The Pictures Generation of the 1970s ushered in a new era of photography, one that helped catapult its prominence within the contemporary art world, as artists took up the camera to explore the intersection between identity, iconography, and ideology in American culture. Half a century later, digital technology has democratized the production and proliferation of images, creating a veritable deluge of visual effluvia. Surrounded by screens big and small, we are constantly reading and reacting to images of all types, subtly and substantially reshaping our perceptions of ourselves and modern life.
In her 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, author Shoshana Zuboff introduces the term “glass life” to describe the ways in which data-driven technology operates, insidiously infiltrating itself through convenience while simultaneously eroding significant social bonds and boundaries including privacy, intimacy, and self-determination. “The greatest danger is that we come to feel at home in glass life or in the prospect of hiding from it,” Zuboff warns. “Both alternatives rob us of the life-sustaining inwardness, born in sanctuary, that finally distinguishes us from the machines.”
Recognizing the crux of her work within this idea, Canada-born, New York based artist Sara Cwynar adopts this idea as the title of her new monograph, Sara Cwynar: Glass Life (Aperture), which brings together the artist’s multilayered portraits and stills from her films Soft Film (2016), Rose Gold (2017), and Red Film (2018). A kaleidoscopic examination of contemporary life that explores subjective notions of beauty, the fetishization of consumerism, and the archives that have emerged around these ideas, Glass Life deftly deconstructs the ways images relentlessly reshape perception in ways subtle and overt, becoming as pervasive and wily as words themselves.
Beauty is a Beast
Cwynar’s work explores how beauty — like wealth, status, and fame — is constructed to uphold the power of the dominant group. It is manufactured like currency, distributed through indoctrination, and propagandized as though such mechanisms do not exist. Though the surface of this illusion is easily scratched, dismantling the structure that upholds it is fought tooth and nail by those who seek to participate in the privileges and benefits it bestows.
“We are living in a world filled with choices, or purported choices, but we are actually just picking from a predetermined set of things—ways of being, lifestyles, even language—that have been pre-decided and dictated by capitalism,” Cwynar tells Rose Bouthillier in a conversation for the book. “The idea that choice equals freedom is a central tenet of Western culture, but in practice, it often ends up feeling like the opposite of freedom, something closer to an imposition or a duty.”
Beauty is positioned as an obligation for women to uphold, one of the true sources of power granted by the patriarchy. “If we are not beautiful—what then? Do we have the right to love? To live?” author Legacy Russell asks in her introduction to the book, a question that shakes the proverbial table.
Challenging the denial that such inquiries often meet, Cwynar creates multilayered images drawn from archives of found objects and eBay purchases. Arranged into studio assemblages, Cwynar’s images dazzle and mesmerize with their rapacious display of beauty for sale. Taking Barbara Kruger’s iconic 1987 work, “I Shop Therefore I Am” to the next level, Cwynar warns, “We need to try to turn around before our lives are forever altered, before we can’t go back.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Sara Cwynar: Glass Life, published by Aperture, $65.00. Available here.
Online Launch Event Sara Cwynar and Lucy Gallun on Glass Life. Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. EDT