Colour and Commodity: Marilyn by Sara Cwynar

Sara Cwynar


27th February 2020 – 30th April 2020

The Approach

Sara Cwynar, Marilyn, installation view at The Approach, London. Courtesy the artist and The Approach.

By Adi Berardini

 “Cezanne…it’s Susan,” the voice in Sara Cwynar’s film Marilyn echoes. Cezanne jewellery boxes act as a signifier of high-class wealth, opening multiple times throughout the collaged-footage film. Suddenly, I have flashbacks of every time someone has mispronounced my name—something that many women likely know well. I have to introduce myself saying, “it’s Adi. Eighty like the number.” Then, I think of how it’s depressing that I have to assign a numerical value to my name in order to be remembered. Isn’t remembering someone’s name a sign of fundamental respect?

In Marilyn, featured as an online exhibition at The Approach, Vancouver born, New York-based artist Sara Cwynar addresses how the commodification of women’s desire is not only prevalent but ingrained in a capitalist society. On the inspiration of the title, Cwynar explains how “the X-Rays of Marilyn Monroe’s chest sold for $45,000—even the inside of her body was up for grabs.” Often with a seductive, vintage feel, the film specifically uses soft pinks and siren reds to display the relationship between colour and commodity. The narrator chimes in with, “colour, decided by someone else, handed down, placed upon us.”  Reminiscent of shopping for lipstick and attempting to find the perfect colour, it causes me to dwell on how individuality can be both a myth and a marketing ploy. I think of how it’s ironic that women don’t have full autonomy over our bodies, yet there are hundreds of shades of lipstick to choose from. 

Sara Cwynar, Marilyn, installation view at The Approach, London. Courtesy the artist and The Approach.

“I’m telling you these reds aren’t real,” the narrator states in a voice reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. 

The lips are referred to as a red wound, a seductive and vivacious symbol, but also one that is tied to violence. A hand strokes a lavender rose; the film repeatedly zooms in on a fashion editorial, a shot of a woman posing with matte red lipstick. Cwynar is interested in the production of photographic tropes and how they are just as manufactured as the makeup that the models wear. She has worked as a graphic designer for the New York Times, and frequently shoots her colleague Tracy Ma, since Ma is also familiar with media construction and its inherent power imbalance, particularly as a woman of colour. Footage of make-up manufacturers reel, showing the creation of buttery foundation and saturated glitter eye-shadows. While the cogs of the machine hypnotizingly churn, the darkness envelops us, consumed by the same cycles—a loop. Cwynar is fixated on the same few poses the models for popular e-commerce sites repeat. The film speaks of the idea of “a New Woman, “a Face,” and how the patterns were invisible to us before.

“I thought of the women of antiquity who were accused of lying for making up their faces.”

Sara Cwynar, Marilyn, installation view at The Approach, London. Courtesy the artist and The Approach.

The film is primarily narrated by a man’s deep voice and a woman who chimes in at times, almost like she’s trying to get in a word during a meeting where a male colleague takes up too much space. The artist is pictured trying to lip-sync the narrator, an act that seems like a reclamation of what he’s saying in a tried but failed manner. The inter-spliced narration is in reference to a myriad of philosophers and cultural icons such as Descartes, Barthes, Plato, Sontag and Eileen Myles, and focuses largely on colour, art, capitalism, and gender. The artist says phrases like, “Women create life, men create art but not anymore, suckers,” and “I know I have a body of a weak, feeble woman but I have a stomach and a heart of a king.” Suddenly, the clearance sale is filmed from the vantage point of an escalator— “60% off!” the red tag reads, illuminated by fluorescent mall lighting. There are deliberately too many media snippets to contemplate simultaneously, enacting the oversaturation of advertisements one subconsciously faces during a trip to a shopping mall or scrolling through their phone.

“A new image comes without warning.”

Sara Cwynar, Marilyn, installation view at The Approach, London. Courtesy the artist and The Approach.

A key aspect of the film is how nostalgia fades in a capitalist ploy. It also evokes how companies re-appropriate trends and nostalgia to sell their products to consumers. I witness not just the plaster nude bust, but the staging and the men behind it, setting it up. Several shots of a blonde woman’s slick red manicured nails are seen stroking a cherry convertible. Sliding by are a plethora of lipsticks, collaged over a shot of Claude Cahun and vintage film photographs of near-nude women. The voice of the narrator evokes the posts of Instagram influencers, inherently narcissistic in nature, but oh so deep. These days, it’s impossible to tell if someone genuinely likes something or they’re trying to sell it to you. The voiceover proclaims that she loves the times, she can buy anything she wants, but it’s hard to believe her when her face is visibly stressed, tears welling up in her eyes. She searches for pleasure where she can get it, but it hardly seems to be authentic—the glamour fades just as feelings do.

“To choose when to look and when to be looked at, that is the essence of true freedom.”

Cwynar addresses how in art women are thought of as objects and not subjects. With an array of commodified colours in her palette, the films address the painful reality of a society that uses the idea of “freedom” as a marketing method to sell back a sense of feminist empowerment. I can’t help but think we’re trapped in a system that’s difficult to escape.

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