions, the 2017 Capture Billboard Project, brings together four local and international artists in an unprecedented public presentation in Canada. Examining the genre of still life photography and its ambivalent relationship with advertising, Inorganic Seductions features innovative photographic works by Anne Collier, Barb Choit, Annette Kelm, and Evan Lee. Each artist employs different photography techniques and methodologies to take a contemporary look at the petit genre of still life, a style tied to the paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century during the expansion of the Dutch empire. Traditionally these paintings dealt with themes of decay and mortality to remind viewers of the brevity of life, unchanged by a wealth of earthly delights. However, the symbolically laden artworks also played a role in the expansion of trade, as merchants would commission still life paintings to show off their wares acquired from “exotic” locations.
By co-opting strategies from the commercial world and considering the powerful gaze of the camera, the works in this series of public installations reciprocate the deadpan and disinterested way that viewers typically encounter advertising images. Without logos or copy to ground them, the images seem out of place, and the viewer is unsure whether to read them as contemporary vanitas or viral marketing. By situating this group exhibition on outdoor billboards, Inorganic Seductions ventures to emphasize how public space is used to multiple and often conflicting ends, suggesting an ambiguity between the forms inherent to advertising and the works that critique them.
Anne Collier’s minimalist compositions Eye #1, #2, and #3 (2014) each depict a photograph of an eye held by a woman’s hand against a white background. Collier rephotographs found images under a seemingly neutral lens, dislocating them from their original source and leaving the viewer to consider their meaning afresh as well as their role in how we see the world. The photograph of the eye, which shifts slightly from one composition to the next, stares back at the viewer with an almost godlike omniscience. Photographs of eyes and notions of the authorial eye recur in Collier’s practice, but presented on a billboard they adopt new reference points, in this case alluding to the symbolic eyes of optometrist T. J. Eckleburg that look out from the roadside billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. In the novel, the eyes are a symbol of godlessness, moral corruption, and the failure of the American Dream in capitalism’s golden age. Presented here, Collier’s eyes eschew straightforward symbolism to consider a range of contemporary and historical influences that defy easy categorization.
Barb Choit’s out-of-focus Polaroids of vintage shoes rely on a neutral composition similar to that of Collier’s works, but here it instead evokes the white studio backdrops of catalogues and fashion editorials. As a collector and seller of vintage shoes, Choit is intimately familiar with these pictorial conventions. Her deliberately blurry photographs trouble the way viewers typically respond to images of this nature, that is, as the bland, utilitarian fodder of the retail industry. A person approaching these billboards from afar might wait for their eye to adjust the image into focus. The realization that there’s no further detail to be revealed highlights viewers’ often inadvertent complicity in the seductive act of being advertised to.
Annette Kelm’s signature deadpan photographs feature a range of subject matter and often mimic commercial modes of display and image making. For Inorganic Seductions, Kelm’s Pizza, Pizza, Pizza (2016) is featured four times throughout the city, like a campaign for a generic pizza shop that neglected to include key information, or even an image of the food itself. The photograph depicts a disorienting frontal view of a pizza box with the word “PIZZA” repeated three times in bold red text. There’s also an inexplicable piece of brown tree bark seemingly floating over the right-hand corner, all in front of a flat, mustard-coloured background. The initial effect of the image is a kind of bland disgust, followed shortly by a double take—what is this image selling me and why on earth would I want bark on my pizza? As with much of Kelm’s work, the answer to these questions isn’t found in what the image depicts, but in the nature of its display and strangely coded composition.
Evan Lee’s Hyakkin Still Life series (2017) is a continuation of his Dollar Store Still Lifes from over a decade ago. For this iteration, Lee purchased a variety of cheap trinkets from Daiso, a Japanese dollar store in Richmond’s Aberdeen Centre, and sorted them into loose categories to create compositions that are strongly evocative of Dutch still life paintings, which he then scanned with a household desktop scanner. The result is five rich and highly detailed images that recall the origins of the still lifes, but whose inanimate subjects subvert the conventions of the genre: one image turns the decomposing fruit of the classical vanitas paintings on its head with stacks of dried ramen noodles and hamburger-shaped candies that show no sign of decomposing; another depicts plastic sushi dividers with the same gravitas as would be expected for a sumptuous bouquet of flowers; and yet another uses a cheap compact to play with the motif of the mirror as a symbol of worldly vanity. In this case, the mirror reflects the scanner itself, revealing the image’s source and actively resisting moralizing.