Everything must be perfect.
We want the perfect date and the perfect partner. We want an exemplary family life, a sequence of once-in-a-lifetime moments experienced with a perfect soundtrack and flattering lighting. A life that photographs well through the right Instagram filter, blurring the inconsequential and highlighting what’s important, because what’s the point of having a perfect life if no one is there to witness it or affirm it by clicking “like”. And what is life if not the content we generate and broadcast to the world, measured by popularity on individual networks that connect us all.
Man, woman, infant, matching furnishings, complementary luxury fixtures and an internal swimming pool. These are the elements comprising the world image created by Elisheva Levy in the gallery space. Neatly listed, they read like an index for the good life, detailing the ingredients to a recipe common to all consumers of late capitalism, a formula for success meant to work for everyone if only they follow the strict instructions. Employing this formula, Levy produces objects and environments that seem perfect at first glance, but are revealed to be empty, brittle and fragile husks of unrealized experiences.
Among the objects she positions in the gallery are many that are everyday items that still manage to be extravagant in various ways, the most prominent of which the internal swimming pool. Private pools are clear status symbols, an amenity testifying to an elite lifestyle, leisure time and over-privilege. An indulgent and desired life. A pool is a demarcated and tame model of the sea, marking the boundaries and subjugating for our watery pleasure the ocean blue and the azure skies. It is presented with the pale navy edging and right lighting. A private slice of artificial sky, a personal heaven that can be dived into. A promise of the moment when the consumerist illusion is wonderfully fulfilled while aglow in hyper-natural colors.
But something has gone wrong in the clichéd beauty and glamour. The relaxed scene of luxury dazzles us with refracting rays of light of water ripples that flicker on the walls with a spectacular sapphire performance. But the exquisite image created by Levy leaves an aftertaste the moment you realize it is a pool made of paper, its rims of paper reams and aluminum foil – clearly cheap materials pasted together, with the image of water projected on their surface. The sound of the water is a soundtrack heard from loudspeakers located on the ceiling.
The use of cheap materials is not the only disruption to the illusion. Added to this is the chaotic image produced by the placement of objects in the space. The objects are all there, but in the wrong order. The extravagant lifestyle is presented to us in tatters, fragments uprooted from their original context.
On the lip of the pool stands a large and lanky figure of a man of enormous proportions. He stares at the glittering water, the only source of light in the room. He gives the impression of a peculiar Narcissus figure facing his reflection, or a warped reference to Venus rising from the waves. He seems at once lonely, dejected and threatening. His quietude is unnerving. His blank stare unseeingly gazes at the baby wading the water in the float. The male figure is pathetic, vulnerable and emasculated. His entire aspect is one of humiliation so palpable it demands some form of compensation that would allow for a recovery of lost manliness (because a “real man” can defend himself and his place, can demand restitution).
In the smaller of the gallery spaces are additional objects: a shag carpet, a standing lamp, a broom, several items of clothing and others. All made of paper. The dominant color is an excessively vibrant pink, the stereotypical tone of soft femininity. The products and items scattered about, all uniformly color coordinated, a kind of nouveau riche furniture set, serve as another illustration of the showcase consumer culture and elite class.
A pair of feet peep out from the carpet – the figure of a woman reclining on her stomach, strewn among the furry pink shag that bunches around her. Beside her is a roll of (predictably) heart-patterned toilet paper.
Human figures have only recently begun to appear in Levy’s work, and their presence expands her path of exploration into living environments and their impact on our lives. Just like the products and environments that appeared previously in the artist’s work, these too are hollow paper creations. The method of manipulation remains, indicative of the understanding that narcissism and brand culture are intertwined, and that our need to be surrounded with the right brands stems from the hollowness within us – puppets operating singly due to the authority of norms determined for us. We appear and feel authentic and human, but actually function within the narrow confines dictated by powers greater than ourselves.
We rely on self-help books, personal coachers, and a healthy dose of positive psychology to relentlessly practice a proactive approach to life, preferring this to introspection, focusing on problems, and a profound look at our pasts. We must always focus ahead, be optimistic, and maximize anything and everything for personal gain.
Margaret Thatcher’s remark from 1987 has never been truer – “There is no such thing as society”.
The market isn’t free, and doesn’t serve our interests. It is we who are in its service. We are privatized units that upload our lives on the stage of the world, all actors with our cues to enter and exit aimed only at preserving a system of accumulating capital.
In an age in which it is not the product that counts, but the right brand (and when brands have managed to produce distinct personalities), we are incentivized to rely on brands to construct our own personal brands. We have become consumer products in our own right, and as such are required to become brands for other consumers, who are just as empty. As brands, we need to emphasize our assets and present as cultured, intelligent, sophisticated and stylish. In our heart of hearts, we know it is an act, but we still want to believe it. In fact, we are coerced into believing, as our lives depend on it, and any discrepancy between appearance and essence, any exposure of the empty spaces, becomes an unbearable threat.
So what happens when we are not part of the privileged? What happens when we are prevented our rights to appear the way we want to appear? When our rights, entitlement and self-worth are denied us, as they are entirely reliant on our social status and the opinion of others?
Any threat to our sense of entitlement to the golden life may bring about catastrophic outcomes, to aggressiveness, to violent outbursts.
The more we empty ourselves, the more others are drained, but without the hollow woman, the hollow man is silenced. Dependence and violence are entangled. We cannot exist without the affirming gaze of others, but they too have no purpose beyond filling the transmissible empty spaces.
Tangible life closes in on us from every angle, but the life represented to us in the inundating flood of images seem so easy and effortless, so possible. The entitled worldview promises this life is just within our grasp if only we reach out and grab hold of it.
The other exists to validate us with his gaze, but that is the sum total of his role. Harming others while on the path to self-fulfillment is not only acceptable – it is as transparently viable as the nonexistent pool waters in in Levy’s work, which makes us love all that blinds us even more – and thus reveals the darkness and gaping spaces within us.