Michael Krebs, "Surplus 5"
March 3 - April 14, 2012, dnj Gallery, Santa Monica
The declared premise underlying Vienna-based Michael Kreb’s series of large, staged photographs titled “Surplus” — that consumers are victims of a corporate psychological warfare campaign to induce them to buy goods they do not need — is, quite frankly, stale. The short-lived age when working people could actually afford something beyond subsistence is over. Capitalism is now running backwards, returning us to the austere inequalities of the Depression era. There is indeed a war going on, a good old-fashioned class war whose soft targets are not consumers (a homogenizing and ideologically pernicious category that lumps together buyers of peanut butter with buyers of private jets) but the vast sections of the working and middle classes that almost overnight have joined the ranks of precarious labor.
Michael Krebs, "Surplus 5," 2011, digital c-print, 24 1/2 x 47".
That said, Krebs’s idea of restaging some of the more widely known images from conflict zones as marketplace tableaus generates some arresting détournements whose kick derives not from any dubious critique of consumerism but from what they reveal of the obscene intersections of business, marketing, and war.
Perhaps the most successful of these, "Surplus 3" is the restaging of Joe Rosenthal’s "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" as the raising of a For Sale sign by a group of realtors in front of a (foreclosed?) house, the bloody acquisition of a strategic piece of foreign real estate displaced onto the commercial liquidation of a home. Another jarring transposition, "Surplus 2" reworks Nick Ut’s photo of napalmed nine-year-old Vietnamese Kim Phuc running toward the camera as a hypersaturated shot of a girl walking the doll-lined aisle of a toy store. In the context of the transposition, the dolls in their boxes take on the association of bodies shelved in a morgue. "Surplus 1" is a shot of an obese woman with a baguette in one outstretched arm and a shopping bag full of groceries in the other falling backwards is an eye-catching composition on its own. The whole thing is enhanced by the contrast between the pastel tints of her skin and T-shirt and the overall grey of her stark surroundings. In this case, however, the reference to Robert Capa’s famous photograph of an antifascist Spanish soldier falling on the battlefield seems like gratuitous profanation. The conceptual limitations imposed by Krebs’ generic of warfare and shallow antipathy to an equally generic consumerism becomes apparent.
From here, things go downhill. "Surplus 5" is a restaging of the photograph of the Chinese man holding up a column of tanks at the time of the Tiananmen massacre as an image of a man in a parking lot confronted by a block of shopping carts works nicely as a composition but falls flat as witticism. Again, the tactic of restaging conflict is at fault here. When Krebs casts Che Guevara as a crucified Jesus ("Surplus 4"), we have crossed over into pretentiousness, and worse, into unoriginal cringe-making pretentiousness: back in 1999, the Church of England caused a minor stir by launching an advertising campaign based on a poster of Che’s head bearing a crown of thorns.
Kreb’s considerable talent for staging exceeds the use to which he has put it. The notion of surplus seems capable of a greater wealth of connotations, than he has extracted from it. I’d recommend reading a little Marx and Bataille.