Johnston ponders products, progress and planned obsolescence

by Gregory Beatty

Ian Johnston

Ian Johnston: Reinventing Consumption
Dunlop Gallery
Until April 3

Barbara Kruger is a famous American conceptual artist who pairs images and text to create pseudo-slogans and aphorisms meant to provoke critical reflection in viewers. The works are deliberately styled to resemble advertising, and are often installed like signs and billboards on busy city streets.

Kruger addresses a range of issues in her art — sexism, violence, the environment. In keeping with her advertising format, she also critiques consumer culture. A famous work is I Shop Therefore I Am from 1987. It’s a riff on 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous dictum “I Think Therefore I Am” — except instead of identifying the ability to think as the fount of human consciousness, Kruger substitutes shopping.

Of course, when Descartes was pondering the nature of existence he and the bulk of his fellow Europeans, outside of an elite band of royalty, nobles and clergy, lived lives of unimaginable scarcity — unimaginable to us, anyway, in our post-industrial techno-digital age of mass production.

It all started with the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Once you have mass production, mass consumption inevitably follows as somebody’s got to buy all the shit that’s being produced otherwise profits will plummet, people will get laid off, and the economy will tank.

Which brings me to the installation Reinventing Consumption by Vancouver artist Ian Johnston. Like Kruger’s work, it critiques consumer culture. But it isn’t a total slam job, either. In the first part, called “The Inventor’s Room”, there’s a recognition that human ingenuity has led to many great innovations over the centuries that have greatly enhanced our lives.

Johnston is a trained architect who spent five years studying and working at the famous Bauhaus Academy in Berlin. After doing custom design projects for a time with his wife (who’s also an architect), he turned to sculpting in ceramics.

In addition to exhibiting widely, Johnston’s participated in several residencies. At one, he developed the idea for a new production process where he would drape wet clay over an object, then cover it in plastic and create a mould using suction from a vacuum cleaner.

There’s a video in the exhibition that outlines the process, and the actual vacuum — an old Electrolux canister model — is on display along with other production artifacts.

Clay has long been Johnston’s preferred medium. But it has extra resonance in Reinventing Consumption because in addition to being an art medium the material has a strong utilitarian tradition in craft and production pottery.

The pieces Johnston makes with his vacuum apparatus aren’t meant to be functional. They do reference functional objects though, through the use of familiar consumer items like light bulbs and telephones. When I say lights bulbs and telephones, I should specify that the bulbs are incandescent (which are now outlawed in Canada) and the phones are old-style rotary ones. He’s  made moulds of an old manual typewriter, too.

Functional obsolescence is a necessary part of any technologically evolving society. Compare a rotary phone to the smart phones we rock today — it’s no contest.

But consumption doesn’t just serve utilitarian purposes in our society, it also confers status, articulates identity and helps form and solidify social relationships through gift-giving.

Some of that’s totally legit, and plays an important role in life. But at some point a line is crossed, and consumption devolves into a vacuous ritual where people shop as a form of recreation and head out constantly to malls and big box stores to pick up the latest whatever.

Johnston explores that situation in the second component of his installation called “The Antechamber”. Consistent with his training as an architect, it consists of four walls composed of scores of ceramic reliefs that Johnston made with his vacuum apparatus of a rotary phone, a light bulb and a kettle.

The reliefs are covered with patterns that resemble wall-paper — decidedly psychedelic wallpaper, admittedly, but the chamber still evokes thoughts of the domestic realm, which is where most of our consumption occurs. But arrayed as they are in huge rows, the objects also recall the disorientating experience of visiting a modern store and being confronted by massive amounts of merchandise.

When you enter “The Antechamber”, you trip a motion sensor that activates the installation’s third component called “The Chamber”. It consists of a large-scale version of Johnston’s vacuum apparatus. Accompanied by the sound of trickling water, a giant plastic bag slowly inflates. Once it reaches capacity, the water sound is replaced by a crackling fire, and the bag slowly deflates — ultimately shrinking to reveal a large pile of discarded objects underneath.

At least, the objects feel discarded, like they’d been trucked to the dump as garbage. Dirt is typically used to cover compacted rubbish at landfills, but plastic liners are sometimes installed to prevent toxins from leaching into the soil and groundwater. So Johnston’s plastic sheet has a basis in real-life waste management. And the sheer volume of objects he’s assembled in a relatively small space provides a sobering reminder of the amount of waste we produce in our “consumption for the sake of consumption” society.

The swelling that the bag undergoes also recalls the off-gassing that occurs as garbage decomposes and releases methane as a greenhouse gas. Gross, I know — but keep in mind in some poverty-stricken areas of the world it’s common for people (often children) to eke out a living by scavenging waste dumps for reusable and recyclable materials.

One final word about Johnston’s use of a vacuum cleaner in his production process. In the real world, we use a vacuum to gather up dust and other inconsequential bits of matter. Implicit is the question: how much of what we consume in our daily lives is similarly dust-like and inconsequential?