Sara Cwynar’s Marilyn

Red Film, 2018 Ed. of 5 + 2 AP
16mm film transferred to video (colour, sound)
All works: Sara Cwynar, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Review by Olivia Whittick

Marilyn Monroe’s body, a reclining nude in a classical painting, a model from an online shopping site—Sara Cwynar is known for reassembling objects of desire. Symbols of beauty are presented here, in the artist’s solo show, Marilyn, just as they are in advertising, stressing an important through-line in the two worlds and in the affects they produce. Cwynar’s project is in surveying the object-life of visual matter, pulling focus on the bizarre ephemera of commercial goods, and in doing so offering a feeling of desire that leads not to a check-out, but only back to itself. Her bright collages, sumptuous and appetizing, offer the same eye-candy appeal that window shopping might, asking us to look at the desire to consume and how that desire is produced, how it lives in our bodies. By collecting the objects and imagery at the source, and re-contextualizing them, the goal of these images shifts, away from fuelling the engine of the endlessly insatiable void, towards their service as art. In doing so, Cwynar pushes us to ask questions like: What does desire do? What end does it serve? 

In Red Film, the third in a trilogy dissecting consumer culture, Cwynar studies how desire is channelled through seductive and success-signifying red objects—lipstick, jewelry boxes, fashion models, a mid-80s Mustang convertible. The artist speaks over the looping imagery, her own voice replaced with an assertive male voice-over, declarative, assured. It is experienced like a How It’s Made video, but for the culture itself, objet petit a going under the microscope. How It’s Made: Desire. Cwynar’s work is an I Spy aggregation of objects, artifacts, and visual materials, taking once straightforward, single-purpose information and reassembling it so that it functions more like a case-study. Using red “SALE” signage, footage of Times Square, and other blatant symbols of our culture of consumption, Cwynar examines, not unlike predecessors Barbara Kruger (another red fan) or Jenny Holzer, the psychically strange yet physically potent feeling of consumer desire. Its meaninglessness, its inhumanity, and yet, its deeply visceral hold.

The repetition of images and statements in Cwynar’s work mirrors the cyclical nature of buying and selling. In this process, everything—art, ideas, bodies—are reduced to objects, over and over again. Red Film takes a myriad of philosophical and artistic texts—from Barthes, Lacan, Irigaray, Sontag and more—and incorporates them into a video-work that reads like a high-concept ad. The soothing narratorspeaking to the distinction in reds, to the impossible, commercial reds the film has illustrated—says: “There is blood red, darker than red.” He asks, “Is there a heart here?” To be human now is to desire, to objectify and be objectified by a framework carefully crafted to reduce, reproduce, entice. And that itself is worth examining—what we want as a culture is more telling about who we are as a culture than anything else. “What is remembered in your body is well-remembered,” reverberates the voice of Cwynar’s breathless salesman.  Sara Cwynar’s Marilyn is on view digitally at The Approach, London through April 30th. 


This film documents the projection of Red Film (2018) as well as 6 other films displayed to the left and to the right. Sara Cwynar: Marilyn, 2020, The Approach, London.

installation view

installation view

Tobacco Silk 2 (Ceramic Art, Women’s Wrestling League), 2020 Ed. of 3 + 2 AP
Archival pigment print mounted on Dibond
76.2 x 86.4 cm

Formula 1 Racing Car from MoMA Collection, 2020 Ed. of 3 + 2 AP
Archival pigment print mounted on Dibond
76.2 x 101.6 cm

Red Rose II, 2020 Ed. of 3 + 2 AP
Metallic chromogenic print mounted on Dibond
76.2 x 61 cm