“Will you airbnb your body out to strangers to pay your rent?” Josh Kline demands against a backdrop of skin-colour bottles, cans, and other bits of recyclable detritus featured in his 2016 solo show at 47 Canal in Manhattan.
“Capitalism doesn’t care about you; economic systems don’t have feelings,” he continues, his voice unwavering. Kline has this particular intonation that jumps, unflinchingly, from the micro to the macro, addressing the personal and political impact of all-consuming economic systems in a way that is simultaneously gut-wrenching and blase, as if he’s seen it all already.
Pushing past the trash mobiles, toward the back of the gallery, translucent plastic bags contain full-size silicone body doubles (fig 1), fully clothed and curled up in the fetal position. They are jarring in their photorealism. Kline did full-body scans of working professionals recently laid off from their once-secure, middle-class jobs. The violence goes both ways—exposing the brutal and rapid influence of robot automation and the sudden redundancy of specialised, highly cognitive human labour, and kicks back against the cruelty of its own process—Kline’s serial digitisation of the body, its transmutation into data packages, re-produced and fed to the all-consuming beast of the art economy.
He gives us a peek into the production of these human replicants—the bodies aren’t printed, he emphasises, but are CMYK prints, “like in the Matrix”. There is also something grotesquely tranquil about them, like death masks. A decapitated head under construction reminds me of Kline’s contribution to this year’s Art Basel—also with Canal 47—which was far more grotesque by comparison. Fold-out bistro tables housed the heads of roadside restaurant employees, identified in the title by their place of work and tip percentage (fig. 2). Flanked by cast fries, medium cooked steak and bread rolls, the presentation was something akin to a sacrificial offering for the service economy.
Heads on platters go back a long way in art history. I’m thinking particularly of Caravaggio’s painting of Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist from 1609. Unlike some renderings of this biblical scene, in which the artist evidently had an intense blood lust, Caravaggio’s rendition is bathed in his rich world of shadows (fig. 3); the ragged violence of the severed head is totally concealed. It’s worth noting that while he banged this one out in a year, Caravaggio had a different rendition of the same scene going from 1907 to 1910 where he opted for a more violent pose—one of King Herod’s men thrusts forward the severed head that Salome’s mother demanded; Salome looks away, embarrassed. Two sides to every story, or whatever.
Anyway, back to Klein. I still think about the Basel work often. There is something so innately grotesque about this conflation of body parts and food; but it’s such an appropriate metaphor to the service industry, particularly in the United States where there is literally no means of survival without tipping—still treated by many as a gift, a bonus. It reminds me of an idea that was referenced earlier today— “either you code the algorithms, or they code you”—and the same principle applies to the logics of capitalism—you crush it or it swallows you whole (and much more often the latter). But there are moments in this unsavory, paralysing, rabid cycle of consumption that generate a sort of desperate humour. I also think about this cheese meme often (fig. 4); imagining over and over the scenario in which someone finds a poem where a food item’s description should be; where a single date sits between the ‘packaged by’ and ‘sell by’ date, the sort of intoxicating feeling of slipping through a gigantic system with such explicit rules and regulations of production.
Klein was introduced today as a posthumanist, but I have a hard time fully taking that on board. When he introduces his final project, a fake political advertisement ostensibly for 2031—based on the campaign rhetoric and visuals of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, and which makes the case for universal basic income—something changes in his tone; some generative form of affect starts to take effect. “I’m fundamentally an optimist,” he says. Peeling back the many critical and often grim layers of his work, that glimmer of hope and survival is definitely there. And once someone decides to fight back against consumption, there is no expiration date.
Fig 1. Josh Kline, Unemployment, 2016, exhibition view
Fig 2. Keep The Change (Texas Roadhouse Waiter's Head with Cap), 2018 by Josh Kline
Fig 3. Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist
Fig 4. Pre-packaged cheese snack turned poetic intervention.