From Iceland — It’s The Small Things That Matter

It’s The Small Things That Matter

Published February 20, 2015

Cory Arcangel makes art of computer games, pool noodles, phones and Bieber merch

It’s The Small Things That Matter
Photo by
Kjartan Hreinsson

Cory Arcangel makes art of computer games, pool noodles, phones and Bieber merch

Cory Arcangel is buzzing with energy, as one might expect just days before the opening of his first Icelandic solo exhibition. I meet the mild-mannered American artist—now a few years shy of his fortieth birthday, but as youthful in look and attitude as ever—in the office of the Reykjavík Art Museum at Hafnarhús. We’re soon striding through the generous four-room space that’ll house the show, each one full of his distinctive and familiar Photoshop-gradient patterns, semi-unboxed flat-screen displays, framed drawings of Bill Clinton, printed books of computer source code, and tables bearing games consoles, phones, and other electronic ephemera.

For an artist so associated with all things digital, there’s a broad range of media here. So how does Cory describe his own practise? “Unfocused! That’s the word that I’d use,” he smiles, relaxing at Stofan café after the whistle-stop installation tour is over. “The question of what my work is has gotten more complicated. It’s becoming more horizontal and dispersing over a larger area. But a lot of it is still related to the digital. That’s the world I feel most comfortable in, and the world that I came from: the world of sitting in front of your computer all day.”

Bieber noodles

These works include an N64 basketball game with a controller hacked to throw constant airballs in an existential loop of losing, and a series of throwaway pop cultural images shown on huge flat-screen TVs, distorted by a retro-screensaver-esque rippling effect. The Clintons turn out to be a series of replica sketches, drawn over and over by an obsolete plotting machine. Much of the work playfully picks at the joins between human invention and mechanical process.

“I have a fondness for things in that place right before they become uncool—right before they become genuinely nostalgic. When they’re cheap, when they’ve fallen out of favour, but haven’t yet become collectors items; things in that grey area.”

A series of newer work bucks that trend, though. Leaning vertically against the walls of the largest room are a series of long, thin swimming floats—known colloquially in the US as “pool noodles”—that have been dressed and accessorised with one or two items each, such as a sweatband, a Justin Bieber tee, a bluetooth headset, or a bandana.

“That series is something different, relating more to fashion and temporality,” says Cory. “But time is the factor linking the noodles to the older work. One thing that’s great about pop music or the fashions of teenagers is how temporary they are, this kind of constant cultural churn. For example, the rippling lake pieces use a visual effect that most people haven’t seen since the 90s. I’m interested in contrasting that against the super high-end flat-screen contemporary displays they’re shown on, and seeing how these two things, that are separated by twenty years, react when they’re smashed together.”

Cory Arcangel

Potential nostalgia

The pool noodles are stripped down avatars for individuals, in which a single signifier like a band t-shirt or a some headphones is enough to group them with others. Some have a single gothic item, and stand clumped with other “goths”; some are “Americans” accessorised with power tools, cereal boxes and packs of kitchen towels. They could be seen as portraits that reduce individuals to demographic consumer caricatures—but there’s a feeling of fondness for the objects that borders on a kind of celebratory nostalgia.

“Or potential nostalgia,” says Cory. “What the pool noodles are wearing is new stuff. It’s not old enough for that yet—it’s how kids are dressing today. It’s all stuff from Hot Topic. But I have a fondness for things in that place right before they become uncool—right before they become genuinely nostalgic. When they’re cheap, when they’ve fallen out of favour, but haven’t yet become collectors items; things in that grey area.”

Nostalgia is perhaps an inherent or inevitable factor when using objects associated with past iterations of youth culture—games consoles, rock ‘n’ roll music and slightly outdated technology easily become imbued with a rose-tinted, halcyon glow. But in this case, that’s something the viewer brings to the work, rather than Cory’s primary interest.

“I used to push against the idea of the work being nostalgic,” Cory explains, “but it comes up again and again, so it would be dumb for me to ignore it. My current thinking on how nostalgia relates to the work is that it means my stuff isn’t seen entirely in the framework of art history. For example, silkscreen or abstract expressionism isn’t seen as nostalgia—it’s seen as art history, even though they’re both just twenty-thirty years older than what I’m using. I like that talking about nostalgia in relation to my work places it against a backdrop of current culture rather than art history.”

Confusion is next

The most recent evolution of Cory’s work came about as he took a break from exhibiting after ten years of increasingly prestigious shows, from the Whitney to the Barbican to the Carnegie Museum. During this time, he also started using a studio to develop new ideas, allowing for the stockpiling of found objects like the pool noodles, and a period of play and experimentation. I wonder if this weaving between media has proven useful in maintaining a healthily, ever-evolving practise, and not becoming pigeon-holed by genre.

“I don’t know if it’s useful,” he smiles. “Actually, I think it’s confusing for a lot of people. But it’s something I can’t get away from—it’s a real expression of how I am. I’m kind of envious of painters—of always having that square to fill—so many decisions have already been made at the beginning. With this work, you have to start again every time, deciding on the parameters, and how each work should be.”

As well as using consumer products in his gallery-based work, Cory has recently begun creating his own, via a range of merch that includes books of computer code, Photoshop-gradient bedclothes and Arcangel Surfwear clothing. Much of it will be for sale at the show, showing in the gift shop rather than the gallery. But rather than a for-profit offshoot of his work, Cory sees these objects as a strand of his artistic output like any other.

“When I first moved to New York, Keith Haring’s Pop Shop was just around the block,” he recalls. “That was something I internalised and really liked. I consider the merch to be a major project—I spent as much time on that as on anything in the show. There’s no difference in the art power between the gallery-based stuff and the merch objects. So people can have the same ‘art power’ for a fraction of the cost. That’s important to me.”

Cory Arcangel’s “All The Small Things” is on display at Hafnarhúsið from January 31 – April 12, read more about it on our listings page.

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