Escenas y obscenas del consumo: arte, mercancía y visibilidad en el Cono Sur by Cesar Barros A.

Barros A., César. 2013.Escenas y obscenas del consumo: Arte, mercancía y visibilidad en el Cono Sur. Santiago, Chile: Cuarto Propio. 264 pages; $36.00 paper.

César Barros A. begins his first book Escenas y obscenas del consumo: Arte, mercancía y visbilidad en el Cono Sur with a contemporary anecdote from Chile’s 2010 earthquake to illustrate the systems of visibility (scenes) and obscurity (the obscene) on which the capitalist market depends. In a world where everything appears as merchandise, the relationships between objects, subjects, and communities hinge on the materiality and ideology of consumption. Barros suggests that the violent impulse of Chilean citizens to invade and steal from stores in the wake of the 2010 earthquake signaled a break in the hegemonic discourse of consumerism in Chile. It is through such violent interventions, as well as in the works of art and literature that are analyzed throughout the book, that the ideology behind public spaces of consumption is disrupted and reconstructed. Barros structures his work on contemporary visual art and literature in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay according to these relationships.

Quite appropriately, Barros chooses an image of a sculpture from the Black Market series by Chilean artist Alejandra Prieto for both the cover of his book and as the case study for his theoretical first chapter, which discusses the dialectical image. The sculpture in question, a Nike Air Force One sneaker made out of coal, embodies the tension created by capitalism’s turn towards consumption and away from production by physicalizing the normally concealed (obscene) process of production in the visible scene of the consumable product itself. Other works of art (Love by Marisol and Proyecto Coca-Cola by Cildo Meireles) highlight the social spatiality of consumption since for Barros, consumption is not only the practice of shopping or buying goods, but is also the space configured by multiple relationships and exchanges. He sees this as paradoxically related to the “obscene” side of consumption that hides certain practices and erases differences while its visible side promotes itself as a practice and space, or “scene,” which hinges on difference.

In his second chapter, on objects of consumption and their aesthetics, the author reviews the relationship between art and merchandise by drawing on Benjamin’s observations of the shop window as a new way people see and experience objects, and relate to space and other people. Along with the commercialization of art, there is also an aestheticization of merchandise. Alejandra Prieto’s art (Vanitas) and the Uruguayan novel Tajos by Rafael Courtoisie support Barros’ argument by underlining the tension between art and consumption. Prieto’s still-life photographs destabilize the novelty of merchandise, a concept borrowed from art, while Courtoisie’s novel obliterates the assigned value of consumer goods through the violent aesthetic practice of slashing supermarket products.

Barros dedicates the entire third chapter to analyzing the ethical position of the subject as consumer and exploring the possible existence of a subject who is not a consumer in La prueba by Argentine writer César Aira. Citing Marc Augé, Barros asks what the space of artistic intervention would be in the non-places of supermarkets and malls that now seem to embody Southern Cone society. Through his analysis of the novel’s main characters, Barros concludes that subjectivation is achieved through transgression, creating a new law beyond the regulatory market/Other. Once again, violence and destruction are what liberate the subject from consumption.

The final chapter of Barros’ book moves to the realm of the political in his close readings of community constructions in Chilean artist Carolina Bellei’s Emergency Home, the Argentine art collective Grupo Escombros’ Objeto inaccesible, and Chilean author Diamela Eltit’s novel Mano de obra. One of the main tenets of Barros’ argument in this chapter is that although the market purports to be a scene of abundance, it actually conceals the obscene side of the social and historical construction of need. Under this scenario, abundance and need are not opposed, but are indeed two facets of the same system. Barros draws on the theories of both Marx and Lacan which claim need is political because it is determined by a regulating Other, rather than pure necessity. The subject needs to be freed from this dependence on the Other, through equality, so that the community can determine its own needs. Barros thus concludes that the transformation of social conditions depends on politics, advocated through certain artworks, for example, the violent transformations of bread in Objeto inaccessible and the use of language in Mano de Obra. These works make visible those (obscene) moments that are otherwise rendered invisible by the market through an affirmation of equality that breaks with the condition of victimization imposed on the subject.

Overall, Barros makes an important contribution to continuing dialogues on capitalism and society and extends them to include reflections on Southern Cone and particularly Chilean art. In my opinion, the most compelling aspects of his work are his close readings of visual art, which are always accompanied by images and effectively illustrate his theoretical points. Although Barros’ reliance on Marx becomes heavy-handed at times, he constructs a convincing argument of how art can violently intervene to transform the space of consumption, its practices, and its subjects.

Elizabeth Osborne is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. Her dissertation research focuses on post-dictatorial representations of memory in Chilean film, television and popular culture.