“I’m interested in how objects reflect cultural moments, and I’m trying to figure out…why we value what we value.”
Why do societies value some things but not others? This is one of the many questions Conceptual artist Stephanie Syjuco explores in her shape-shifting work, which spans photography, sculpture, installation, performance, and digital networks. As Syjuco puts it, “I’m interested in how objects reflect cultural moments, and I’m trying to figure out…why we value what we value.”
Born in the Philippines, Syjuco was three years old when she and her mother immigrated to the United States. Her curiosity about what it means to be an “authentic Filipino”—combined with a spirit of antiestablishment irreverence and a generous impulse towards collaboration—propelled many of her early performances and installations. In her 2009 performance COPYSTAND, Syjuco and other artists created a shop at the Frieze Art Fair, where they made and sold deeply discounted counterfeit “copies” of artworks for sale elsewhere at the same fair. The following year, for the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s 1969 exhibition, Syjuco constructed copies of sculptures by the German Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and the American sculptor Robert Morris—works in MoMA’s collection that were deemed too fragile to exhibit—out of various objects she had collected. In both projects, Syjuco explored notions of originality and authenticity, which typically impact how a viewer might perceive an artwork’s meaning and value.
If Syjuco’s performances encourage a viewer to question an object’s value, her photographs point out our tendency to associate photographs with concepts of truth or documentary. The series Cargo Cults (2013–17) is styled after historic ethnographic studio portraits, like those made of people in the Philippines during the 19th and 20th centuries. Syjuco’s photographs reference the ways in which women around the world have used textiles to make head and face coverings, such as the niqab worn by some Muslim women. The series demonstrates how the camera and conventions of portraiture can objectify a person and erase cultural differences.
In Cargo Cults: Head Bundle (2013–16), the artist appears in front of fabrics printed in black-and-white chevrons and stripes, enveloped in items that she purchased from big-box stores like Target. Swathed in patterns that fast-fashion producers co-opted into contemporary trends, and that are made by underpaid factory workers, Syjuco’s figure blends into the backdrop. Her costumes, while they appear elaborate, are clearly identifiable from labels and price tags. Syjuco purchased her costumes and props with her credit card and later returned them for a refund. Using the tools of photography, she reveals our own society’s reverence for commodities, and for the ways that patterns and styles have filtered into contemporary dress—a process writer Emily Holmes calls “the commodification of cultural appropriation.”
The series’ title, Cargo Cults, is a problematic term coined by anthropologists in the 1940s to describe tribes in the Pacific Islands that formed religions around commodities. Ethnographic photographs made by American and European photographers often depicted tribe members as exotic and unfamiliar to viewers back home. In Syjuco’s portraits, gray bars and gradients appear around the edges of each image, or, in Cargo Cults: Cover-Up, at the center of the photograph. These are color-correction tools used in a wide variety of images, including those made by anthropologists, art historians, and product photographers. By including the gray bar, which is typically cropped out of a final image, Syjuco alludes to the ways in which ethnographic photographs are far from being unbiased documents.
Patterned garments also appear in Syjuco’s Applicant Photos series. Featuring grids of the same image repeated six times, these small-scale, passport-style images could have been made in photobooths found in cities around the world. Whereas passport photographs reveal a person’s unique facial features, Syjuco conceals the sitters’ faces with textiles decorated with geometric shapes. Created between 2013 and 2017, amid global migrant crises and a surge of anti-immigration policies in the US, Syjuco’s series reminds viewers that, for millions of people, identity is incriminating. For Syjuco, what unites her work across mediums—from installation and sculpture to performance and video—is the way she interacts with her raw materials. “Whether the concept is about digital networks, a database, or a communication structure,” she has said, “usually there’s some form of evidence, like a processed object, installation, or collection of things. Somehow, I want to make the evidence of these larger ideas.”
Kaitlin Booher, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, 2023