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The Mechanical Bride: Photo Factories

“The Mechanical Bride,” an exhibition organized in conjunction with the Contact festival of photography, featured 11 Canadian and international artists. The work on display explored our society’s enduring entanglement with advertising, consumption and product.

The exhibition’s name paid homage to Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, published in 1951. Interestingly, McLuhan derived the book’s name from Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 work The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. Duchamp’s hybrid drawing-sculpture depicted an imagined factory run by a literally mechanical bride. McLuhan’s reference to the work was loaded; like Duchamp’s bride and her captive bachelors, postwar America could easily be viewed as a closed system of producers and consumers divided along gender binaries and fuelled by sex.

The exhibition’s curator, Bonnie Rubenstein, selected artists whose work aligns strongly with McLuhan’s views. Of particular note are photographs by Jaqueline Hassink and Matt Siber.

For five years, New York–based artist Hassink travelled to international car shows and photographed women who work the showroom floors. In the resulting stills, Hassink captures the ultimate in gender performance and consumer fetishism. On her website, Hassink further commodifies the girls by categorizing them according to ethnicity, dress style, hair colour and even car brand.

Hassink’s series is closely related to Richard Hamilton’s car paintings, including 1957’s Hommage à Chrysler Corp. and 1958’s Hers is a Lush Situation. In these paintings, Hamilton reduced the female form and the 1950s automobile to erotically charged parts; pouting red lips float over a pair of headlamps and a curving pink chassis. Importantly, these works were inspired by Green Box, Duchamp’s text supplement to The Large Glass. Hamilton developed a serious interest in Duchamp’s work in the early 1950s, and in 1966 he curated a retrospective of the artist’s work at Tate Gallery, for which he reconstructed The Large Glass.

Chicago-based artist Matt Siber’s diptychs almost directly mimic McLuhan’s own critical strategy. McLuhan’s seminal text is a collection of essays, each of which seeks to make the manipulative strategies of advertising transparent by dissecting the image and text components of examples from mid-century print media. Similarly, Siber exposes the media’s invasive powers of persuasion by photographing street scenes and mall interiors, then separating the photograph’s image from its text. Siber breaks apart our environment, and in doing so he reveals the emptiness of sexy advertising images and seductive commercial claims.

Overall, “The Mechanical Bride” was provoking, illuminating and disturbing.

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