With the championing of minimalism in the face of environmental disaster, it seems as if consumption has never been more villainized. These attitudes are as much a consequence of the current pace of consumerism as they are a form of retaliation to optimized online shopping platforms and fast fashion conglomerates; the arc of desire now truncated by promises of almost-instant gratification delivered to your doorstep. Amidst the frenzy of accelerated cycles of consumption and existential doom, Sara Cwynar provides a lucid meditation on how and why we consume.

In Glass Life, Cwynar’s new book published by Aperture, the artist uses collection and collage to reveal the intimacy in the inanimate. In photographic works like “Tracy (Gold Circle)” (2017) and “Tracy (Pantyhose)” (2017), Cwynar frames her subject, the artist’s friend and muse Tracy Ma, with swaths of saturated color and layers of found objects, creating a flattened image that studies how the material can be internalized and projected across the gendered body. These objects, which include thrift store detritus like the home photographs of strangers and discarded glass perfume bottles, are made precious through the act of selection. Here, Cwynar interrogates the relationship objects have with the construction of identity, beauty, and perception, a sentiment echoed in a phrase Cwynar uses in her short film, “Red Film” (2018): “It is inevitably oneself that one collects.” Accompanied by incisive essays by Legacy Russell and Sheila Heti as well as an illuminating conversation between the artist and Rose Bouthillier, Glass Life is not a condemnation of consumerism, but rather a gleeful invitation to play voyeur to the pleasures and discomforts of accumulation.

From Glass Life (Aperture, 2021; © Sara Cwynar)

In an essay on the history of literary citation, the journalist Sophie Haigney identifies the citation as a medium for conversation between the past and the present. Similarly, Cwynar uses citations, which are provided alongside Glass Life’s transcripts of her informal trilogy — “Soft Film” (2016), “Rose Gold” (2017), and “Red Film” (2018) —  to create context for the past and present lives of the collections of found objects highlighted within the works. Annotations on vintage, earth-toned melamine tableware and half-used cologne bottles in the shape of presidential busts are playful explorations in the passage of time and its impact on the booms and busts of consumption under capitalism.

According to the artist Mindy Seu, who created the Cyberfeminist Index, citation is a political act — a medium for democratizing knowledge and information that also makes visible the work and contributions of individuals who are often rendered invisible by mainstream narratives. In Glass Life’s marginalia, Cwynar maps her films’ source material across history, theory, and price, creating a rich text that mirrors the networked, almost schizophrenic logic with which we have taught ourselves to use search engines and thus, navigate the internet. Through reference and powerful image-making, the artist surfaces the self, revealing our own patterns of desire and relationships with capital that typically go unnoticed, often buried in search histories and tracked clicks.

From Glass Life (Aperture, 2021; © Sara Cwynar)

As an artist whose practice is predicated on the act of online shopping and the collection of objects, eBay serves as the perfect medium for Cwynar — a sort of “Wild West” of digital marketplaces where one can find the same object for vastly different prices. For the habitual shopper, it is this potentiality that fuels the thrill of the hunt. For Cwynar, it is an illustration of what she has called the “indictment of arbitrariness” — proof that the values we prescribe to objects are not necessarily dictated by the rules of supply and demand but rather an individual’s taste and preferences. However, with mass-marketing and trend-forecasting, the space for such arbitrariness and thus, individuality, is becoming more and more uncommon. In Glass Life, Cwynar’s meticulously assembled photographs and films render consumption as a tool for self-curation. Having sifted through trash and deemed it treasure, Cwynar asks: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to be?”

Sara Cwynar, “Sahara from SSENSE.com (As Young as You Feel)” (2020), from Glass Life (Aperture, 2021; © Sara Cwynar)

Sara Cwynar: Glass Life (2021) is now available on Bookshop.

Isabel Ling is a writer and researcher originally from the Bay Area, who is currently based in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in publications like The Outline, Eater, and The Verge. You can find...