The commerce and customs of cross-border commuters
By Jean Boumans
Su Tomesen’s photo series ExchangeChangeWisselWechsel can be read as a diptych. The first half of the series presents portraits of cross-border commuters who are a part of the local economic traffic. The second depicts people lugging home their purchases. A third series included in the book offers the entourage, as it were, in the form of the bustling marketplaces. In her previous work, Su Tomesen thematized commerce at the micro level, for example creating a ‘Shebeen’ (an Irish word for an illegal bar) in an artists’ space in Johannesburg in 2010. At heart, her work seems to assert an artistic perspective on the economy.
Turning first to more closely consider the second ‘wing’ of the diptych, we might note that the bags and boxes being used to convey the presumed purchases offer no hint of the contents. Instead, we see cheap packaging materials, bare of imprints – without trendy logos betraying valuable commodities or slogans affording the bearer the image of a hip lifestyle. Rather, the shape of the bags conforms purely to the contents and the laws of gravity. Even the IKEA boxes reveal nothing of the nature of the home accessory inside. With the photo of the mail carrier alongside his cart we realize that the real crux is the message itself; that, in essence, the bags are like sealed envelopes and therefore, by implication, contain a story. By contrast, in the first wing of her diptych, Tomesen gives tangible expression to the 'commerce and customs' of these cross-border commuters, with each photo telling a story.
Artists’ interest in the economy is nothing new. Indeed, commerce and art have gone hand in hand for centuries. The Roman god Mercury was the protector of trade and painting, and Mercury’s Greek precedent, Hermes, was furthermore the messenger of the gods. He traded in dreams and desires. In antiquity, art and commerce still formed a single domain. Later, they split into separate entities, but they always remained linked – only consider the tandem developments in Dutch painting during the economic boom of the country’s Golden Age. But with industrialization these two realms grew increasingly estranged from each other. Hand craftsmanship was replaced by machines, frivolities and profundities were compelled to make way for efficiency, and beauty only frustrated functionality. Yet art and economics have never truly lost sight of each other.
Not until early in the last century did the economy take shape as a concept in art, with Marcel Duchamp’s Tzanck Check, a cheque fabricated by the artist and made out to his dentist Daniel Tzanck as payment. Duchamp’s payment instruments represent the very first critical commentary on the principles of valuation driving both the art world and the economy. His artistic signature lent the piece of paper a worth whose height was determined, in turn, by the appraisals of art critics, art historians and art dealers. Since then, artists have continued to explore and question economic processes. Famous examples include Beuys’ scribbled Kunst=Kapital (‘art=capital’) on banknotes and Brener’s act of vandalism, spraying a dollar sign onto a canvas painted by Malevich. From the 1980s, artists have ventured out from the spectator sidelines and assumed an ever more participatory role in the game of the economy. Sparked by a new-found sense of social engagement, in recent years various artists have begun focusing on consumption and our thirst for possession.
The economic domain has also been taking an interest in art and its reflections on reality. Whereas the Dutch economist and Nobel Prize winner Jan Tinbergen once inspired some hope that the field would grow into a hard science, recent financial crises have forced economists to recognize that the set of instruments they have at their disposal includes various subjective elements and that consumer emotions are a key parameter in the modern value system. Our very economic model is a human construct of reality, and one that bears striking similarities to the ways in which art models reality. A growing group of economists are now also acknowledging that in order to better grasp reality, we must assign imagination an integral place in that economic model. Society will have to join ranks in order to build a new economy in which not the product but the meaning is the central condition of value.
If art has ample experience in this arena of symbolic production, it is a new frontier for the post-industrial economy. Modern marketing yields us some thin attempts. Marketers seek to cater for the consumer's individual wishes with mass products that vary only in their packaging, presentation and taglines. Applying the visual and linguistic codes of the major trendy brands, they hold up the promise of a more exciting and wonderful life. The luxurious but empty packaging boxes and dainty carrier bags of exclusive designer stores are designed to convey that identity. The content – the physical product itself – seems to have become all but superfluous and degraded to the point of expendability. In the final analysis, the consumer must conclude that it is all nothing more than the embodiment of a superficial image.
How does all this translate to the hawking of market vendors? They too understand the art of temptation, but also know like none other that a customer will only come back if their promises hold true. The products they sell can thus be likened to the tangible embodiment of those promises; but lay it on too thick and the customer will only become suspicious. In appearance, these products can be as amorphous as eels wrapped in newspaper or the shopping bags shown in Su Tomesen's photographic works. It is not until people come home and slot the products into their personal, daily lives that these objects acquire shape. An oozing round of regional cheese whose recipe is the work of many successive generations will only divulge its story upon the tasting. The story represents the worth.
In her work, Su Tomesen stages a new encounter between the worlds of art and economics. The setting of this encounter is the market. Markets are open structures, places without boundaries or divides, where everyone comes together – not only to do their daily shopping, but also to share joys and sorrows. Su Tomesen has wandered around a myriad of markets, shopping centres and wholesalers in various countries and recorded stories of her personal meetings with vendors and visitors. These stories form the connecting thread of her photographs, which are given explicit form in the second wing of ExchangeChangeWisselWechsel. Each individual series shows opposing production processes. In the first, sparked by trade, she shows how a product evolves to become a narrative. By contrast, Tomesen’s own artistic process is based on collecting stories that generate her body of photographs. Whether the products are commodities or art works, both are conveyers of meaning in Tomesen’s work. In these photographs, Su Tomesen offers a hopeful suggestion to the new economy, where not the form but the content will once more be central.
The commerce and customs of cross-border commuters