When I first saw Nasan Tur’s “Kapital” (2011), a triptych featuring handmade sheets of paper made from the 1957 edition of the three volumes of Das Kapital, in a beautiful yet quite rarefied space of a contemporary art gallery, I didn’t know how to approach it. It felt sacrilegious, even though approaching the artwork in such moralistic terms would contradict with with my secular, Marxist convictions. Upon close inspection, one could even discern the individual letters. What a waste of a beautiful 1957 edition of Marx’s Capital!
The recent controversy about the online availability of Collected Works of Marx and Engels (here is the petition of Marxist scholars and activist to keep it on the public domain and here is a response from Lawrence & Wishart, an independent radical publisher affiliated with the historical Communist Party of Great Britain) puts some of this into perspective. We are indeed in a transitional conjucture (have we ever been not?) where book as a physical object is swiftly becoming an antiquarian entity. Marxists and radicals still have to come to terms with the multifarious implications of this development (in forces of production), precisely because the immaterialization of the object (in this case, manifesting itself in the digitalization of Capital) does not entail the disappearance of the constitutive problem of how to organize the relations of production and reproduction (in this case, manifesting itself in the labor of archival research, editing, writing, and translation).
Doubtless, Tur’s work is not a parable of obsolescence. "The making of" provides an insight that is not initially available for the gallery audience. Tur literally destroys Capital as an object, transforms it into formless goo, and finally turns into a new object. He took a particular (admittedly sublimated) commodity (otherwise why would it be a sacrilege?) and turned it into another (sublimated) commodity. The process of transformation involves not only destruction and production but also abstraction (i.e., the book turned into “dough”). In this sense, the work can be read as a commentary on contemporary art itself as a system of objects. This insertion of Capital, through its reduction into an abstract surface, into this elegant white-cube (located in a district which is itself under transition, once a commercial harbor, now a zone for cultural economy and tourism), must be read as a provocation to consider the institutional and material conditions of valorization in contemporary art.