Contextual Exploration of Come and See: Reification

Date and time
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Contextual Exploration of Come and See: Reification

DHC/ART Education has created a pedagogical tool, Jake and Dinos Chapman: Movements, a four-part series that explores key concepts present in the exhibition Come and See : reification, grotesque/carnival, Baroque and collaboration. This week, we are presenting part 1 of this series: Reification.

To reify means to substitute an abstract concept, an idea or a feeling with a concrete object: for example, to use the figure of “Mother Nature” to refer to weather or to say that “the road is calling you” when you want to travel.

Timothy Bewes defines reification as “the moment [when] a process or relation is generalized into an abstraction, and thereby turned into a ‘thing.’” [1] Reification can also mean to transform any kind of relation between people into “real” objects, a process that effectively hides the cultural and social structure that is at play when we interact with these objects. When you buy an item of clothing in a store, the presence of the commodity substitutes (and neutralizes, in a way) the amount and the conditions of labor needed and technology deployed to create said object: this is a prime example of reification.

Georg Lukács describes the effect of reification as a kind of “phantom objectivity”, “an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” [2]

Reification is a useful concept to consider the current economic system’s reliance on commodities to instill desire in consumers and to install hierarchies between its actors. To be conscious of reification is to make visible the social relations between humans that are at play when we produce, buy or consume any product.

In an artistic context, reification can be used to ponder the various structures through which a work of art comes to public consciousness. It offers a probing metaphor of the act of creation itself, where a concept or an idea is transformed – made real, in a sense - with the help of a medium (and an artist) into an object. It can help us put objects back into their general context and consider them as parts of systems, rather than as finalities in themselves.

By countering the “phantom objectivity” effect of reification, we can consider works of art through their circulation in museums and galleries, their participation in a market-driven economic structure, their place in the narrative of recent art history and their interpretation by the general public, by critics and by art historians. That is to say that any art object, including the works of the Chapmans, cannot be considered solely as objects; always in flux, works of art crystallize and materialize power dynamics in the art world, in the production of knowledge and in the global economy.

Keeping in mind the process of reification behind any object is a good example of critical thinking, an important skill to develop as visitors of an art exhibition (and as citizens, in general).

Can you think of ways in which the Chapmans “reify” something through their artistic process? If so, what do they reify? How do they do it? What references or what materials are used to do so? What is the structure (or the abstract thought) hidden behind that process of reification?

Reification is a key concept to consider the effects and implications of capitalism in our societies, especially in regards to our relationship to objects. In your opinion, do the Chapmans offer a critical stance on capitalism through their work, or do they celebrate it? Does the work of the Chapmans make you reconsider your own relationship to consumption (or to capitalism)?

About Movements:

Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage in-depth explorations of key concepts evoked by the works presented in the exhibition Come and See. By highlighting these points of conceptual departure through the document Movements, the DHC/ART educators intend to inspire dialogue about the exhibition and to encourage visitors to elaborate on the proposed themes with their personal interpretations and reflections. Over time, these travelling concepts are subsequently enriched as they inform new contributions to our evolving conversations about art.

Movements also serves as a reminder that an aesthetic experience engages the body - its senses and its movements - as much as the intellect. The body’s physical, emotional, and perceptive gestures are intimately linked as we move through the exhibition space and our senses are awakened. The rhythm of our trajectories and changing perspectives also mobilize our vision; images take shape as our memory and imagination are touched by the emerging aesthetic landscape. Movements is thus an invitation for the visitor to become immersed - mind and body - into DHC/ART exhibitions, thereby developing a rich and dynamic understanding of the works.

[1] BEWES, Timothy (2002). Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism. New York: Verso, p. 3.
[2] LUKÀCS, Georg (1972 [1923]). “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Cambridge : MIT Press. Online. Consulted February 27 2014.

Photo: Jake and Dinos Chapman. When the world ends there’ll be no more air that’s why it’s important to pollute the air now before it’s too late. (…) Free Willy. Detail. 2011-2012. Courtesy of White Cube.


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