Over a lifetime of visiting museums, you learn that all souvenirs have a price point, from the dollar-fifty commemorative postcard to the pieces in the collection itself. These prized mementos, selected, brought home, catalogued and displayed, represent the collector’s forays to classical or far-flung sites. My favorite disruption to this cycle is a hall of life-sized plaster casts of classical Greek and Roman architecture at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, which allows visitors to tour bits and pieces of many separate sites simultaneously, leaving the original buildings intact. Stephanie Syjuco’s solo exhibition, RAIDERS, at Catherine Clark Gallery, offers the same historical jumble, along with questions about access, reproduction and the institutional stewardship of cultural objects.
Syjuco’s recent ShadowShop (2010) project at SFMOMA invited artists to set up shop in the exhibition galleries, bypassing traditional routes to a museum show and earning 100% of the sales. With RAIDERS, Syjuco looks to objects already ensconced in historical canons: traditional Asian ceramics and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While her subjects represent ways that Western culture has viewed other societies as dark territory to be explored or invaded, this is the most obvious and least interesting part of the show, or would be without the noise of commerce surrounding the work. Syjuco’s reaction to this post-colonial booty: conduct a counter-invasion of her own that points to contemporary economic models tied to museums, shopping, illegal downloads, and copyright.
For the show’s titular piece, Raiders: International Booty, Bountiful Harvest (2011), Syjuco has downloaded, printed, and mounted life-size images of Asian vessels from public art databases onto wood backings, like an army of paper dolls. Placing them on wooden crates and shelves, Syjuco sometimes sorts the vessels by shape, sometimes by color. The photographic perspective varies from piece to piece, some veering off at a steep angle and others pixilated from enlargement. These quirks become important if you view artwork with an eye to what is unique, but unlike the original vessels, these sculptures are copies, in editions of three. Also unlike the originals, they are for sale.
For those who want a souvenir they don’t have to pay for, Syjuco has printed large posters in the style of street flyers. Visitors ripped away most of the tabs during the opening, but the posters are an unlimited edition and their collector may reproduce them ad infinitum. These posters, each announcing the URL of a source for a free download of a text, introduce Phantoms (2011), an array of downloaded and bound copies of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
With Raiders, Syjuco highlights the silent authority of the museum collection, pointing to the forces that enshrine these vessels as a particular type of cultural heritage. In conjunction with Phantoms, however, Syjuco turns the question of acquisitiveness back on her audience. By offering freely-accessed items for sale, Syjuco’s project asks us to decide what we’d like to do: buy a souvenir or pirate one.
Stephanie Syjuco’s RAIDERS is at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco through July 16, 2011.