Sara Cwynar’s (and our) love of tape

I was always told that tape could fix anything. Still to this day, that expression is said with a smile, with a knowing that it isn’t entirely true, but some of it is. And even if tape can’t do everything, it carries a bizarre weight of collective value because of what it can do and how it does those things. It fixes. It builds. It conceals. It reveals. It decorates. It seals. NASA even use it. It’s affordable, a humble technology that you don’t need training or a qualification to use. All you need is some money from a forgotten trouser pocket and it can be yours in a twenty-first century rainbow of colours; orange, pink, vanilla, yellow, plum, neon green, desert tanned brown or any other CYMK combination you desire. It can be patterned, transparent, one inch wide, four inches wide, ten metres long, fifty metres long. One fantastical empire.

Tape is also one of the first things I look for in Sara Cwynar’s work. It appears in 141 Pictures of Sophie 1, 2 and 3, See Thru Phone, her well known film Soft Film, 432 Photographs of Nefertiti and less conspicuously in Gold - NYT April 22, 1979 (Alphabet Stickers). There are few works where it doesn’t show itself. From its frequent appearance, it’s evident that Cwynar values tape. But value is an elusive term that is always in flux. Its meaning is dependent on who you ask and how it’s used, and Cwynar knows this well. Do you see an icon of utilitarian materials recast into a fragment of high culture, placed within arrangements that revel in their aesthetic value? Or do you see the tape as the persistent beauty of the ordinary, butting up against the white walls that the work will inevitably be shown against? Either way, value can be found somewhere. Has Cwynar created this value? Maybe tape has always been beautiful. Perhaps we have just never noticed. When tape is set amongst other quotidian materials, as it is here, it underlines the notion that value can emerge through the very act of framing itself. Cwynar has offered us new ways of seeing, and a material we thought we knew now only accentuates the slippery idea of value. Where is value located? How does it ebb and flow? Why does Cwynar like pink tape in one photograph and yellow tape in another?

Tape is a material that is bound to the act of construction. It is precisely this inseparable relationship that makes it an incisive mirror for the idea of value in a capitalist system. Usually, amid our need to consume, we knowingly look past the physical and theoretical seams where value is constructed; as long as the finished product satisfies our present desire, we will rarely pause to question how its value came to be. We know that perceived value and inherent value can be pulled away from each other for the sake of the market. We know value can be manufactured, advertised and sold, but often, we will push such realisations to the fringes of thought so we can continue on our rollercoaster of pleasure. In Cwynar’s work, however, it is different. We can’t ignore the brightly coloured tape; the tape that paradoxically ensures each piece’s wholeness whilst also interrupting its coherence. We see each piece’s construction, deftly emphasised by Cwynar’s tape. We’ve seen such joins before when buying the latest something, but this time we are confronted with seams too vivid to look past. Cwynar wants us to pause, to see the seams in her work, to know it’s all a fabrication and to engage with the grand mystery of value.

Cwynar, however, isn’t passing judgement, and neither is she cynical. On the contrary, she seems content being complicit in both the systems that form the foundation of her own work and offering a subtle critique at the same time. eBay is her nirvana and from it (and other sources) she has amassed a collection of hundreds of objects from lilac telephones to velvet jewellery boxes and Avon presidential cologne bottles, each one carrying a value in some way dear to Cwynar. Humans are creatures of peculiar and fantastical desires, and how one person perceives value is just as real as how the next person does, even if they sit across from each other. Cwynar is aware of all of this, and she wants us to be too. I wonder how many rolls of tape Cwynar has.