Mob Rule

Neue Luxury - - News - By Toby Fe­hily

Cri­sis hit the Sack­ett–wil­helms Lithograph­ing and Pub­lish­ing Com­pany in 1902. The print­ers couldn’t get their colours to align prop­erly on the page, the re­sult of too much heat and hu­mid­ity in their East Wil­liams­burg print­ing plant. Worst of all, the ink re­fused to dry.

Willis Car­rier, an ap­pren­tice en­gi­neer from the Buf­falo Forge Com­pany, came up with a so­lu­tion. By jury rig­ging a con­trap­tion out of fans, ducts, heaters and per­fo­rated pipes, he man­aged to bring the tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity in the fac­tory down to an ac­cept­able level. It was the first known in­stance of modern air con­di­tion­ing. The colours started to align prop­erly—and, fi­nally, the ink dried.

More than 100 years later, in 2008, Tony Gar­i­falakis was in that very same build­ing, will­ing his paint not to dry, at least not com­pletely.

The Aus­tralian artist was on a res­i­dency in New York with the In­ter­na­tional Stu­dio & Cu­ra­to­rial Pro­gram, a non­profit con­tem­po­rary art in­sti­tu­tion that had just moved into the site of the for­mer fac­tory that year.

Splayed across the desk in Gar­i­falakis’s stu­dio space was a pile of glossy gos­sip mag­a­zines, the kinds you’d find at su­per­mar­kets. At the fore­front of his mind, how­ever, was some­thing far from the flashy and sor­did go­ings- on of celebri­ties or celebrity wannabes. He was think­ing about de­clas­si­fied FBI files. More specif­i­cally, he was think­ing about the black redac­tion marks and the way they crawled across the text of sen­si­tive doc­u­ments like cater­pil­lars, chew­ing away at words deemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the pub­lic eye.

With a can of black enamel spray paint in his hand, Gar­i­falakis turned to the glossy mag­a­zines and be­gan redact­ing faces with loose, drip­ping blobs of black.

Gar­i­falakis’s redac­tions were very dif­fer­ent to those he en­coun­tered in the FBI files. His use of spray paint, with its as­so­ci­a­tions of graf­fiti and van­dal­ism, formed a re­bel­lious and an­ar­chic foil to the neat and straight lines pre­ferred by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. And where the FBI’S redac­tions tar­geted in­for­ma­tion too sen­si­tive to be re­leased, Gar­i­falakis took aim at the most pub­lic of all in­for­ma­tion: the faces of mod­els and celebri­ties.

He didn’t stop there. Soon enough he was sub­vert­ing movie posters he found in Chi­na­town shops, spray­ing over the face of Robert De Niro from Rag­ing Bull, then it was rock posters he pur­chased on ebay. Even­tu­ally he alighted on Pla­ton An­to­niou’s book Power: Por­traits of World Lead­ers. Flip­ping through its pho­to­graphs of lead­ers such as Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Robert Mu­gabe, Gar­i­falakis took again to the can of black enamel, shroud­ing his sub­jects’ faces ob­scured in dark­ness. The re­sults, pre­sented in their orig­i­nal sizes, be­came Gar­i­falakis’s se­ries Mob rule.

His de­face­ments, how­ever, weren’t en­tirely against the spirit of the book. Speak­ing to The Times, Pla­ton him­self ex­pressed a de­gree of am­biva­lence to­wards his sub­jects. “I have a healthy dis­re­gard for power,” he ex­plained. “We’re not sub­servient to heads of state,” he went on, “they’re our ser­vants. Power is a mi­rage. These pho­tos are about cap­tur­ing the global ad­min­is­tra­tion that man­ages our lives. I wanted to get in their eyes, pho­to­graph them at a hu­man level, not on a podium.”

Though Gar­i­falakis does not present them at a hu­man level, he cer­tainly does get into their eyes. In some of the works, both eyes of the sub­ject are spared the enamel treat­ment; in oth­ers, only one eye peers out from the black. Sev­eral ex­am­ples see the mouths of these pow­er­ful fig­ures still vis­i­ble. De­pend­ing on the ex­act ex­e­cu­tion, Gar­i­falakis’s treat­ments are at times rem­i­nis­cent of dimea- dozen ban­danas and bal­a­clavas or, when the paint drips, some­thing more sin­is­ter, with black stains dan­gling from chins like Cthul­huian ten­ta­cles.

With eyes and mouths left to do noth­ing but glare and sneer— or, given the stand­ing of their own­ers, surveil and com­mand. The only re­main­ing iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­is­tics of the sub­jects are their royal re­galia, mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tions or sim­ply the iconic struc­ture of their faces, hav­ing be­ing splashed across news­pa­pers so of­ten that our mem­ory fills the voids left by the ob­scur­ing enamel.

In the past, Gar­i­falakis has been quick to say that Mob rule is nei­ther po­lit­i­cal nor an­gry, and it would be too easy to dis­miss the se­ries as a broad­side against the bad guys. Af­ter all, his sub­jects run the gamut from demo­crat­i­cally elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to despotic dic­ta­tors to mostly cer­e­mo­nial royal fig­ures, their po­lit­i­cal ca­reers coloured with vary­ing shades of benev­o­lence and malev­o­lence.

The only thing they have in com­mon is power. With lit­tle to dis­tin­guish them be­neath the black, they’re stripped of their in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­ties, and de­fined only by the power they pos­sess. One is forced to won­der, though, whether power is some­thing they pos­sess or whether power is some­thing that pos­sesses them.

By in­vok­ing the word ‘mob’ in his ti­tle, Gar­i­falakis in­vites a com­pli­cated but telling lex­i­cal his­tory into the mix. De­rived from the Latin ex­pres­sion mo­bile vul­gus, the word first en­tered English in the 1680s. Ini­tially, ‘mob’ was used to re­fer de­ri­sively to the masses. In­ter­est­ingly, it wasn’t the Latin noun, vul­gus, mean­ing ‘the com­mon peo­ple’, but the ad­jec­tive, mo­bile, as in ‘fickle’, that took root, the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that the mul­ti­tude is al­ways chang­ing, not to be trusted.

That note of dis­par­age­ment crept into new mean­ings. By 1839, the word was be­ing used to re­fer to gangs of crim­i­nals; by 1927, it was a catchall for or­gan­ised crime over­all. No longer merely fickle, as its orig­i­nal mean­ing sug­gested, the mob was now un­law­ful and cor­rupt.

A look into the ev­ery­day uses of the word re­veals how much the tar has stuck. In an ar­ti­cle for Oup­blog, Ben Zim­mer­man trawled through the Ox­ford English Cor­pus, a repos­i­tory of more than 1.5 bil­lion words in liv­ing use, to un­cover the kinds of words with which ‘mob’ keeps com­pany.

“What does a mob do when it’s the sub­ject of a sen­tence?” he asks. “It at­tacks, torches, lynches, storms, burns, kills, ram­pages, and mur­ders. And what do you do to a mob as the di­rect ob­ject of a sen­tence? You dis­perse it, in­cite it, lead it, join it, es­cape it, quell it, or face it. Fi­nally, we can look at what types of words tend to fill the slot ‘mob of —’. Here we find mobs of cat­tle, peo­ple, fa­nat­ics, youths, vil­lagers, hooli­gans, thugs, and fun­da­men­tal­ists.”

Slip­ping from fickle to vi­o­lent, the spi­ralling rep­u­ta­tion of the word ‘mob’ says a lot about the im­por­tance that we place on in­di­vid­ual iden­tity in the 21st cen­tury. Shrouded in a crowd, re­duced to a drop in an ocean, a per­son in a mob is seen as lacking agency and al­ways in arm’s reach of men­ace. While its ex­act mean­ings have shifted since the late 17th cen­tury, its neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions re­main.

Gar­i­falakis’s mob, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent sort. From the up­per ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety, they’re far re­moved from the com­mon crowds with which mobs are of­ten as­so­ci­ated. But to draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two is not only clas­sist, but also a dan­ger­ous over­sight. Groups are groups, mobs are mobs, and when­ever the in­di­vid­ual gets lost amid the col­lec­tive, there’s rea­son for con­cern.

While we tend to get lost in the minu­tiae of our po­lit­i­cal leader’s re­spec­tive track records, mer­its or short­com­ings, Mob Rule re­minds us that the no­tion of in­di­vid­ual iden­tity doesn’t mat­ter when it comes to power. Some lead­ers may be good, some may be bad, some may re­side in a grey area in be­tween, but they all share more sim­i­lar­i­ties than they do dif­fer­ences. It’s writ­ten, as Gar­i­falakis sug­gests, all over their faces.

Tony Gar­i­falakis is rep­re­sented by Hugo Michell Gallery, Ade­laide and Sarah Scout Presents, Mel­bourne.

Mob Rule In­stal­la­tion view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2014. Photo by Christo­pher SNEE/AGNSW.

Blood­line In­stal­la­tion view, Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, 2015. Photo by Selina OU/NGV

Un­ti­tled from the Mob Rule se­ries, 2014. Enamel and ink on off­set print 27cmx19cm. Un­ti­tled

From the Mob Rule se­ries, 2014. Enamel and ink on off­set print 27cmx19cm.

My iden­tity might be­gin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there. At least that’s what I would choose to be­lieve.

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