[Editors note: IMG MGMT is an artist essay series highlighting the diversity of curatorial processes within the art making practice. Today's invited artist, Penelope Umbrico, works with LMAK Projects and maintains the website penelopeumbrico.net.]
Wandering through images of rooms on consumer home-improvement websites it’s impossible to not to notice fresh signs of someone’s presence. Since there are rarely any people in any of the rooms, the viewer (consumer) becomes the subject, invited to move through the space and vicariously try on the idealized life-styles of the virtual home’s absent occupants.
My interest in these spaces began after 9/11 in response to news that, along with art-and-crafts, the retail market for home-improvement had sharply risen (while all other markets had fallen). I wanted to understand what the impulse was to “cocoon” (as it was called) and see how this was played out in visual consumer media. My initial thought was that it had to do with an implied control of the mess of personal space though organization and self-reliance, but I found details in these images that pointed elsewhere.
The most common visual tropes I found there depicted books, which on first glance seemed to act as a symbol for knowledge, history, meaning, all things deep and thoughtful. But on closer study the use of books on these sites seems perversely inverted; they are used solely as props, retaining only a vestige of their former life as objects containing content.
Stacks of art and photography books were everywhere, almost all used as pedestals for evening cocktails and white wine…
…and there were many books were left open, face up, as though the reader was urgently called away, soon to return; was it a phone call, a neighbor, a whistling kettle?
At every turn, there was a new story. The pages fluttering there so invitingly, almost readable, incite a voyeuristic curiosity about what is being read. This, mixed with the open and exposed book waiting for scrutinizing eyes, verges on the erotic.1 Oddly, there were a number of books with various objects in their gutter”¦
These books are meant to seduce the viewer, though clearly not by way of their content (that information is unreadable). Is it the promise of knowledge just beyond one’s grasp that makes these books compelling, or the suggestion of intimacy with a subject/reader nowhere to be seen?
As if to point to this promise of access and intimacy just beyond one’s grasp, bookshelves on these sites abound with backward-facing books.
Only someone who is deeply embarrassed by the content of books would turn them around this way — or, perhaps, these books have turned themselves around because they are embarrassing by their owners.
In this never-ending variety of perfectly appointed, vapidly flawless rooms, this refusal of content actually makes sense. In the ultimate subservience to the decorative, these books have become nutrition-less, emptied of purpose and content, and erased of meaning. It’s a sedated empty exchange, that produces a valueless object from the apparition of an object of value.These books are comparable to the identity exchange of the viewing subject in these spaces. The shift in the viewer from consumer to vicarious subject, produces the peculiar condition of empathetic identification with the absent occupant – an “other” who does not exist – and who, like the books, has no content, no mess, no history, no emotional fluctuation.
- In his novel about phone sex, Vox, Nicholson Baker makes reference to a book held open by a “book mate”: “There’s nothing the book can do, it’s powerless — it’s strapped wide open — for all hungry eyes of the world to admire.” p 67- 68 (New York: Vintage Contemporary, 1993 [↩]