Gathering Being: On Collecting and Making. Part 5 of 5: On Commodification

Published: 03.09.2021
Pravu Mazumdar
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In March/April 2020, an exhibition of works by ten artists was hosted by Gallery Meme in Seoul, seven of them from Korea and three from Denmark. The exhibition was curated by Bogki Min, Professor at the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts, who was also one of the participating artists. The curatorial concept was to reveal the role of collecting in the process of making. In the following, I would like to unfold some thoughts on collecting as an inherently human practice and explore, how such an ancient practice, which persists unabated in contemporary societies, is interpreted in this rather exceptional curatorial experiment.

The text is presented in five successive parts, starting out with a few theoretical observations in the first two sections: Part I and Part II, and proceeding to discuss the exhibits and their makers in Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

At this point, I would like to thank Amador Bertomeu and Leo Caballero of Klimt02 for their unwavering generosity and support throughout the years of our cooperation. Working with them has been practically indistinguishable from friendship.
Part V: On Commodification

12. The dispositif of commodification

Marx begins his reflection on capitalist production with the famous observation: “The wealth of societies, in which capitalist production prevails, appears as a ‘monstrous collection of commodities’ …” [1] In keeping with the genealogy of money, which can be traced back to the archaic treasure trove, as Wilhelm Gerloff suggested [2], wealth in industrialised societies retains the character of a collection: a collection of commodities, defined as things that have been transformed in tune with the twofold imperative of utility and saleability. I would like to ascribe such an imperative to a dispositif of commodification, by which I understand a structure of utilitarian power pervading industrialised societies as a universal tendency to transform things – as they thread their way into the human sphere – into objects that are useful and have a price-tag. The treasure trove, on the contrary, is a collection of objects, which are not necessarily useful, because they derive from chance encounters and unique moments of attraction. And if they do leave the archaic collection at some point of time, then only through the ritual of gift exchange and not the channel of a price tag. All non-utilitarian practices of collecting things in an industrial setup reconnect with the archaic treasure trove by decommodifying whatever enters their sphere. As they unfold, they reveal an inbuilt tendency to resist the dispositif of commodification.

Maybe the best way to visualize the process of commodification would be to keep in mind that industrialised life thrives and proliferates between an abyss that gets deeper by the day as raw materials are mined; and a mountain that constantly gets higher as industrial waste piles up. Commodities begin their career as raw materials being dug out and gathered from the body of the earth, to be then chaneled through the human sphere and be transformed into products through the application of labour and technical algorithms. Then they are advertised as commodities with a function and a form. The utility of commodities requires that form follows function. But at the same time, the saleability of commodities requires that their form, as the first stage of their advertisement, transcends their function, so as to make them desirable and capable of circulating within the space of the market. Finally, the commodities sweep through the homes and bodies of consumers, age, lose their utility, and are finally discarded, adding to the mountain of waste on the other side of human existence. The death of a product is necessary to the life of the market, which is constantly in need of new space for new products, in order to be able to grow and sustain itself.

Against this backdrop, collecting appears as a disruption in the life of a commodity, cutting short its trajectory towards its grave in the waste heap, extricating it from its utilitarian entanglement and freezing its movement within the space of a collection, where it can “grow” a new type of value, which is different from its use-value or exchange value and has been characterised by Walter Benjamin as an exhibition value [3] related to the possibilities of its display. Such are the stages, which the process of decommodification, triggered by the act of collecting, traverse. Before concluding my remarks, I would like to take a short look at the pieces by Kim Buck, Sungho Cho, and Yoojung Kim and try to decipher the processes of decommodification involved in their making.

13. Transcending the commodity: Kim Buck

Kim Buck’s brooches are derived from the packaging of Apple products like smartphones and their accessories. As an external husk and encasement for products, packaging initially has a semiotic function that consists of a metonymic reference to commodification. In Buck’s work, the packaging is dislodged from its utilitarian moorings and gathered to re-emerge as jewellery. However, the very fact that it can be transformed into jewellery also draws attention to the possibility that the products themselves function as jewellery in addition to being employed as gadgets of communication. Despite their serial production and hi-tech flair, things like smartphones and headsets tend to spiral down to a pretty traditional and down-to-earth function of relating to the bodies of their owners, reminiscent of the archaic role of rare findings that are gathered and worn as trophies. In an archaic context, the factors constituting the value of an object are its rarity as a finding and the pure chance of having encountered and been attracted to it. In the industrial context, such processes are complicated through the agency of money which helps measure and express the objective price of a commodity. But besides the objective price, there are other factors that add new layers of value like the prestige of a brand (Apple) or the personal and symbolically loaded moment of the ritual of buying a product through being there at the right spot and the right time – at the actual site and date of release of the product, physically or digitally – in order to gain possession of it. These factors retain their archaic gravity, adding layers of intangible and implicit value to a piece in addition to its price and use. These strata of value that display so much more than the mere possession of a high-priced gadget, can be held in the hand or worn as a kind of trophy to enable their transference to the person of the owner. Kim Buck’s brooches mobilise associations regarding such daily “wearing experiences” derived from values that transcend the objective value of a commodity.
Kim Buck iBrooch sketches.

Kim Buck. iBrooch 4, silver, maple wood, 55 x 77 x 20 mm, 2019.

Kim Buck. iBrooch 5, silver, maple wood, 77 x 55 x 20 mm, 2019.

Kim Buck. iBrooch 4 & iBrooch 5, 2019.

14. Reassembling value: Sungho Cho

Lego bricks with their inherent atomism and colourful logic of assembly are not only reminiscent of scientific trends like reductionism, consisting in the expectation that a whole can be fully constructed by joining its parts in a methodical, step-by-step progression. Lego bricks also evoke associations of the assembly lines of industrial production. As an immensely popular pastime for generations of adults and children since the end of the Second World War, Lego can in fact be seen as a practicable metaphor for creativity in industrial societies.

Sungho Cho’s piece is based on a collection of discarded Lego bricks, retrieved on their journey to the waste heap and assembled into jewellery. As industrially produced elements like Lego bricks – or credit cards as the material basis for another body of Cho’s works – find their way into the studio, they enter a new cycle of productive transformation, a metamorphosis that protects them from their otherwise inevitable demise as non-recyclable artefacts by giving them new, aesthetically and technically determinable neighbourhoods. In the studio, the orphaned bricks are selected once more from a disordered heap and brought together to test the aesthetic and technical feasibility of a new neighbourhood common to them. The final exhibit thus results from an evolving “curatorial” process of trial and error, dictating the mode in which the found elements are gathered and aesthetically consolidated within the technically limited space of their possible syntheses, till they finally yield a perceptible form.
Sungho Cho. Color Combination, Lego Brick, 925 Silver, 70 x 90 x 20 mm, 2020.

Sungho Cho. Color Combination, Lego Brick, 925 Silver, 70 x 90 x 20 mm, 2020.

Sungho Cho. Brooch: Untitled, 2019. Silver 925, recycled Lego block. 5 x 5 x 5 cm.

Sungho Cho. Brooch: Combination by Color Weakness. Recycled Lego Bricks, Silver 925 cut, assembled Lego bricks, silver worked, cold-jointed.

Sungho Cho. Brooch: Combination by Color Weakness. Recycled Lego Bricks, Silver 925 cut, assembled Lego bricks, silver worked, cold-jointed.

Sungho Cho’s work can be seen as a reflection on the strange interrelation between collection and assembly that constitutes a significant theme of daily life in societies dominated by what I would like to term the “Ikea experience”. Transforming a collection of parts into an object of daily use usually takes place under the minimalist dictates of an assembly guideline that leaves no space for the play of trial, error and aesthetic decisions. At the starting point of Sungho Cho’s works, on the contrary, we find the elements of chance and intuition that belong to the instants in which the discarded bricks are encountered. Contrary also to the modernist tradition of assemblage by artists like Picasso, Rauschenberg, Chamberlain, which could start out with a wide range of found industrial objects under the expectation of an adequate creative space for the unfolding of an artistic vision, the making of Cho’s pieces starts out with bricks of different colour and size, but the same Lego form. The space for artistic play is therefore significantly reduced, because not all bricks are compatible with each other. As with all commodities, Lego bricks can normally be assembled as elements of a montage meant to produce predetermined forms like houses, cranes, aeroplanes. In contrast, collecting the discarded and decommodified bricks initiates – within the limitations of a highly restricted space of artistic possibilities – a new cycle of transformation that can end in something new and unexpected.

15. The non-quantifiable: Yoojung Kim

The dispositif of commodification is also a dispositif of measurement. Without a system of quantification and measurement, there can be no commodity, no circulation, no market. The instrument of measurement in non-subsistence economies is money. Money makes the world go round in a very economic sense because money measures value, and it is only the measurable and measured value that can circulate in a market. Money makes the world of products and values go round in circles, as they proceed from seller to buyer to seller till they reach a point, where they can begin to fulfill their promise of use. If at such a point there is an excess, meaning that the quantity of the product arriving exceeds the quantity that can be consumed, then the product begins to gather and constitute a spontaneous and unintended collection of unconsumable objects.

All excess triggers spontaneous processes of decommodification, which can include waste and total loss of value or the opposite: the flowering of a new type of non-utilitarian value within the context of new and emergent collections. George Bataille has demonstrated that no economy is entirely free of excess [4], that excess is habitually manifested as a transgression of the utilitarian boundaries of commodification, and that it can be generated through a wide variety of non-utilitarian practices like music, art, poetry, sports, gambling, sex. More specifically, excess can occur when the circulation of a product is intercepted and interrupted by the singular act of making a gift of the product.

In her account of the making of her pill brooches, Yoojung Kim talks about her collection of unused Korean medicine in her little studio in London, which she received from her sister as a farewell gift that would protect her from ailments during her stay in a foreign land. The gift was an expression of sisterly care, which could not have been articulated through words due to an inbred penchant for reticence. The consequence was that the pills acquired a symbolic value and could not be disposed of even after their expiry date. They had to be retained as material vehicles of an immaterial gesture of care.  

Yoojung Kim’s pill brooches are based on what figures as a typical everyday collection of unused and unusable industrial products: identical pills in their identical plastic pods, indistinguishable in form and function. Each pill is a station in a process of medication, rhythmically returning at identical times of the day as an identical dose of an identical therapeutic substance being administered in an identical manner. The only linear movement that is established through the cycles of medication is the progress of the therapeutic process. Put in Empedoclean terms, the ailment and its symptoms are dispersed in a linear progression as health gathers through repeated ingestion of the pills.

But if the pill brooches, crafted from symbolic materials like sunstone and prehnite, represent through their form the real, identical, serially produced units of therapeutic utility, indistinguishable in quality and segmented in quantity, then the original pills themselves, as real but no longer usable doses of medication, symbolise what cannot be measured, but only be felt and remembered: the unquantifiable qualities of care, warmth, and attention. Through their formal and visible resemblance to the real pills, the brooches evoke associations related to the measurable and saleable world of health. However, the invisible symbolism of sunstone and prehnite cuts through the tangible layer of the form of the unusable drugs, to represents what these were originally meant to articulate and what words were unable to express: the gathered intensity of sisterly emotion. Wearing the pill brooches would thus amount to wearing an unreadable document of the affection that moved and motivated the hands that made them.

Yoojung Kim. Pill brooch studies.

Yoojung Kim. Pill brooch 01. Silver, sunstone, stainless steel wire, 39 x 73 x 3 mm, 2020.

Yoojung Kim. Pill brooch 02. Silver, prehnite, resin, stainless steel wire, 49 x 91 x 4 mm, 2020.

[1]  "Der Reichtum der Gesellschaften, in welchen kapitalistische Produktionsweise herrscht, erscheint als eine ‚ungeheure Warensammlung‘ …“ in Marx, Karl, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Erster Band, Buch I: Der Produktionsprozess des Kapitals, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Werke, Band 23, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1979: p. 49. Emphasis and transl. into English by P. M.
[2] See footnote 13 in Part II
[3] In the narrower context of the art-work, Benjamin contrasts the modern exhibition value with the magical value or cult value of art, which can be taken as an archaic manifestation of a use value specific to art: “Just as the work of art in prehistoric times, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its cult value, became first and foremost an instrument of magic which only later came to be recognized as a work of art, so today, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a construct [Gebilde] with quite new functions …” See Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, transl. by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others, Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008: Section VI, p. 25. The German original of “exhibition value” is Ausstellungswert.
[4] See Bataille, Georges, “La notion de dépense” in La Critique Sociale, no. 7, January 1933.


About the author

Pravu Mazumdar
 studied physics in New Delhi and Munich and has a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Stuttgart. He writes in German and English, and his books, which use themes like migration and consumerism to unfold a diagnosis of modernity, are closely connected to French Postmodernism, in particular, the philosophy of Michel Foucault. His book on jewellery was published in 2015 under the title: "Gold und Geist: Prolegomena zu einer Philosophie des Schmucks" (“Gold and Mind: Prolegomena towards a Philosophy of Jewellery”), Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.