What does it mean to 'consume'? This new exhibition asks us to reconsider our role in capitalism

Catherine Telford Keogh's "Dental Dam" makes our consumption habits appear grotesque — but beautiful, too.

Catherine Telford Keogh's 'Dental Dam' makes our consumption habits appear grotesque — but beautiful, too

Dental Dam. (Courtesy of the artist.)

The word "consume" can be used many different ways. When we ingest something by eating or drinking, for example, we consume it. An uncontrolled fire consumes the house. If something engages your faculties fully, you are said to be consumed by it. Goods and services are purchased by consumers. When a resource is used up, it has been consumed. It is perhaps instructive that a Middle French ancestor of the word meant "to destroy by separating into parts which cannot be reunited."

The sculpture of Catherine Telford Keogh conflates these various forms. She imagines all of the products that we pick out, purchase and procure ground together, as if by teeth, waiting in some hypothetical stomach to be shuttled down the system. In the domain of her art, we consumers are digestive organs at work in the greater body of capitalism.

The 32-year-old Toronto artist is the subject of a solo exhibition on view now through December 15 at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery.

Dental Dam. (Courtesy of the artist.)

The show is called Dental Dam — like the thin latex sheet used to isolate a tooth during dental procedures or as a prophylactic device for oral sex. "It's used as a barrier between two subjects or a subject and an object," explains Telford Keogh. "Almost all my work tries to explore the boundary between subject and object...That boundary is way more porous than we like to believe." What we consume does become a part of us.

Visitors will first encounter one of three "nutrient pools," which throughout our conversation the artist refers to alternately as puddles and ash trays. The forms recur across Telford Keogh's practice and resemble retail display cases, pills or capsules. Under a round of Plexiglas and standing roughly knee-height, Advil Liqui-Gels, Oreo cereal and Bick's pickles swim among other such sundries, trapped in a substance suggesting stomach acid or bile. A nickel-plated chain — the kind you'd find tethering a pen to the countertop at a bank teller's booth — snakes across the topside surface of the structure. The material list is bloated with the unwieldy and peculiarly styled handles typical of brandnames — Yankee Candle Home Sweet Home Fragrance Spheres, for instance, or FlexFoam-iT! III — and peppered liberally with registered trademark symbols.

Dental Dam. (Courtesy of the artist.)

"I'll use a material because of the way it functions, what it looks like, what it signifies or how it interacts with other materials," Telford Keogh says. She's interested in visual similarities: the Advil and the scented beads are grouped together because they're nearly the same shape. "There's a geometric intimacy," she says. "Once repeated, they start to blend into each other. They become the same." She casts the shapes of cups, hot dog containers, Glad Tupperware — such one-part molds, she notes, represent a revolution in the mass production of plastic consumables — into the foam substructure to nest objects within their empty spaces. The hot dog containers are always filled with Bick's Dill Pickles, she says — a formal play that hints at "fingers and penises" and "because they have this reptilian skin."

Two large sculptures recalling patient chairs — dental or gynecological— command the room and seem to rebuild the purpose of the space around them. They began as performance gaming seats, re-skinned in automotive upholstery fabric and fused into steel tube instrument carts that read as clinical equipment. The shelves are lined with granite (free countertop samples) and hold cafeteria trays containing a mystery liquid, which Telford Keogh explains is saliva, Shell gasoline and a medical cleaning solution called Bio-Pure. In the animal body, saliva kickstarts the digestive system. In the body of capitalism, gas is the propellant that keeps it in motion. Comprised of microbes and enzymes, the Bio-Pure can eat organic matter, such as the spit and the fuel, making an ecosystem. She wants these works to live, each component an organelle inside a larger cellular unit.

Dental Dam. (Courtesy of the artist.)

The sculptures of Dental Dam appear like the sum of our consumption visualized: the fixtures and fare of luxury stores and convenience shops, sporting goods, hygiene products, sexual paraphernalia and foodstuffs all chewed up, churned together and semi-digested. It makes our consumption habits appear grotesque — but beautiful, too. The seduction of the product, its promise, is preserved and palpable. This aspect of the consumer experience is not to be discounted.

Telford Keogh says she often works with items she feels arrested by and drawn toward. The first X Rocker gaming chair, for example, was discovered at a thrift store. It struck her, so she scoured Kijiji to find another. Such cannibalizing is routine in her practice. Her studio was too packed to interview there because she'd just "acquired some new structures" — the pedestals from manicure stations someone was giving away, she says. They look like bumper cars or cryogenic hibernation pods. The possibilities are many. They are again items that called to her, that somehow drew her to them. We are consumers, after all, and the body we serve is very hungry.

Dental Dam. By Catherine Telford-Keough. University of Waterloo Art Gallery. Until December 15. uwag.uwaterloo.ca

About the Author

Chris Hampton

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton