Review by Steve Harp •
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Percy Bysse Shelley, Ozymandias
The first word that comes to mind to describe Adel Souto’s 2021monograph, Ad Removal as Modern Art, is unrelenting. After the copyright page, after the dedication page, after a short preface by Souto, the viewer is left with some 180 unrelenting, unpaginated, full bleed photographs, printed recto-verso, continuing to the end page. There is no title page. There is no conclusion. There is no explanatory or descriptive text other than Souto’s introduction. There are only endless surfaces featuring the residues of advertising. In some of the images, fragments of the products or models are still recognizable, layered archeologically as viewers peer through the strata of successive ads campaigns. Sometimes the product or company is identifiable, most often not. In most of the photographs, the image has reached a state of almost total non-representation.
In his introduction, Souto tells us how he was drawn to these reminders of “renowned artists” on his photowalks. “I saw the suprematism of Joan Miro, the collage art of Hannah Hoch, the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock . . . “ This art, though, according to Souto, was not only not “purposeful,” but the result of “destructive boredom, the outcome was merely the creation of vandals who . . . left behind a mass of inadvertent art.”
What Souto refers to as “inadvertent art” is a result not of creation, but of removal. The Pollock-like, non-representational abstractions display one level of ruin and degradation. Those images, which seem (to use Souto’s phrase) more “collage-like” recalled for me two other artmakers whose assaults on the images and spectacles of commodity capitalism may be more intentional, less inadvertent that the creations of Souto’s photographs, but whose impacts are no less subversive.
I’m reminded first of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whose practice of detournement is recalled in many of Souto’s photographs. Detournement is a strategy in which images are “rerouted or hijacked” either through defacement or by replacing advertising slogans with political or ironic quips in an attempt to wage an ongoing guerilla war against “the Society of the Spectacle.” I’m reminded also of the 1970s graffiti work of Manuel DeLanda, as presented in his 1979 super-8 silent short film, ISM ISM. The film “documents” DeLanda’s defacement of advertising (primarily cigarette) images in New York through the montaging of body parts removed from one ad and pasted over another. Lips become eyes, a face features seven mouths, outsized and mis-scaled noses and mustaches are pasted over faces spray-painted red or yellow. A single large eye covers two, creating a grotesque cyclops. Rather than being a signifier of savoir-faire, cigarettes become a sign of freakishness. And from each face emerges a talk balloon saying, “ism ism.” DeLanda’s advertising mash-ups, while exuding a bizarre and compelling anarchy, like that of the Situationists, revel in their intentionality.
Souto’s photographs – in which advertising images juxtapose to create new images and ad copy combines to generate unexpected texts in a throwback to Surrealist text montaging games – certainly recall the work of the Situationists and DeLanda. However, the scenes that Souto pulls out of the seen environment are anything but intentional. As Souto is quick to point out, the art that he is presenting (indeed, creating) is accidental. These intentional images (as framed and extracted) by the photographer are the results of unintentional vandalism, destruction, decay.
I have, up to this point, avoided discussing the book as physical or material object. As I spent time with this volume, something sat uneasily with me. The overwhelming number of images presented in this unrelenting flow seemed just right, yet . . . I wanted something more solid, more substantial for their presentation. It somehow seemed too . . . insubstantial for the solid surfaces it was depicting. The soft cover volume measures 9” x 7,” a rather small size as photobooks go. To hold it in one’s hand, it is flimsy, infirm. Almost catalog-like. And in that recognition I realized a key to the significance of this book as physical object. Whereas Debord and DeLanda sought to wage a war of subversion against commodity culture (a war even Debord realized was unwinnable), Souto’s work depicts a transformation, a devolution of the once coveted and desired into residua; the inevitable declension of the once seductive and alluring. While Souto comments in his introduction on the transformation of advertising imagery into correlatives of “renowned” art, these correspondences are also transitory. The book object, itself insubstantial, almost zine-like, wears its evanescence clearly.
Shelley’s poem from 1818, with which I open this review, points to the inevitability of decay and destruction of which Souto’s images offer abundant evidence. The transience of advertising images is reflected in the ephemerality of their presentation, which renders them available to become art – or incoherence, or even nothing – in the viewer’s eyes. Souto takes “vengeful joy” in the wanton destruction of these images which, we could argue, are themselves destructive in their own way, as he witnesses the intertwining of the ravages of time with the bored and angry impulses of vandals. Thus, Souto’s act of creative vengenance, Ad Removal as Modern Art, poses a question to Shelley across the centuries, and Shelley softly answers: “Nothing beside remains . . . The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Steve Harp is Associate Professor at The Art School, DePaul University.
Ad Removal as Modern Art, Adel Souto
Photographer: Adel Souto, born Cuba, currently resides Brooklyn, NY
Publisher: Anima & Animus Press, Inc. (New York, New York, copyright 2020)
Introduction: Adel Souto
Paperback book, perfect bound, printed Miami, Florida, USA.
Photobook designer: Adel Souto
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