Images about images: reflecting on the works of Sara Cwynar
How do images, products and symbols shape society and self-image? In this essay, Foam curator Mirjam Kooiman examines Sara Cwynar's visual investigations of consumerism, capitalist systems and changing beauty standards. With her colourful collage and video works, Cwynar invites us to question the seemingly never-ending urge to consume.
Foam’s presentation of Next Level: Sara Cwynar - S/S 23 would suggest that this solo exhibition by Sara Cwynar (1985, Canada) is the new Spring/Summer collection. And as a matter of fact, the exhibition is indeed taking place during the spring and summer of 2023, and does indeed include new works that are premiering at Foam.
Yet the artist’s works are also an attempt to resist the depredations of time by rewinding it, as it were, and thereby to gain an understanding of what it is that determines the spirit of the times and what causes it to reinvent itself, time after time. In her collages, installations, video works and books, Sara Cwynar dons the mantle of anthropologist of her own world and investigates the cycles of products, colours and images that are incessantly fed to us and the ideas that drive such cycles, before fading into obscurity once again. She does not merely collect objects that most would consider worthless: in fact, she actively purchases them on websites such as Amazon, Shein and eBay, so that she can bring them together in front of her camera lens.
In Cwynar’s video works, a parade of objects pass before the viewer’s gaze on a conveyor belt, much like an infinite scroll. In her collages, from the mix of objects it seems all items have simply been dumped at first, and then aesthetically arranged. Neat lists note from which online platform each item was purchased and how it was described online. Her works feel like an organised chaos of the longing provoked by photos of products we do not yet own; the description that tells you what you are putting into your virtual shopping cart; the tense suspense as you wait for it to be delivered to your doorstep; and the disappointment you feel when your purchase fails to make good on its promise to make your life complete.
This essay about Sara Cwynar’s work is in fact superfluous: she writes her own essays, in the form of video works that provide text and explanation where her photo collages remain mute. As such, the video work Red Film (2018), which occupies a central position in S/S23, serves to outline the exhibition’s theme. Red Film is a video essay in which Sara Cwynar investigates the mechanisms of capitalist consumption culture in image, colour, object and language.
Viewers are absorbed into Cwynar’s reflections: rather than draw conclusions, the film uses an endless stream of objects to study how ideas about beauty and authenticity are reinvented time after time to stoke our desires. Cwynar shares her doubts about the conclusions she draws from the ideas of prominent theorists and philosophers, while she and a male narrator repeatedly interrupt and talk over each other.
Out of all these sentences and notions she weaves a new text that, despite the numerous literary references, feels like a personal reflection on what it means to be human in the 21st century. Her video essay provides clues that are elaborated in this text to identify the core theme of S/S23.
The New Woman
Reasoning from the perspective of the here and now, Cwynar reflects on where it all began.
In the series Doll Index, each frame is filled with a photo of a dressed doll, scaled up to life size. Cwynar found these photos in the Costume Institute Collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a series shot in the 1940s to create a record of French fashion from 1715 to 1906. The photos portray the women’s clothing of the elite immediately before the rise of the ready-to-wear industry and department stores in the late nineteenth century.
Around the turn of the century, the concept of the New Woman came into vogue as the media identified a new generation of women, who were eager to leave behind the eighteenth-century standards and domesticity of the Victorian woman. The New Woman wore a unique and unprecedented wardrobe, spurred by innovative fashion designers like Coco Chanel: hemlines soared to reveal ankles, corsets were cast aside, even trousers were claimed for the feminine figure. These developments went hand in hand with the rise of feminism, giving women greater freedom of choice and mobility – both literally and metaphorically.
However, it also created a new framework, one that trapped the New Woman as effectively as the preceding one: mass consumerism. Women were identified as valuable targets: they controlled the household budget, made their own choices, and were now able to shape their own lives, making them ideal consumers. While male consumers would continue to wear tailor-made suits, entire department stores were set up just for women, packed with ready-to-wear clothing that put the latest fashion within reach of not just the elite, but the middle class as well. The items that Cwynar has strewn across the dresses all reveal the dark side of the New Woman’s pursuit, which has since come to grip us all: the addiction to consumption as a means of living up to a never-ending series of new ideals.
Upon close inspection, there is something sinister about the original doll photos: the photographer’s technique veers into the amateurish, as a result of which the dolls cast deep shadows that give the whole an eerie ambiance. Cwynar re-photographed the archived images, cut them into pieces and reassembled these, further dressing up the dolls. Each layer is a repetition of the same, but with minor adjustments in appearance, like the poses that e-commerce models adopt and repeat ad infinitum without batting an eyelid – the only thing that changes from shot to shot is their clothing.
Have we been made into dolls, mechanically desiring the products paraded in front of us, which we cannot help but buy with almost robotic compulsion? In Sara Cwynar’s latest series Western Costume, clothing articles appear as empty shells that take on caricatural poses to embody social stereotypes throughout the years. It reminds us that we all conform to one role or another, determined by the costumes we choose for ourselves. Our visual culture paints a world in which we are the architects of our own images in a society of infinite choices. This creates an illusion of freedom, while technologies steer and control our gaze.
As such, we do not merely buy products: we are the product. Earlier this year, Sara Cwynar was commissioned to do a photo shoot with Pamela Anderson for the New York Times. The former Baywatch actress and Playboy model leveraged her beauty for her own gain, only for the world to seize on it and capitalise her persona. Her outward appearance symbolises a beauty ideal that belongs to an era that no longer exists. Or is it just that her time has passed, and not the ideal?
Although her body is aging, the visual culture around her twenty-year-old self has been preserved and continues to be perpetuated as a sex symbol and an image to strive for, as the internet trend of PamCore demonstrates. While trends cause the past to pale into insignificance, some things never grow old, or get recycled to shine anew. We are mortal, but an image immortalises what it depicts, and so the Pamela of the nineties is still in circulation like iconic works of art never cease to dominate our collective memory as markers of taste, beauty, and cult status.
Capitalist Dream State
Still, there is a lot we do forget. We have constructed buildings with grand ideals of what life should be like. Some are centuries old, some are entirely modern, but many structures are relics of specific eras and paradigms – husks, like disembodied historic costumes.
Sara Cwynar found buildings in encyclopaedias and juxtaposed them with the current reality of the buildings as they were when she travelled to photograph them. The headquarters of a business that once sought to help people live cleaner and better lives is now a spaghetti restaurant. A university campus where young people shape their future is remarkably often used as a sinister film set.
Ideals change and functionalities follow suit. Investors build, ideals are designed, but turn out to be too utopian to become reality, and instead end up worn out, or sold on. Buildings lend character to a city (is Amsterdam still the seventeenth century? Or Paris the nineteenth?), but we also stroll past them without a thought, or photograph them as interesting relics of history. They form the decor of our 'now' but represent a time past. What marks eras are their paradigms, but what physically remains are their objects.
The idea often has a shorter expiration date than the products it generated. This astounding material past of stuff makes us who we are, though the artist’s presentation of what modern society has produced so far takes the form of a stream of images that is nauseating at times. This is what Sara Cwynar terms the capitalist dream state, after an idea by philosopher Walter Benjamin – a phenomenon that she seeks to grasp, but which is too overwhelming to truly understand.
About Next Level
Foam has presented the exhibition series Next Level since 2015, introducing a wide audience to artists who employ photography in radical ways. For Next Level, Foam invites artists to create new works to premiere as part of the exhibition. These unique commissions are made possible by Ammodo, Foam Friends Foundation and Foam Fund.
About the artist
Sara Cwynar (1985, CA) studied English Literature at the University of British Columbia and obtained a BA in Design at York University as well as an MFA in Photography at Yale University. In 2013, Cwynar presented her first European solo exhibition, Everything in the Studio (Destroyed), in Foam 3h, and was chosen as a Foam Talent in 2015. Cwynar has participated in solo and group exhibitions in various international museums, including Remai Modern, Saskatoon (2021); The Guggenheim Museum, New York (2021); Fondazione Prada, Milan (2016); and MoMA PS1, New York (2015). In 2021, Aperture published her second book, Glass Life. Sara Cwynar lives and works in Brooklyn, NY, and is represented by Cooper Cole, Toronto, and The Approach, London.
About the exhibition at Foam
With the exhibition S/S 23 by Sara Cwynar, Foam presents the 7th edition of the series Next Level. The exhibition title comes from the usual designation for the new fashion season – in this case 'Spring/Summer 2023'. In her work, Sara Cwynar explores effects of consumerism on beauty standards and our self-image through video essays, collages, installations and books.
Next Level: Sara Cwynar – S/S 23 is sponsored by Ammodo, the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds and Kleurgamma Fine Art Photolab.
Foam is supported by the VriendenLoterij, Foam Members, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, the VandenEnde Foundation and Gemeente Amsterdam.