Against all that is solid
In order for capital to operate, it must first invent an allegory of exchange value. Commodities behave as metaphors, individuated entities that may become one another without disrupting their coherence as signs. The sale of A is the purchase of B. One emerges while the other disappears — neither can exist simultaneously. We do not know where A goes, hidden behind the equivalency of value, we know only that B appears in its stead. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used the device of metaphor to describe an unconscious substitution — wherein one object is repressed in favour of another along the paradigmatic axis. In accordance with its individuation, the metaphor exchanges at will, whereas its twin, metonymy (or unconscious displacement) is fixed through contiguous chains to difference. As an economic concept, metonymy can find its complement in sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s articulation of a symbolic exchange. Both opposed and prior to normative (metaphoric) exchange, the objects in a symbolic exchange serve to fundamentally link and transform both the giver and receiver. They do not defer to an exterior system of value. The conditions of the exchange become imbued within the object, unlike capitalism’s constant circulation and consumption of free-floating, paradigmatically interchangeable commodity signs passing through the opacity of value.
In Cameron McLellan’s recent body of work, the city of Vancouver (a film set on unceded land) serves as a device to embolden and elaborate this confluence of economics, semiotics and the unconscious. His work interrupts the ability of metaphoric objects (economic and cinematic alike) to cohere, to function as props or properties. In their place, he offers contiguous chains linking otherwise disparate nodes of the ongoing allegory.
For Flat Folly (2018), McLellan repurposes a piece of set decoration (a temporary wall) and relocates it against the gallery’s white wall as part of a tripartite endeavour to expose its fiction. First: it is only a metaphor for a wall, it lacks insulation or wiring, it is a facade from a sound stage where the plumbing doesn’t work and the opposing wall never appears. It is built to circulate. Second: the faux wall is shown to resemble the back of a painting, the structural crossbars are bared, nude, in the gallery space. In so doing, it becomes a painting-without-paint — an art object reducible to its logistical components, a set of dimensions and list of materials, exchangeable with any number of others. Third: without the specific attributes that may adorn the wall/panel’s face and identify it as a work of art, or as part of the apparatus that suspends disbelief in cinema, it assumes the properties of a hoarding wall. As a trope of real estate development, the hoarding wall is deployed to form a barrier around construction sites. In Vancouver, it is common that these walls are erected around extant properties, forming a cocoon as demolition, rezoning and revitalization proceed under the auspices of contractors.
Any work of fiction requires departure from material determinations and therefore inevitably leaves wounds or cleavages. How else is it possible that one commodity not only exchanges with and becomes another, but also produces surplus value despite its apparent equivalency? We might call these wounds “plot holes,” a mark for that which was repressed by metaphoric substitution. It is evident in the wealth of films shot in Vancouver but set elsewhere, bearing the scenery endemic to its characteristic non-character. The city is only a metaphor for another. Likewise, one's attempt to find non-arbitrary determinations for the city’s economic operations reveals a number of plot holes. Faced with the question, “How does one afford to live here?”, precarious inhabitants must remedy the contradiction by indulging in conspiracy theories: maybe no one lives here; the condo units, as unspecific as their towering exteriors, like cells in a grid, circulate distantly in the speculative housing market.
Sealed Units (2017-18) serves as a metonym to reintroduce the plot hole, comprising double-glazed windows filled with municipally-approved “heritage” paint (actually Benjamin Moore tints with names like “Kitsilano Gold” or “Vancouver Green”). The recourse to “heritage” in a city established little more than a century ago is telling here, reinforcing colonial logic in time as well as space. The city instantiates an allegorical substitution of heritage for history — the excess, the cleavage, is repressed through force and politics of recognition. But whereas the Belkin Art Gallery has covered its own windows in favour of a neutral site wherein objects may circulate within a deferred context, McLellan reinstates them. To peer through the glass is not to see the institutional landscaping, itself only a metaphor for nature, but to observe pigment that has come loose from its binding, stratifying without the constant input of energy required to make it all cohere.
Steven Cottingham, Postscript Catalogue, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2018