Automatic Negative Thought
July 5 to September 22, 2019
B.C. Binning and Alvin Balkind Galleries
The Contemporary Art Gallery presents the first major solo exhibition in Canada of work by Copenhagen and New York based artist Maryam Jafri. Extending across two gallery spaces, the exhibition presents three recent series of sculptural works alongside a new video work co-commissioned by CAG and Taxispalais Kunsthalle Tirol in Innsbruck, Austria.
Jafri works across an expansive breadth of media, including video, sculpture, performance and photography. Informed by an investigative process, her practice draws from diverse traditions of literature, theatre, pop and conceptual art. Whether in installation or moving image formats, Jafri’s artworks often bring together both found and original material. For the past fifteen years she has queried the cultural and visual representations of history, politics and economics, with research focusing on the politics of food production and consumption, the highly-coded performance rituals of nascent nation-states, cultural memory and copyright law, as well as the impacts of graphic design, branding and display. Automatic Negative Thought takes as its central interrogation our contemporary culture’s fixation on “wellness” and self-care, and suggests that these trends are entangled intimately with our age of economic dispossession and social fragmentation. In considering these conditions, Jafri examines the ways the body is increasingly experienced as a site of anxiety-fueled narcissism and self-surveillance that is politically and economically produced.
Where We’re At (2017) is a ten-foot square gridded sculpture recalling the form of an American crossword puzzle; the dead squares of a typical crossword are replaced by actual physical books affixed directly to the wooden surface. Jafri’s impetus for this work sprung from a famous list of six books circulated by the New York Times shortly after the surprising results of the 2016 US Presidential elections, which claimed to illuminate the historical and economic factors behind the results. “Since the New York Times and just about every other media outlet incorrectly predicted the results of the 2016 election,” the artist remarks, “one wonders if the editors actually read their own list.” Jafri includes two of those books in Where We’re At but adds numerous others she considers relevant to understanding our contemporary political moment. These include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Anthem by Ayn Rand, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, The Art of Money Getting by PT Barnum, a book on mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Denationalisation of Money, a text by the influential neo-liberal economist Friedrich Von Hayek and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqadimah, a fourteenth century book cited by many as the first text on supply-side economics. Created in collaboration with noted crossword puzzle constructor Ben Tausig, Where We’re At is also a solvable puzzle, with clues listed in print upon the wall. A printed take-away is available to visitors who wish to solve the puzzle at home, with answers available upon request.
Wellness-Postindustrial Complex (2017) is a series of sculptures and photographic works focused on the growing popularity of Eastern practices of self-care such as yoga, acupuncture and meditation. This “wellness” trend aligns perfectly with the self-help ethos and understandings of personal responsibility propagated by contemporary capitalism, specifically through efforts to self-monitor and optimize the performance of one’s own body and labour potential. Comprised of cut up yoga mats, silicone fetish prosthetics, acupuncture needles and cupping paraphernalia, the sculptures fragment the body, disperse it and render it mute. Jafri intentionally incorporates mass-produced commodities to underline how the search for inner peace and mental wellness in Western culture is increasingly predicated on practices of consumption. American Buddhist (2016), a related work from Jafri’s Meditation Altars series, investigates the use of meditation as a new US military training strategy. Mass-produced stuffed Buddha toys marketed to children and garlands of artificial flowers create a cute and palatable surround for a monitor playing a public domain video, sourced directly from the US Army, of a soldiers’ meditation session in Iraq led by the US Army’s first Buddhist chaplain, Thomas Dyer. Countering the common view of basic training as carried out under the barking commands of an abusive drill sergeant, these new “softer” approaches to combat training suggest an “optimized” and holistic military body. Viewers are left to reflect upon the contradiction of seeking inner peace within the context of armed conflict.
Finally, the exhibition’s newly commissioned single-channel video work, Mariam Jafri vs. Maryam Jafri (2019) tells the story of how the photograph of a component of Wellness-Postindustrial Complex captured at the 2017 Frieze London art fair was commercially exploited by Getty Images as a stock image. The video directly poses a number of questions about issues of copyright and artistic labour to its audiences: who is the rightful author of a stock photograph imaging an exhibited sculpture that incorporates commercially produced objects? To whom should which rights belong? What extent does the answer to this question depend on the systemic context in which the image is placed? And what does it mean when the artist is told she must pay royalties for the use of a photograph of her own sculpture in order to show it in a video work? Here as in throughout her practice, Jafri uses strategies of appropriation and analysis to sharply expose and dissect the systems that underpin our post-industrial, capital-focused society and implicate us in its maintenance.
Automatic Negative Thought is generously supported by the Danish Arts Foundation