Following her residency at the Capp Street Project at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Paris based collective artist Claire Fontaine presented an exhibition entitled Redemptions. Redemptions is a singular art work that radically transformed the space of the gallery, and obliged the viewer to perceive the artwork as an oppressive presence, almost a threat. The installation consisted of thousands of aluminum cans stashed in plastic bags, presenting itself as a metaphor but it also had an intense material and sculptural accumulation. Redeemed from their status as “trash,” the crowd of cans took on an unexpected beauty. Their hollowness reminds us of the disappeared liquids absorbed into multitudes of unknown bodies, and their material presence seeks to trace the paths of vagrants, homeless, and unemployed people that collect these empty shells.
Redemptions can also be interpreted in relation to Claire Fontaine’s specific concern with the use value of objects in culture. Suspending for a moment the continuous cycle of exploitation of the cans (used, abandoned, melted and re-used virtually forever), the artist created a form of redemption for them. Transforming them out of their value-less and meaningless condition into art objects, Redemptions also alluded to the possibility of salvation for people who are continuously evicted from the productive cycle and deprived of a destiny by poverty. Redemption can be seen here as both a material process of re-use, and a messianic hope for a superior social and human justice that will repair the wrongs.
In the third Thesis on the Concept of History Walter Benjamin writes of a redeemed humanity, for whom the totality of the past is quotable and nothing is lost for history. For Benjamin, redemption is defined as the full ownership and accessibility of history by everyone; this accessibility to both an individual and a collective destiny takes place under the sign of happiness. But this happiness isn’t a new one. Rather, it’s the familiar joy and fulfillment we are used to, that comes from habits, repetition, and familiar possibilities As he explains: “the kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.”