The Cons of Consumption

Winnipeg curator provokes a closer look at the environmental, social costs of our collective appetite.

In the art world, where a diamond and platinum-encrusted skull can sell for millions of dollars, it can be easy to lose perspective. So how does Winnipeg curator Milena Placentile reconcile her critical view of consumption with the big money that sometimes drives her industry?

She says it’s all about choices.

“My practice, very specifically, is oriented around non-commercial endeavours and ephemeral practices, like performance. Everything I do as a curator is about social and political engagement and bringing audiences and artists together,” she says.

“While there are curators who are definitely interested in large-scale biennales and the way the art market shapes people’s careers and vice versa, that’s something I’ve regularly struggled in opposition to.”

This vision shines through in Placentile’s curated work Consumerism – I shop therefore I am? which is now online at the Cultural Olympiad’s digital edition (CODE) online gallery Screen 2010.

From a recreated Rembrandt self-portrait with the words LUXURY ITEM in block letters at the bottom to a hanging collection of identical stuffed pop stars in blue dresses and black fishnets, the collection takes a hard look at what we buy, how we give objects value, and why we’re so compelled to accumulate more stuff.

In Mall, by Toronto-born artist Bernie Miller, a sad 1960s-style mall sits alone in the middle of the photo, abandoned by shoppers who have moved to trendier locations. Placentile says much of her own adolescence was spent in a mall.

“The idea that you have money, and can make a decision to buy something really makes you feel like a grownup,” she says. “I think teenagers really want to be a part of that and demonstrate some kind of agency, simply by being in a place where adult transactions happen.”

Environmental impacts of consumption also play an important role in the collection. There’s one photo by Shelley Miller of her giant marble pop-bottle, stranded like a Roman ruin on an Indian hillside, and another by Badana B. Zack and Ian Lazarus of 40 multicoloured wrecked automobiles ensconced like geological strata in a grassy hillside.

“Natural resources, once they’ve been extracted from the earth and manipulated through manufacturing processes, they’re never the same,” says Placentile. “They’re something that will forever be part of the history of the planet.”

As she sees it, this cycle of production and consumption doesn’t necessarily need to continue.

“To some people, existing political and economic structures are simply a given,” says Placentile. “Every system we have was invented by human beings, and one beats out the other, not necessarily because it’s the best way to go, but because there are enough people propping it up.”

“Well, that’s my opinion, anyways,” she adds with a laugh.

More Screen 2010 exhibits

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