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Tatiana Vahan, A Narrative of An Artist Exploring Capitalism

Hunter Braithwaite

MDC Museum of Art + Design Swing/Space

March 27th – May 4th, 2014

It’s not an accident that the first syllable of bildungsroman—the type of book focused on the maturation of some kid like Goethe’s Young Werther or Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus as a formative process: one of construction, of making—sounds like “building.” Here, Tatiana Vahan presents two narratives—the formation of the artist, and the formation of a series of objects—through the warped lens of contemporary life and capitalism, suggesting perhaps that they are made in similar fashions.

One narrative unfolds as an episodic biography of Vahan, described in the series of press release/wall text hybrids accompanying select works as “an artist.” She has opted for the indefinite article, a strange distancing effect that is almost parabolic. In the first room, one finds “A Narrative of An Artist Exploring Capitalism, Part III, 1998 – 2014.” The text reads: “In 1998, at the age of fifteen, an artist acquired her first legitimate job as a “sandwich artist” at the highest grossing Subway sandwich shop in the United States, located in a strip mall in Kendall, a sprawling suburb in unincorporated Dade County. She worked there for six months.” Next to the text is Vahan’s completed application—an earnest application to earn an honest dollar as a sandwich artist®, but made absurd when you see her former employers as Andrea Zittel and François Ghebaly.

On the floor is a thigh-high stack of 10,000 Subway applications, an unexpected baring of influences. Of course it’s paperwork, it’s labor, but it’s also Félix González- Torres, and with that, the de la Cruz collection, and Vahan’s growing up in Miami and BFA from New World. She’s wearing her influences on her sleeve, but then again, such is youth.

The next room contains the second part of Vahan’s narrative. In 2004, the text reads, “an artist stole a bottle of wine from a gas station in Key Biscayne, Fl.” If private property is theft, then theft is, at least in the state of Florida, public domain. Vahan’s mugshot from the shoplifting incident was posted on the website Enlarged versions are on the gallery, her spritely face a pixelated Rimbaud by way of Bonnaroo. Two have been defaced—scraped with one of the three found scraps of sculpture found in her studio that make up “The Magic Mountain”. The title of the sculpture, a reference to Thomas Mann novel in which the young protagonist spends seven bildungsjahre in an alpine sanatorium. But beyond the titular connection to the exhibitions’ theme, one struggles to place the objects as pieces of art or as symbols of discourse.


Flanking the left wall of the main gallery are seven professional headshots that would normally be rejected (Vahan’s eyes are closed, or she’s about to laugh) but here are framed in dialogue with the mugshot in the previous gallery. These forms of portraiture stand equidistant from our commonly held ideas of what a portrait should be, and with that, our notions of beauty. On two worktables in the center of the room are several cast plaster forms evincing the frame or a two dimensional work of art. These were made during select hours, suggesting that artists are just another type of worker, and the art object, another type of product. A video playing at the far end of the gallery shows the plaster being mixed by an artist other than Vahan. I’m sure there is a conversation about the relationship between labor, value, and the production of art, but I’m not sure how interesting it is. Instead, I wished the exhibition stayed closer to its literary roots. Although the form of the exhibition is based on the bildungsroman, Vahan’s work is closer to the picaresque novel. I mean this in both structure and style. Structurally, a bildungsroman—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example—has a traditional and pronounced character arc over which the hero develops and changes. The picaresque book, alternately, unfolds as a series of episodes in which a lot happens but people don’t really change. Vahan’s exhibition seems closer to the latter. In an episodic fashion, she is a canny trickster, humorously skewering our ideas of propriety and property. But like all episodic works, the reader is left wanting more.