“Our goal is to make the image as real and as beautiful as possible…we respect the client’s need to work incognito…that is why we don’t showcase our work on our website”.
This quote from the website of the Indian based photographic retouching studio, cherrytomatoes, gives the lie to the contradictory nature of late capitalism in a nutshell. Like any religion that dazzles the poor and dispossessed with images of paradise, capitalism sells us glossy hyper-real “reality” says Guy Debord. But this reality is so distant from the truth the smoke and mirrors that create it must not be revealed. No one can tell if the Photoshoppers have been at work. It is as if we need a ramped up version of reality to cut through the visual noise. Our senses have become jaded by the accelerating cycle of product innovation.
As covered in blogposts going back to her Goldsmiths MFA show in 2017, Ruth Waters’ work to date has been a subtle and inventive exploration of this contemporary malaise. In her short video, What I Eat in a Day she presents a hilarious and creepy parody of a clean-eating vlogpost. We feel increasingly squeamish as the sequence of clinically perfect Instagrammable plates of food and the clean eating buzzwords pile up. The food’s texture and colours become nauseatingly intense and, as if mirroring our increasing disgust, the unseen vlogger begins a tentative exploration of the food with her fingers. It is not hard to see a link between the harsh lit artificiality of food advertising and the anorexic impulse to reject food when faced with the messy reality.
Clean food also features in Waters’ latest film, Swallow Up (2019), shot in Japan last year and packed with clever insightful touches and a unifying conceptual thread running through it. A plate of salad includes a suspiciously lurid cut tomato but this has not been achieved by digital manipulation. We observe the final stage of the prepping when the analogue equivalent of retouching takes place. A lick of yellow paint is applied to each tomato seed so they do not disappear into the red flesh. This rather spooky image is juxtaposed with interview clips from the Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki and space psychologist Tomio Kinoshita. They speak with animation about the way our disorientation and sense of self is impacted by a visually uniform environment. Yamazaki talks of her scary sensation of being in a “black hole that absorbs everything” when looking out into the blackness of space.
The painted tomato seed is a powerful symbol of how we have lost our way. In our search for certainty we demand seeds that pop out of the background, like the constellations that popped out of the blackness of space Yamazaki says she used to reorientate herself when in orbit. When the roof of the starlit heavens was ripped off by modern cosmology we had to re-imagine our place in the universe. To help us cope with the unnerving sense of infinity capitalism has put the painted roof back on with all its gaudy signs. Image manipulation is just a continuation of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.
The film closes with the anti-spectacle of the sea at night and in the peace it brings we ponder how we got here and how we might find our way out.