Nearly every major American city contains some version of Industry City, a complex of post industrial warehouses and former manufacturing sites on the Brooklyn waterfront that has been (in the coded parlance of developers) “revitalized” in recent decades as a hub for shopping, dining, and various forms of creative work. Within such spaces, the architecture of industrial production has been refurbished as an idealized, playground-like setting for dematerialized forms of creative labor. Among Industry City’s storefronts, restaurants, and studios, all distinctions between genres of human activity are leveled, rendering their products on the same flattened register — pastries and axe-throwing and ceramics and criminal justice reform alike — approximating the sensation of viewing endless, contextless images through the blue light of a handheld screen.
Industry City and its analogues are temples of cursed virtues: qualities such as adjacency, elasticity, and mobility which are often marketed to creative workers as emancipatory, individualized benefits but are, in practice, restrictive of autonomy and agency. Dena Yago indexes these qualities in a series of paintings titled Cursed Virtues, which defines each within the corresponding shapes of falling leaves shown on paving stones similar to those on the streets of Industry City. The visual style of the works in Industry City draws upon Situationist and Letterist détournements in the comic book form, allowing Yago to synthesize image and text in something akin to a visual essay. This formal strategy also expresses a critique of ideals about individual freedom that emerged alongside the activities of May 1968 — in some ways, the unintentional, recuperated seeds of today’s cursed virtues.
As she has in previous wall paintings and folding-screen, or paravent, works, Yago also inserts characters from popular culture into these illustrated analyses, such as the animated bluebirds from Cinderella (1950) that appear in the screen The Onlookers. Across the three panels that comprise this work, the bluebirds — who, in the film, perform many of the household chores assigned to Cinderella — appear as representations of the emotional, domestic labor that is often invisible within the aestheticized landscape of cultural capitalism. As the bluebirds drowsily sit atop or saunter alongside a construction site wall, their invisible labor has been “contorted in form [and] subsumed by the flow,” as a text box on the wall says.
In Lifecycle, Yago adopts the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) as the protagonist in a narrative that unfolds across a painted, five-panel screen. Native to Asia, the lanternfly gained public attention when swarms of the insect appeared in June 2020 in New York City, where it was quickly characterized as an invasive species. Casting the lanternfly allegorically, the text accompanying the renderings of each stage of its development considers the dynamics between the individual and the collective in a society dominated by sprawling, networked relationships. Below an image of a lanternfly in its late-stage nymph phase, the text box returns to the cursed virtue of adjacency: “To be understood singularly — without association — is impossible in networked society.” In another painting, two colorful lanternflies appear to hover or float above a swarming, anonymized mass of insects shown in black-and-white newsprint tones. A phrase is visible on the outstretched wings of the larger lanternfly that distills the fundamental paradox of Industry City and the contemporary culture it enshrines: EVERYTHING AT ONCE AND NOTHING FOR KEEPS.
- Logan Lockner