“Let’s see how aesthetic you are when you’re dead you ironic fuck.” – anon.
The last few years have seen a rise in the application of irony as a way of describing popular culture or our interactions with it. It’s not unusual to hear someone say that they were “just being ironic” or even that they’re “not sure if they’re being ironic or not.” Alongside this new subcultures or ‘aesthetics’ have emerged such as vaporwave and health goth. These are born primarily out of online meme and remix cultures which rely heavily on the recycling of certain visual motifs and the methods of display made available through online platforms such as blogs and message boards.
A quick Google search defines irony as “the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” However, the application of irony as descriptor of people’s interactions with, and consumption of, popular culture does not sit comfortably within this definition. This usage seems to be more tied up in the reception of irony , as if popular culture itself is somehow personified as ironic, and that while an individual’s interaction with this culture may be genuine, which is to say they might genuinely enjoy vaporwave or health goth, that person’s interaction is inherently ironic because the culture they are consuming is delivered to them in this tone.
Faced with this enormous, uncertain field of imagery, text and sound, contemporary art can seem as though it might be drowned out. Nowadays artists are faced with a globalised web of production that far outpaces that of any particular individual. What is the function of art practice when people’s everyday interactions produce far more artefacts than the total production of all the world’s artists?
Iain Dean and James Cooper respond to this question by aggressively disregarding out of date notions about what an artist should and should not do. Like magic or movie special effects, traditional methods of making have often been employed by the artist to impress the viewer, eliciting a response somewhat like the famed advertisement; “I can’t believe it’s not butter!” But James and Iain do not follow this code. They resist skill, illusion and seriousness. They are like magicians who explain how they have performed their tricks, or like fans producing their own low budget, non-canon fictions.
Artworks are often viewed as being a product and reflection of the time and place in which they are produced. The artist, through the production of the artwork, is able to crystallise in some way a sense of context. They become a kind of mirror, and this produces a new set of problems: “I’m sure I’m going to look into the window and see no one, nothing.” Andy Warhol stated, “People are always calling me a mirror and if a mirror looks into a mirror what is there to see?” James and Iain could be thought of as the products of a lineage descended from Warhol. If they are like mirrors then they are not your everyday bathroom or bedroom mirror. Nor are they a mirror placed above your bed so that you can watch yourself like you watch porn. They are more like a funhouse mirror; they take elements of the field of popular culture thrown up by these subcultural elements and they magnify and distort them. They explore the unaesthetics of current aesthetics, the aspects that when looked at in a certain way, through certain lenses or in a distorted reflection, grow ugly and strange and new again.
And like consumers of these more recent forms of popular culture, there is genuine quality to James and Iain’s production. Like Warhol, they have a real love for these things that they capture in their work; these distorted images of logos and long doggos drip with a kind of dry sincerity. However, unlike Warhol they do not attempt iconoclasm; there is no greater understanding of things communicated by their work. And this is their great strength; when faced with this awesome globalised web of production they choose to communicate their awe, confusion and anxiety. They capture this in essence through the artefacts they produce, and these artefacts in turn allow their viewers a kind of anchorage in amongst the stormy seas of contemporary popular culture. Humble consumers like the rest of us, James and Iain sit with their viewers in mutual confusion, unable to answer many of the questions their work raises, undecided if what they have made might be beautiful or ugly, uncertain if they are being ironic or not.
Kieron Broadhurst, January 2016