Joseph Desler Costa – Say Yes

In her essay ‘Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping’, writer Sheila Heti describes one of her shopping lists: “a spiralizer, running shoes, vitamins, books, a pregnancy test, white t-shirts, light bulbs, an iPhone case, a milk frother, batteries.” I like this description and Heti’s plain view of desire because it reminds me that it is not only about big or expensive or fancy things. If anything, desire is more often than not, ordinary. This is not the same thing as saying it isn’t potent. But it does makes me think that for however seductive desire is as an idea, it rarely is in practice. Desire is also messy: hoarded in iPhone folders and across desktops saturated with shift-command-3; sent to friends, rejected, deleted and then recovered after you decide that your friends are wrong. Desire is fifty tabs open for fifty months and paralysis by possibility. How the objects we desire end up in these places is even messier: cruddy adverts that vomit up what you’ve just seen on another tab, crammed in between the paragraphs of even more content and then appearing in another tab until it becomes such a part of your everyday that it is inevitable that you find your way back and click. It’s this repetition, this feeling of “I’ve seen it before” that makes us tick. Or you buy simply because you see someone else buy.

Say Yes is about how desire works and the way that we endlessly pedal and spin it to ourselves.

What Heti’s list misses out (although not by any fault) is that desire is never just a list. It is always many lists, endless lists, some similar and some not. No matter how neat Heti’s list looks, each item is only the front door into a world made up of itself: a world of iPhone cases, all similar but different. Part of this is simply because there are different iPhones, but part of it is because desire is always plural. Sontag said something similar in her comment that consumption is about using up but also the need to replenish. It’s always about what’s next. Baudrillard thought the same, “just one object no longer suffices: the fulfilment of the project of possession always means a succession”. Later he writes, “this is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time”. So far then, we could say that desire is ordinary, messy and plural.

From this, I finally find a way to start writing about Say Yes by Joseph Desler Costa. It too is about desire and consuming and the stories we tell ourselves and are told about the things we buy. But Say Yes offers a desire that feels different to Heti’s. On the surface it looks similar. The press release says there is, “a tennis racket, a cold beer, a pretty cat, an inflatable flamingo, a fresh pair of kicks, a fast motorcycle”. There are also other things like neon signs and a bottle of Malibu. But unlike the modesty of Heti’s list, Say Yes is polished and silky smooth, printed on shiny thick paper that feels like what I imagine the brochure of an electric car to be made of. Everything is beautiful. This is not surprising: the press materials say that Costa is “adopting the sleek rhetorics of commercial photography” and the “aesthetics of visual advertising”, all to — in those words again — serve as a mirror to our own psyche. In other words, Say Yes is about how desire works and the way that we endlessly pedal and spin it to ourselves.

On paper it’s convincing. In practice, dare I say, maybe less so. In one image, for example, there is a motorbike — the fast motorcycle from the press release — but where I expected the cacophony of wanting something, I find a simple arrangement backed by a tinted baroque sky. There is the motorbike, the sky and two cut-outs in the shape of two hands that look like Micky Mouse’s hands. One is pointing directly at the motorbike. “Buy” it seems to say. Everything — the fast motorbike, guiding hands and dramatic light — add up to an image of wanting, but it all feels too easy. Where is the inertia from hours of browsing for the right exhaust? Or the fatigue from looking at hundreds of other people on their fast motorbikes? Where are the missing wheels from the adverts that promised freedom and unparalleled performance? I can hear the retaliation: this is art, the motorbike doesn’t need wheels. True, and who am I to say this isn’t how wanting plays out in Costa’s imagination. Even then, is it really all this neat and beautiful?

Say Yes is also undeniably singular: the fast motorbike is a fast motorbike, the cat is a cat and the inflatable flamingo is a flamingo, even though we know this isn’t how desire works. It is never just one motorbike but seventeen, all promising the same thing. Instead of replicating the plurals and messiness of desire then, Say Yes has distilled it into neat and tidy images, allowing us eat up glossy pictures of half-naked bodies and half-smoked cigarettes at a speed that feels too slow for the feverish rush of wanting. Other things (all for sale) in Say Yes tread the same path; plucked from the din of indecision and abstracted by hazy Vimto gradients and overlay effects. Maybe I was expecting (perhaps unfairly) something different after all the talk of consumerism; more Gursky in the way that Gursky parrots the vertigo of having everything and more at your fingertips. Instead, Say Yes feels too pared back, too reliant on time-worn symbols; more akin instead to how you might dream of desire or draw it on paper. For Say Yes, this means that much of it lives in an in-between; not close enough to the language of consuming we know for us to recognise our own wants but not far enough to peel that language back and point a finger.

Much of Say Yes lives in an in-between; not close enough to the language of consuming we know for us to recognise our own wants but not far enough to peel that language back and point a finger.

An aside about the beginning of Say Yes. In one of our first emails, I asked Costa for a copy of the introductory essay to Say Yes, which, in the PDF I had, was Lorem Ipsum (placeholder text). His reply: the Lorem Ipsum is the intro – a kind of tongue-in-cheek comment on the idea that books about art need an introduction. A valid question (do they?) but I didn’t know that people felt that way, which made it seem an odd digression to begin a book that at first appeared to be about something very different. Costa then said that it also allowed him to take the work — and himself — less seriously. Art can be fun. In that case, maybe it’s me who’s taken it too seriously and it’s Costa that will have the last laugh.

For all that I’ve said, Say Yes is novel. Not enough, I think, to justify talk of ‘defying traditions’ (a phrase I think is overused), but still — novel. Its cut-out pages, which Costa says were inspired by the way that corporate symbols impose themselves on life, do just that — impose — and make each page feel less solid, as if every idea and image (and maybe desire) is never just its own. Everything is derived, inspired or influenced. Say Yes’ marriage of those symbols too with images and text (snippets of original writing and pulled tweets), silvery ink, ultra-thick paper and its ultra-high gloss finish all make it almost irresistible to touch beyond just turning the page, a haptic playground to brush and stroke. It may sound like a glib trick, but it works, if only to make Say Yes feel more like the thing it sets out to question. It may also seem like an easy compliment, but I’m not alone in thinking that newness is worth talking about. Ernst Gombrich said that novelty “keeps art alive”. The abstract painter Hans Hofmann said that it is “the key to unlocking endless possibilities” and that it shows the “courage to explore uncharted territories”. Some of this is overly lofty, but the crux is important: novelty has value. If we agree, then I think there is a much brighter reading of Say Yes.

Closing Say Yes, I’m left wishing that it wasn’t all as neat and beautiful. I wanted it to be, in some strange way, cathartic; for it to show the messiness and normality of wanting. But just as desire is these things for me, it is something else for someone else. For that person, maybe it is as easy as just saying yes.

All Rights Reserved – Text © Kris Kozlowski Moore
Images © Joseph Desler Costa/MACK/SPBH Editions