Morag Keil: Would You Eat Your Friends?

Real Fine Arts, New York, 28 June – 27 July

By Laura McLean-Ferris

Morag Keil, Eyes, 2014, oil on canvas, 30 × 91 cm. Courtesy the artist and Real Fine Arts, New York

‘Would you eat your friends?’ is the question spelled out on the wall – in a ‘ransom demand’ – styled font resembling letters cut from newspaper headlines – at the entrance to Morag Keil’s exhibition. Inside is a suite of Piss Paintings (all works 2014) – copper paint that has been ‘oxidised’ by a stream of urine in the style of Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings (1977–8). These are accompanied by a group of Tabloids: lo-fi, lo-res prints of images dragged off the Internet and unceremoniously hung in two rows. Elsewhere in the space is a single painting – a cartoonish pair of flirtatious feminine eyes executed in violet paint on white canvas, hung overlooking a plastic mock-Tudor doll’s house streaked with paint on the exterior, and a screengrab print of the artist’s Mac desktop, which has as its wallpaper the classic Oliviero Toscani 1989 Benetton ad of a white baby being fed from the breast of a black woman.

But let’s deal with that opening question. Would I eat my friends? Sure. I eat friends all the time, and they eat me too. I’ve got no problem with it. Neither did the German Romantic Novalis: ‘It is a genuine trope to substitute the body for the spirit – and, at a commemorative dinner for a friend, to enjoy, with bold, supersensual imagination, his flesh in every bite, and his blood in every gulp.’ I do have a problem with ‘greasy motherfuckers’, though (invoked in this show’s memorable press-release text, written by critic and curator Kari Rittenbach), strangers, corporations and distant acquaintances drawing me into relationships I never asked for, gulping down my data and records of my behaviour to be sliced and diced by algorithms and fed back to me. I end up eating and being eaten by these when I’m not paying enough attention.

It seems cannibalism is back on the agenda: the postapocalyptic ‘big-idea’ blockbuster this summer was Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2014 – see ArtReview Asia, vol 2 no 1, May 2014). This zero-irony allegory for the capitalist labour system in death spiral is set on a train housing humanity’s only survivors, 99 percent of whom are forced into cannibalism by the conditions imposed on them by the privileged 1 percent. The heroic protagonist confesses in a melodramatic denouement – spoiler alert – that ‘babies taste the best’.

Keil’s nightmarish cannibalistic picturing of capitalism in the present moment is not set on a train, but in the intercourse between online spaces and real estate. Several of the Tabloid printouts on the wall appear to feature images taken from badly lit, decrepit, depressingly depicted rooms offered for rent on sites like Gumtree and Craigslist. Others include a cappuccino-brandishing digital ad for a high-end London estate agent, Felicity J. Lord; and a photograph of a billboard ad featuring a bikini-clad model, as newly built apartment blocks reach up into grey London skies. There’s a jarring clash between airbrushed ads and pixelated realities that circulates around living spaces.

What I take Keil’s installation to be getting at – the repeated motifs of ads and grim homes, those pretty violet eyes watching gracefully over the doll’s house like yet another billboard (and perhaps bringing to mind the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg), the invocation of cannibalism and friendship – is the cannibalistic economies of online relationships, now wide-open to monetisation, branding and enabling outlandish levels of intimacy with corporations, strangers, the NSA. Benetton’s suckling baby was born into a world in which it has become common practice to perform ‘friendship’ – in order to earn jobs or good grace, or to plunder friends’ connections. The driving fiction of this behaviour is that you are an ad for yourself; if you’re lucky it will put a roof over your head, but in reality it probably won’t. Keil’s Piss Paintings (perhaps featuring the urine of friends) look less like a satirical take on big-dick painters such as Jackson Pollock (as Warhol’s apparently were) and more like a defiant, ineffectual show of bodily retaliation by someone who knows they’re in a losing game. Pissed off, pissing in the wind. Following Warhol, there’s no question that the piss here can be easily monetised, but we’re hungry, so whatever.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue