One of the challenges facing a lot of young artists is finding representation in a gallery. This isn’t a new challenge, but what has changed is the active role artists have assumed in the marketing of their own work. While Pop Art may have appropriated consumerism as its subject, art has evolved into an unabashed embracing of commerce, to paraphrase the Tate Modern’s description of the Pop Art exhibition currently being shown. Sure, art should speak for itself, but we all know that what it says doesn’t mean very much if there isn’t an audience. Look up any artist these days and guaranteed you’ll find their website, most of which are a sophisticated showcase of their work and themselves. There is nothing wrong with this – in an age where the vacuous crazies demand millions to showcase their shallow, boring, can-it-get-any-more-messed-up lives on reality TV, it’s nice to see a group that is usually accused of wanting handouts take charge of its livelihood in an intelligent and sophisticated manner.
The Paris-based art group, Buy-Sellf, is one such group. Their IKEA-referenced name says it all. It is a play on words with multiple interpretations – Buy and make it yourself, by yourself, buy and sell it…. Everything about the name, including the fact that it is in English – the International language of business – points towards marketing, selling, and promoting. In fact, the initial inspiration of Buy-Sellf was a mail order catalogue – which would act as a gallery space – through which artists could promote and sell objects they had thought about, experimented with, and created. The catalogue still exists, and you can still order funky concepts like gum packaged as scotch tape. The materials used for the “gum tape”? Chewing gum and plastic. What has changed, however, is that Buy-Sellf is no longer just a colorful mail-order catalogue. It has evolved into an actual studio space run by artists for artists who have a project in mind, but can’t yet afford their own studios and need a place to work. The gallery also helps artists buy their materials (if they can’t afford to do so), showcase their work, and anything else they might need.
Two of the Buy-Sellf artists are Laurent Perbos and Boris Chouvellon. I met up with them at Art Toronto. While every other gallery and artist group shipped in their works, Buy-Sellf “created” the works on site. Art works, especially if they are big and bulky, can be very expensive to fly over, so the artists representing Buy-Sellf decided that the only thing they would bring with them to Toronto was the creative concept. The concept would be executed once they arrived in Toronto and would take no longer than ten days to complete. To keep costs down, the artists chose materials that are ready-made, accessible, and cheap. For example, Perbos’ Home-Sweet-Home is composed of neon tubes found at your local Home Depot store. His Stumps is composed of rubber hoses tied together. What is interesting is the transformation that occurs as Perbos takes ready-made, inexpensive inanimate objects and transforms them into something organic and animate. The neon tubes in Home-Sweet-Home assume the characteristics of fire in the same way rubber hoses suddenly resemble tree stumps.
The idea that one object can create another object which, in turn, can create another object leads us to question the origin of anything and everything. Perbos’ neon tube was once glass tubes filled with neon gas – you can deconstruct from there. The origin of production for Chouvellon’s trophies used in the installation piece entitled The Small Illusions is China. China is where all the trophies he uses come from. The irony of cheap trophies piled on top of one another so that they form glitzy, fragile-looking columns is obvious. By using something readily available and inexpensive, and turning it into decorative columns, Chouvellon shows you exactly what these trophies are worth. Chouvellon has made similar trophy installations in Paris. For these he has used real trophies bought at second hand stores. The very fact that these once prized possessions are now relegated as unwanted items denotes the “smallness” and the “illusion” of passing glory.
In the end, Buy-Sellf is conceptual art that is, for the most part, as portable as something from IKEA. Only, unlike IKEA, the creations of Buy-Sellf are the products of mass production, but are not themselves mass produced. And unlike the objects they are made from, they attain a vitality and a meaning that transforms them into art.