A Jugendstil Bidet: Shelly Nadashi’s Objects of Value

E. C. Feiss

Reviews / 17.07.2014

In the countdown to A Hidden Quiet Pocket (2014), the twenty-minute video in Shelly Nadashi’s exhibition of the same name at Établissement d'en face in Brussels,1 a spectral female voice-over identifies itself as a non-human, fictional character who has particular effects on desire:

I cannot move, I’m like a tree. I must make people come to me. I’m as immobile as an old oak tree. I have gradually become a master in seducing people to approach and trust me. Whatever they have, they now give to me. And isn’t it great? That everybody knows where to find me?

I want to suggest that this is the anthropomorphised voice of a commodity or, as Arjun Appadurai once put it, ‘any object of economic value’.2 Writing in 1986, Appadurai put forward a methodology for taking into account the mutually constitutive relations between commodities and subjects in the production of value, rather than the view of ‘things’ as dictated only by ‘persons and their words’.3 Avoiding the abstraction of arguments that traditionally underlie a destabilisation of subject and object, where an unspecified subject is divorced from power relations,4 Appadurai’s formulation proposes instead a politics of value creation, one that is relevant to Nadashi’s practice today.

Shelly Nadashi, Backpacks and Other Objects, 2014, charcoal and gouache on paper, papier mâché, branches, metal stands. Installation view, Établissement d'en face, Brussels, 2014. Courtesy the artist

Nadashi originally trained at the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem, and much of her work operates within the logic of puppeteering. The relationship between artist and puppet in her work might be said to function allegorically for the contingent and unfixed relations between commodity and subject.5 As any good puppeteer can attest, it is often impossible to know who is the main actor, the puppet or the puppeteer, and indeed the outcome is as reliant on their skills and the form of the puppet, as it is on the audience – the social conditions in which the performance occurs. As Nadashi once put it: ‘there is a deep pleasure to watch the person who is behind [the puppet], or to see how the puppet affects him. Because the puppet really does affect him.’6 Earlier works by the artist mine this co-constitution: in A Good Bowl of Soup (2013) Nadashi puppeteered a handmade ventriloquist’s dummy. Its face was nearly featureless, which had the effect of isolating its interaction with Nadashi as a form, pointing to the creation of affect as occurring in the interaction between puppeteer and object. While it is obvious that the puppet cannot move on its own – it is ‘immobile as a tree’, like the video’s narrator – its capacity to render emotion, its materiality, dictates the performance’s affective register. In this instance, it was the wholly limited expression of the puppet that controlled what was generated by the performance.

Each presents different fashions in backpack design (vertical zippers, meshed pockets or ergonomic shape), resulting in a series that lampoons, through repetition, the accelerated production of commodities in contemporary capitalism.

Pinned to a wall at the entrance to the exhibition was a grid of eighteen charcoal drawings of backpacks, each with backgrounds softly differing in colour, and initially appearing as earnest as the art homework of a teenager. The drawings form part of the installation Backpacks and Other Objects (2014), which also includes a loose cluster of papier mâché mask-forms mounted on metal stands. The masks are reminiscent of vaguely construed ‘tribal’ forms with a Cubist sense of angle, while the tree branches arranged as part of their mise en scène have a theatrical sincerity, neither zealous nor sarcastic, a balance which proves to be a central point of tension in Nadashi’s work. Unabashedly, even sentimentally figurative, the backpack drawings allude to the body of their wearer, their puppeteer perhaps, but also appear autonomous; taking on a distinctive slouched quality. Each presents different fashions in current backpack design (outdoor-style vertical zippers, meshed pockets or ergonomic shape) resulting in a series that lampoons, through repetition, the accelerated production of commodities in contemporary capitalism. The drawings’ expressionistic quality is undone through astute attention to detail, the mass-produced commodity emerging as that which defines the body of its invisible wearer. This caricatured depiction brings into relief an adrenalised narrative of utility. Utility has been historically theorised within Marxism as defined by the sphere of reproduction,7 traditionally women’s labour, wherein use value is constructed by processes of subsistence understood as segregated from currency or formal production, which prepare workers for work. As Appadurai has pointed out, use value was never a measure of natural need, and has always been culturally dependent, in part on the division of labour.8 Shown here in an aestheticised and monetised form, a ‘sign in a system of signs of status’, utility is denaturalised, and depicted as a politically contingent norm within capitalist relations.9 With their various addendums (one can imagine the posture enhancing straps, the smart grip zippers, the performance fabric), the backpacks appeal to self-sufficiency and the responsibilisation of the subject under neoliberal capital, materialising a notion of utility as an alienated and individualised care of the self literally attaching to the body.10

Shelly Nadashi, Backpacks and Other Objects, 2014, charcoal and gouache on paper, papier-mâché, branches, metal stands, detail. Installation view, Établissement d'en face, Brussels, 2014. Courtesy the artist

The title of Nadashi’s film, A Hidden Quiet Pocket, refers to a highly desirable ‘hidden quiet pocket’ of an unspecified European city. Nadashi acted in and directed the one-act film, which sees her playing a Gollum-like estate agent moonlighting (perhaps in the downturn) as a masseuse; or, rather, presenting these two subjects (masseuse and property speculator) as one. This conflation could be construed as a lazy allusion to the already well-dramatised allegiances of eroticism and finance. However Nadashi’s dual figure is more deliberate, drawing from the outset an interrelation between speculative capital and reproductive labour – massage being a form of waged work that is service-based and dependent on an emotional register.11 Like the ambiguous but central place of gender in the performance – with Nadashi’s character, while clearly her, staged as gender non-conforming – this dual figure points to a relocation or layering of the gendered division(s) of labor, rather than its eradication in neoliberalism.12 The voice-over that I identified as that of a commodity, hovering over the countdown sequence as it descends from ten to zero, before falling silent at the opening of the scene, foreshadows the place of commodity form within the ensuing dialogue, framing it as an enabler of the loaded negotiation between the two characters. Where Backpacks and Other Objects dealt with commodities as material objects, A Hidden Quiet Pocket delves into the destabilisation between subject and commodity within contemporary forms of labour.

As the exhibition press release suggests, puppeteering is oblique in this work, and present here only in Nadashi’s manipulation of the body of her client, played by the performer Hagar Tenenbaum. Indeed, close ups of her hands performing massage technique form the spine of the film. Other elements of stagecraft are subtly represented: the stiffness of the dialogue, for example, is reminiscent of marionette plays, and Nadashi’s character is as simulated as a ventriloquist’s doll. This caricature, whose compulsion for wealth is dissociated from subsistence or even straightforward pleasure, is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Shylock and his embodiment of the ‘automated subject’ of capital, where value accrues in absence of decipherable subjective decision-making, or where financial consideration has dramatically replaced all other (ethical, moral, material) systems of value.13

In light of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, I am not drawing on the caricature of Shylock carelessly, nor is it a reference made in the work itself. However, in addition to connecting the video and Nadashi’s performance to a history of stagecraft (puppeteering but also theatrical acting), Shylock’s figure characterises the form of mania I think is at play in the performance: a possession that carries a mixture of theatrical tropes and everyday posturing and vernacular. The mania of Nadashi’s performance accelerates though to exceed any singular identification (as solely Shylock, a masseuse, or the position of any single subject) and therefore I refer to Shylock not as a bulk descriptor but to locate Nadashi’s performance within historical representations of debt and human capital in the theatre, which have been taken up in literary criticism.14 The figure’s history is one of attempts to describe the relation of capital and subjectivity: Marx, for example, used Shylock to illustrate the idea of ‘financial confidence’ or a morality based in financial calculation.15 However, I would not deny the figure’s grounding (or Marx’s usage) in anti-Semitism. Rather, the writing of Shylock’s Jewishness and its inherent anti-Semitism, which is carried forward into any invocation, is part of the way his ‘financial subjectivity’, a personhood based in financial calculation, is constructed. Furthermore, the figure of Shylock describes the orientation of subjectivity towards the accumulation of speculative wealth (in the case of the Merchant of Venice, this is debt, in the case of the video, property speculation) that Nadashi’s character exceeds and inverts by performing the creditor or speculator simultaneously to its lowly parallel – the figure of the masseuse, if we take this figure to represent a form of reproductive labor. A historicised conception of the construction of subjectivity in relation to debt, brought forward by the figure of Shylock and its prior theorisations, is elucidating in the context of Nadashi’s video, whose performance describes the production and circulation of financial language, social relation and embodiment. It is precisely Nadashi’s allusions to the history of theatrical form (which makes my Shylock reference possible) that allows the performance to consider the relations of object/subject and valued/valuer both within the current staging of financialisation and outside of a purely contemporary frame.

Nadashi’s masseuse, clearly identifying its performance mode in its announced neutrality (any cues are evidently absent, she wears street clothes and a low ponytail, her voice beyond gender attribution) gives a semi-erotic massage to a female client who is simultaneously asking for an estimate on the monthly rent of an apartment she has just inherited. The masseuse asks pointed questions whilst massaging (‘How many bedrooms?’), which increase in detail (‘How are the toilets arranged?’, ‘From what epoch is the building?’) as the film moves towards ‘climax’. Consisting solely of the massage scene, the film’s dialogue builds in intensity, spiralling into surreal incantations of objects, property and, finally, food. This triangulation of subsistence commodity mirrors Nadashi’s dual character: both play out the relation of speculation to reproduction. Becoming increasingly hysterical over the prospective earnings of the apartment and erupting in cries of property valuation (‘5,557 euros a month, and we will not negotiate for less!’), Nadashi's character exhibits a mania for the multiplication of asset for its own sake.16 Akin to the precise rendition of the backpacks, the sense of detail in the film with regard to turn of phrase – the way the property is valued would be immediately recognisable to anyone currently living in a ‘global city’ (a ‘historic preservation site’ in a ‘hipster postcode’, she mutters demonically) – hyperbolises the process of commoditisation in relation to the gendered subjectivities in play: after confirming that the property is both Art Nouveau and has a bidet, Nadashi exclaims ‘a Jugendstil bidet!’ and then repeats this obsessively, whilst hissing ‘delicious.’ In describing the features of the building, the client, in a masturbatory tone, issues a description whose absurdity parodies the exaggerations of estate agent-speak, with its insular logic:

A beautiful, plain, late Art Nouveau building. With all the most characteristic features: innovative use of concrete and metal. Equally treated in each detail in the flat. If you know what I mean. The windows, for example, look like flowers. The same floral motif reappears on the doors’ handles. Which look like the toilets. And the toilets look like the stove. And the stove looks exactly like the moustache of the architect. Each mini detail reflects the bigger vision.17

Or perhaps, the cyclical, self-contained valorisation within this description operates as a spoof of all complex (and essentially groundless) financial instruments. Nevertheless, the rapid proliferation of objects orchestrates the encounter: communication itself only occurs through variations of commodity form.

Shelly Nadashi, A Hidden Quiet Pocket, 2014, HD video, 19min 30sec. Installation view, Établissement d'en face, Brussels, 2014. Courtesy the artist

It is not just the commodification of housing but also food that is mobilised in this film, attaching easily to its abject eroticism. After listing property features, Nadashi’s character repeats ‘a piece of cake’ over and over as she excitedly increases the rental price. The client’s property induced arousal morphs into a feverish enumeration of foods: she starts with random bourgeois items (‘cheese and grapes’, ‘organic seaweed’) but soon these become increasingly surreal (‘poached calf brain’, ‘liver stuffed with fair-trade plums’). Quotidian turns of phrase, like a ‘piece of cake’ which is used in the film both literally and figuratively – to refer to the ease of making rental money – highlights how processes of appraisal are deeply embedded within common language, and by extension to the basics of subsistence: demonstrated here with regards to both food and shelter. The ‘Jugendstil bidet’, for example, becomes an irreversible pivot point in the dialogue, defining all in its wake and governing its subjects (the labourers who clean it, the building’s price, the client and the service worker) on gilded throne. The excesses of the script, furthermore, are deliberately contrasted against an unadorned set and lack of costume – it is clearly Nadashi and her friend in a normal apartment, no Jugendstil bidet in sight: a realist gesture that serves to further emphasise the place of speculative valuation in structuring social relations – speculative here meaning a constant future facing, imaginative form of potential accumulation. None of the objects described in the film are expected to appear, their absurdity – ‘liver stuffed with fair-trade plums’ – is thrown into relief by the everyday, nearly featureless setting. Yet their value is shown to change even in their indefinite absence, an absence which arguably propels the dialogue (the relationship) forward at greater and greater speed. The interpersonal, in turn, is rendered indistinguishable from labour. As the narrator puts it: ‘I have gradually become a master in seducing people to approach and trust me – whatever they have, they now give to me.’ Or, we are implicated: there is desire in our own expropriation.

  1. ‘A Hidden Quiet Pocket’, Établissement d’en face, Brussels, 23 April–29 June 2014

  2. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.3.

  3. Ibid., p.4.

  4. As Sven Lütticken suggests, such arguments stem from Martin Heidegger’s theory of thingness, which is rooted in philosophical rather than historical (social and economic) inquiry. See ‘Art History’s Objects: Sven Lütticken interviewed by Rachel O’Reilly’, Speculative Realities [e-book], Rotterdam: Institute for the Unstable Media/V2_, 2013, available at http://v2.nl/archive/articles/art-history2019s-objects

  5. I am thinking here of the discussion of the purified subject of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) in Wendy Brown, ‘Suffering the Paradoxes of Rights’, and W. Brown, Left Legalism/Left Critique, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p.430.

  6. Francis McKee and Remco de Blaaij, ‘Interview with Shelly Nadashi’, Glasgow: Centre for Contemporary Arts, 2013, available at http://amif2013.tumblr.com/post/58916815172/documents-shelly-nadashi-interview-on-28-july-2013

  7. For an introduction to the theory of reproduction, see the chapter ‘Production and Reproduction’ in Leopoldina Fortunati and Jim Fleming, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1995, pp.7-16.

  8. See A. Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, op. cit., p.31.

  9. Ibid., p.45.

  10. Much of Wendy Brown’s work on neoliberalism and governmentality explicates the creation of a subject who has ‘internalised the model of the business or firm’ one who rationally plots their own means and ends. Here I understand this subject as important to the dismantling of the welfare state, making all responsibility for the reproduction and care of people a private concern. See W. Brown, ‘Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.’ In Edgework critical essays on knowledge and politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. p.37-60.

  11. I use ‘reproductive’ here in recognition of Silvia Federici’s apt critique of the term ‘affective labor’ as a dilution of the 1970s feminist critique of reproductive (unpaid) women’s labor. Waged, ‘lifestyle’ labour (like massage) is one of many forms of ‘reproductive work’ that operate today, others of which are unpaid. See https://inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com/precarious-labor-a-feminist-viewpoint/.

  12. Nadashi’s fusion of the subjects of speculative and reproductive labor could also be read alongside Federici’s indictment of the discourse of ‘immaterial labor’. Both point to the ongoing existence of physical, gendered and exploitative labor, despite financialisation’s supposed immateriality.

  13. See M. Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012. Although arising from different textual contexts, both Shakespeare’s Shylock and Maurizio Lazzarato’s ‘machinic subjugation’ explain processes of accumulation that appear to operate independently of, in Apparudai’s terms, persons and their words.

  14. Authors such as Mladen Dolar and Simon Critchley have drawn on Shylock in recognition but in spite of its anti-Semitism, in order to employ the figure’s rich history and resonance in relation to central societal, political and moral questions. See M. Dolar, ‘The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained’, lecture at the University of Amsterdam, 4 June 2014; and S. Critchley and Tom McCarthy, ‘Universal Shylockery: Money And Morality In The Merchant Of Venice’, Diacritics, vol.34, no.1, Spring 2004, pp.3–17.

  15. See John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.297. A discussion of the relation of Marx’s Shylock references to his anti-Semitism exceeds the scope of the present essay. However, Wendy Brown provides an example of a methodology which revisits Marx’s ‘On the Jewish Question’ to utilise his critique of rights, in recognition but in spite of its anti-Semitism. See Wendy Brown, ‘Tolerance And/or Equality? The “Jewish Question” And The “Woman Question”’ Differences, pp.1–31.

  16. One is reminded of Theodor W. Adorno’s nexus of production and power, the ‘principle of exchange’, which concentrates wealth. ‘Society has come to be organised around the production of exchange values for the sake of producing exchange values, which, of course, always already requires a silent appropriation of surplus value.’ See T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, New York: Seabury Press, 1973, pp.189–92.

  17. This is a reference to one of the fireplaces in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed building at the Glasgow School of Art. The video was produced prior to the fire which destroyed most of such features. See http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/26/glasgow-school-art-fire-archivists-salvage