Looming large over Amie Siegel’s South London Gallery exhibition are Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx’s writings on fetishism. Itself a term which has shifted definitions, ‘fetish’ originated in Portuguese and Latin as artificial, fabricated and fake. Colonialists used the term to elevate their superiority over the indigenous population who ascribed divinity to their adored objects. Later, Freud connected it with perversion while Marx coined the phrase ‘commodity fetishism’. He suggested the ignorance of colonialists was a projection of their own in relation to commodities and capital. Siegel probes this notion through her work, presenting a layering of geological and allegorical strata which gives the exhibition its title.
‘Quarry’ (2015) is a video about marble – its excavation, manufacturing and end use decorating sumptuous interiors. It begins with marble caved in its natural, jagged form. Gustav Holst’s ‘Neptune’ channels us through a journey going deep underground through to the dizzying heights of skyscraper heaven. Choir singers intermittently intensify the moment as if witnessing a glorious birth. The repeated crescendo accompanies room after room of luxury apartments.
Yet the euphoria is also negated. There’s the inelegant production process. Also, the decorative purity of the apartments verges on hostile, such that when the camera hones in on a marble rolling pin, my dashed hope is that there’ll be a bloody head-splitting moment. An architect’s model suggests these rooms are perfect possibilities though ultimately fakes. By the time the messy beginnings of the building project are exposed, the film has become an unsteady course of making and unmaking, belief and unbelief in striking contrast to the physical stability of marble.
‘Dynasty’ (2017) is an installation exploring mechanisms of value, asking questions about whether things are more compelling as ideas or reality. A marble fragment from the Trump Tower lobby which the artist bought online post-election is photographed and sits absurdly atop a plinth, encased in a glass tomb. Accompanying this elegant display of discard is a pair of scanned marble slabs whose enormous, mirrored images spread like splayed skin. Their black surrounds are reminiscent of memento mori, encouraging questions around symbols, permanence, wealth and trade.
‘Fetish’ (2016), another video, witnesses in forensic detail the annual cleaning of Freud’s artifacts and patients’ couch at the Freud Museum. This repeated conservation ritual fixes Freud’s objects as forever-desired exotics. In this moment it is tempting to yearn for Oona Grimes’ potato and bread sculptures which were tumbled over Freud’s desk for ‘Tall Tales’ (2016) in a playful reminder of the absurdity of stuff.
Michael Jakob, in his essay ‘On the Poetics of Things in Modernity’ 2005, asserts that the primary function of objects is ‘to be bearers of projections’. Marcel Duchamp brought this glaringly to light with his readymades. Piero Manzoni celebrated it with aplomb in 1961 when he created cans of ‘Artist’s Shit’. It is therefore impossible to contemplate this exhibition without considering the artist herself as participant in the fetishised object-making game. Siegel’s work is inevitably imbued with meaning and value based on a set of indeterminate beliefs. This accentuates how ‘Strata’ spotlights the elusiveness of the capitalist unconscious.