Antoine Catala: Everything is OKAY, Season 2, Marlborough Contemporary – London
It seems like Antoine Catala is playing a trick on us when we enter his exhibition on the second floor of Marlborough Contemporary London. Bandaged emojis with anxious expressions printed on colourful husks of silicone rubber in the shape of t-shirts, socks and plastic bags, atop low foam plinths, are animated by a pneumatic pumping mechanism that inflates and deflates their sympathetic faces to distortion, or are otherwise shocked by an electronic mechanism that causes them to vibrate, “dancing” to the exhibition’s music. On the walls, reassuring slogans in bold, cheery letters on candy-coloured panels – ”don’t worry,” “everything is okay” – some wrapped in silicon, others in latex, are mechanized by a pump that sucks air out of the panels and vacuum-forms around the letters and background. When the pump switches off, the membrane slowly returns to its taut, flat surface, erasing both the text and the saccharine, anxiety-inducing response it inspired.
September 11 — October 13, 2018
6 Albemare St, Mayfair, London
At first the message seems sardonic – how can everything be as okay, as the exhibition title insists? Have you seen the state of the world? But then we have the strange sensation that the words of reassurance must be taken with genuine good intention. In the London variation or “second season” of his exhibition “Everything is Okay” which took place in 2017 at 47 Canal in New York, Catala presents new and existing works which channel in its viewers an uneasy sense of assimilation with the objects, the most striking of which have the quality of breathing.
On the wall hangs a wooden piece made up of puzzles: a hand making an “okay” sign with curved index finger touching the thumb. Not far off, the words on the latex and silicon panels can be read individually, or puzzled together into a sentence. The outline of a Band-aid becomes apparent on one panel; blocky text on the other panels follows. “Hey, don’t worry, don’t be scared, everything is okay.” Over a minute or so, these words, slowly receding back into the frame, erase out of sight. The pump mechanism recreates the effect that such phrases can have on a feeling subject: these words are palliatives, hooked up to an external mechanism on which they depend, just like a psychological crutch that suggests their clichéd sense of optimism is just illusory.
The gallery floor is counterset by familiar objects – t-shirts, bags, socks – with perplexed faces on them, some of them seemingly breathing, others vibrating. Scattered at various points across the gallery floor, the works with the emojis have the ethos of the market written into them: smileys as approving or rewarding markers of consumer transactions. Explains Catala when asked about these works: “I chose a plastic bag with an custom emoji face because traditionally plastic bags have smiley faces on them. Smiley faces are the ancestors of emojis. I thus wanted to collapse time and have an emoji on a plastic bag. The other garments are an extension to this logic.”
The works’ uncanny effects are seen in the responses my Instagram stories received when I shared videos of the work I am here for you (t-shirt). Some viewers commiserated with the object, whose face contorted as air pumped out of it. “Me during exams,” wrote one overburdened student, replying from the library. “I want to hold it, and speak soft words to it,” responded another, altruistically.
Though Catala’s work has been linked to the aesthetic of funhouses, we spiral into thinking that these works may be describing another perceptual structure we cannot seem to find a way out of: a capitalist world-economy. From observing the last three exhibitions Catala had at his New York gallery, we notice a comedic gradation: “I See Catastrophes Ahead” (2012), “New Feelings” (2014) and “Everything is Okay” (2017), as though a sense of prescient warning in the post-Occupy era grew into a renewed sense of optimism in the Trump era to at least appear as a psychological crutch in the current political state of affairs. Perhaps empathy and reassuring words are the only way to get through the global circus in which clowns boast on stage while interest-driven puppeteers mastermind the show. This interpretation contradicts the initial sardonic sense one gets walking in, but at the same time doesn't feel quite right, either. The artist does not provide answers, but one thing is certain: Catala painstakingly tunes into a familiar, desperate sentiment, creating objects that in turn have the power to make the viewer ache.
Images Antoine Catala. Everything is OKAY – Season 2. Marlborough Contemporary London. Installation View. Photos by Deniz Guzel. Images courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Contemporary, New York and London.