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Perhaps we can start with some thoughts on “obscenity”. During a recent conversation, Simon admitted to me that most of his works have an obscene nature. Born in a French intellectual family, Simon would sneak in his father’s library as child to peek into deviant ‘perverted’ 18th century erotic engravings. This might be one of many explanations for his appetite for irony and subversion.
An extravagant orgy - from a drinking fountain to a urinal fountain
If you’re given the choice between going to an orgy or a symposium, be careful you don’t make the wrong choice. The sedate-sounding ‘symposium’ of the Ancient Greeks frequently descended into debauchery and even riot.
On the contrary, imperial Roman orgies were comparatively sedate affairs. The rich were expected to hold frequent, extravagant parties - the more extravagant, the greater your status. Hundreds of strangers, of all classes, would be invited at random; but as ever, attractive, fashionably dressed people would be generously supplied, as would entertainment from dancers, musicians, and prostitutes of all genders. There was no “orgy sex” at orgies.
Coincidentally, the broad social spectrum of the orgy seems to be a good match with Simon’s fountain - a wine-bottle holder animal fountain, in which different ‘creatures’ are hierarchically displayed on a steel platform, sucking alcohol in excess with greedy unfulfilled quench. For Simon, this is a perfect metaphor of our commodity society. The egocentric individual and the mass stuck in a visceral infinite (∞) loop of consumption/excretion from mouth to genitals and back. On one hand, this refers to Simon’s ongoing research on Dr Infinity – an obscure self-love guru who promoted swallowing one’s own semen through auto-fellatio (sucking one’s own cock) as a mean to regenerate energy, become sexually/emotionally independent and immortal. On the other hand, it is also a historical journey from a Mongol Khan’s ornate alcoholic fountain in the 13th century to Duchamp’s 20th century readymade urinal Fountain. The top-down trend of liquid arises the imagination of golden shower fetish.
Please allow me to have a flâneur’s moment drifting in the past and the present, anachronistically.Simon refuses to be moralistic with his works, “I work more like a flâneur”, he excitedly pointed out. And that’s true. The notes he hands me contain about 80 keywords and are mixed up, somehow I doubt that I can interpret this as a sign of trust. This probably one of the key reasons that I decide to write as a flâneur (or ragpicker as Benjamin writes), wandering through the notes he throws out.
The Flâneur's 'cabinet of curiosities'
If we consider wandering in arcades* a direct access to commodity society, could hoarding, collecting, rag picking, and hunting in a flea market be seen as a detour towards the commodity society as well? In Francois Jullien’s Detour and Access, the two approaches of being direct and oblique are not only discussed on the methodological level, but also on the level of symbolic meaning. Through observations, conversations and chance, Simon’s flâneur approach to finding objects as perfect metaphors to talk about contemporary social issues seems to be rooted in oblique indirect and allusive strategies. He is not interested in strong linear statements, and rather creates disarmingly simple work, with the aim to allow for multiple perspectives and variations.
Although Simon enjoys looking through trash in search of neglected products with the aim of reactivating their potential meaning; his work is ingrained in the spending power of white middle class consumerism. The combination of these archetypes reminds me of the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities. Those private displayed collections of scientific curiosa, fine arts, relics and looted ethnographic artifacts. The cabinet raises issues of privilege, ownership and colonialism. Let’s think about the cabinet exemplifying a world through the eye of Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectaclefrom 1967. As Debord argues, with modernity, the commodity has taken on the role of colonising all social life, supporting a capitalist structure of violence, which does not impact upon everyone in the same manner.
If we consider Simon’s collection, which contains objects with different values as a cabinet of curiosities, the display of all these objects leads to a kind of universal marketing display in his making. By using accessible symbols, intense colors and pop culture aesthetics in his work, Simon seduces the viewers into embracing or questioning their own commodity fetishism.
Yiwu as the arcade! Protesting speed
For Benjamin, the environment of the city, in particular the arcades of Paris in the 19th century provided the means to provoke lost memories of times past. However, for Simon, Yiwu functions as a 21st century arcade. The largest commodity market in the world, with its endless mazes of products, unifies consumers in their private and collective memories.As a flâneur, Simon doesn’t challenge the shock experience of modern life directly. But the role of an observer can lead us, by detour, towards an ‘awakening’, which is the moment according to Benjamin in which the past and the present recognize each other. The tool for archiving this is called empathy, Benjamin continues: “Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with the exchange value itself. The flâneur is the virtuoso of this empathy”. (Walter Benjamin, ‘The Arcades Project’)
As a flâneur, Simon doesn’t challenge the shock experience of modern life directly. But the role of an observer can lead us, by detour, towards an ‘awakening’, which is the moment according to Benjamin in which the past and the present recognize each other. The tool for archiving this is called empathy, Benjamin continues:
“Empathy with the commodity is fundamentally empathy with the exchange value itself. The flâneur is the virtuoso of this empathy”. (Walter Benjamin, ‘The Arcades Project’)
As the flâneur who walks idly through the city, Simon’s two films present a soft meditation-like rotation towards both the exterior and the interior: respectively presenting a panorama of commodity kingdom in Yiwu and an extremely slow motion of a ‘brainstorm’ in the transparent plastic head of a toy that Simon accidentally found on the street. Watching the films put one in a shock-induced daydream about the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city. Letting time pass by, endlessly, is a luxury for an individual in such a speeded-up society. This approach could be interpreted as an ode to idleness or an attempt to protest speed - a political methodology? How to read these consumer objects as clues for a radical political critique？
“In commodity society all of us are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; and all of us are collectors of things” argues Susan Buck-Morss in her book about the arcades. When Heineken was accused of conniving sexual harassment and low pay on their female employees in Africa, one of the head staff of the company claimed: “It is very difficult to be an island of perfection in a sea of misery, but please, do not doubt our sincerity”.