This review of Ed Fornieles’s solo exhibition at London’s Chisenhale gallery, entitled ‘Modern Family’ was published in Art Monthly issue 381, November 2014
With the brilliant video Dormdaze, 2011, troubling participatory project PRG X, 2012, and the controversial charity gala for Rhizome New York New York Happy Happy (NY NY HP HP), 2014, London and now LA-based Ed Fornieles moved beyond simply having a finger on generation Y’s caffeinated pulse. Rather, he has taken the cutting edge, slit the zeitgeist’s wrists and trained a high-definition zoom lens on the bloody arteries of our web-accelerated information age. Difficult to view, but even more difficult to turn away from, each of those works captured a different aspect of the snarling, pathological ugliness that lurks behind contemporary image culture. In their wake Fornieles has emerged as the Santiago Sierra of social media, a cross between Jeff Koons and Philip Zimbardo (orchestrator of the 1971 Stanford prison experiment – see Adam E Mendelsohn’s ‘Better Now’ AM300). So, naturally, expectations for his first solo exhibition in the UK were high. Would it be the most exploitative, repellant and yet simultaneously compelling exhibition of the year? Or, influenced by LA’s sun-bleached hyper-positivity, would Fornieles turn in a big-budget, small-concept spectacle?
The surprising thing about ‘Modern Family’ is its principal subject matter, the modern family. Arguably no socio-cultural construct is more analysed and deconstructed than that hotbed of neurosis, gender stereotypes and patriarchal conditioning. Across the 20th century everyone, from Sigmund Freud to RD Laing, from John Waters to David Lynch, has had a go at the nuclear unit of mum, dad, sister, brother, cat and dog in suburbia. In addition, the mythical position of importance that the modern family used to hold in society has shifted as well. Although family is still central to the heteronormative narrative of personal development and subsequent integration into a productive society, the word now connotes a number of different domestic configurations, from single mums and dads to same sex parents or even childless partnerships. For someone as resolutely on-trend as Fornieles this all feels oddly anachronistic. Still, there is one place that the tired format of the modern family is still tirelessly deployed: the US sitcom. These largely LA-produced programmes, from Happy Days to The Osbournes, are the real target and territory that ‘Modern Family’ respectively interrogates and explores.
Inside Chisenhale the exhibition is an ambitious, immersive installation that can be separated into four elements: sculpture, digital video, sound and performance. The large interior has been transformed into the setting for a deranged sitcom set – a ‘family BBQ’ according to the printed gallery text. Weirdly distorted and grimy props of suburban domesticity – a bed, a Jacuzzi, wooden trellises – fill the space while alongside hang oversized clothes, motivational slogans and huge lampshades. It is a chaotic scene, overwhelming and impressive, but, once the initial effect fades, curiously incoherent and unfinished. Lighting has been designed to simulate the effect of a setting sun. At one point each of the large triffid-like lamps flickers on and off as if simulating an electrical storm or the presence of some malevolent household poltergeist. Accompanied by a soundtrack of plucky, generic orchestral music from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the entire scene feels like a hackneyed Bizarro world version of suburban America, the kind that served as a backdrop in early Marilyn Manson music videos.
The complete ‘Modern Family’ project has risen out of an online work that can be seen on digital screens distributed within the installation. Fornieles has created a website that functions as an aggregator of web content pulled together according to specific search terms he has defined. The foreground/background configuration of images on the screens – where a small central and foregrounded image square is framed by a larger full-bleed screen – has now become a well-worn trope of post-internet art, as has the image content mix of pornography, stock photography, manga, junk food, teen stuff, Japanese stuff, selfies and the like. Still, the message broadcasts loud and clear: we are now living in a socio-cultural landscape devoid of depth, variation or complexity; a vacuous, sociopathic, image-obsessed zone of reality in which off- and online experience has collapsed into a relentlessly facetious, corporate culture of immanence where even subculture and subversion are saleable commodities. At least that’s the idea a considerable number of internet-aware projects that may or may not be art – Lucky PDF, K-Hole, DISmagazine, Hipster Runoff etc – flirt with and represent.
But, maybe flatness isn’t the general nature of things. Maybe the belief that flatness is a pervasive reality is merely a condition, a post-MA/MFA condition brought on by relative financial security, a surfeit of critical knowledge (ie too much cultural theory), an embrace of irony and the belief that everything has already been done before – Simon Critchley touched on something similar in his 2013 book The Hamlet Doctrine. What singled Fornieles out in previous projects was his ability to capitalise on this hipster malaise. He was able to draw out the roaring emptiness and narcissism that underpins that scene, to package it in performative formats, situations and events that felt dangerous and both thrillingly and terrifyingly empty. ‘Modern Family’, an exhibition focused on an unusually dated critical target, is not the horrifying end-of-culture event that many were predicting. But don’t rule it out yet. I suspect Fornieles may still have it just up his sleeve.