For the best part of this summer, a copy of Sara Cwynar’s Glass Life has sat on my desk, waiting to be reviewed. I’ve picked it up countless times, made notes, compared it to things, but until now I’ve not found the right shape for what I wanted to say about it. I’ve wondered why that is, and felt frustrated at times, but then it dawned on me that it’s almost certainly because it’s a publication of such expansive, complex ideas that I simply did not know where to start. It’s taken time, but now I realize that’s the whole point of its design.

Leafing through this photobook is a giddy experience, uneasy even, almost like being on a ride at the funfair. Perhaps best described as a frenetic, visual helter-skelter through consumer-driven image culture, its multilayered, saturated images arrive to the eye in short, intense bursts. Rose Bouthillier, who is in conversation with Cwynar at the beginning of the book, is of a similar opinion, saying that the pace at which the book throws information in our direction feels almost “sickening.” In return, Cwynar explains she has a hypothetical viewer in mind when making work—one “who needs more and more stimulation or I will lose their attention.” As a result, she says, she is always, “trying to strike a balance between too much, stuffing in as much content as I possibly can, and then dialing it back just when I might have lost a viewer.” That’s exactly how this book feels. Stuffed to the brim.

“Louis Vuitton Jeff Koons Rubens Bag,” 2020, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021) © Sara Cwynar

Published by Aperture earlier this year, Glass Life is framed around a trilogy of films by Cwynar—Soft Film (2016), Rose Gold (2017) and Red Film (2018). Reflecting on what the artist calls the “glut of riches” we have in the Western world, these films, and by extension this book, explore 21st century capitalism as it relates to the idea of aesthetics, and considers what part commodification plays in who we ‘are,’ and the versions of ourselves we put out into the world. This is a book about power structures and misogyny, and most importantly, it’s a book about beauty—or more precisely about the construction of beauty, and who owns it, regulates it, and sets the boundaries of what it is and isn’t. Alongside illustrated and annotated transcripts of the films, it also includes two accompanying essays, one by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, and the other by the American curator Legacy Russell.

Film still from “Soft Film,” 2016, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021) © Sara Cwynar

The first third of the book is given over to Soft Film, part one of Cwynar’s trilogy, and it opens with a glossy insert containing images of objects such as velveteen jewelry boxes and porcelain figurines. With its flimsy, shiny paper, this insert is reminiscent of those mail-order catalogues that used to come through our letterboxes pre-internet, filled with pages of non-essential items to lust after. Amongst discursive meditations on themes as broad-ranging as workplace sexism and advertising, Soft Film sets the scene for the book to come before honing in on the warped value we place on objects, and positing the idea that we don’t often notice an object until it’s broken—its absence retrospectively proving its presence.

In the printed transcript of the film, Cwynar talks about the anxiety of accumulation, and goes on to say that there’s an extra anxiety in digital accumulation because it’s essentially limitless, occupying no physical space. Lines like “These are the Nike shoes I got” and “I can’t sleep, so I comb eBay” float out to us in large font, highlighted in different colours. Together with the pictures, these words remind us of the intoxicating allure of newness. Images of camera equipment also punctuate this section, speaking to the role that photography has played in shaping consumer culture too.

Film still from “Rose Gold,” 2017, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021) © Sara Cwynar

The second film the book draws from is Rose Gold—a piece about the emotional impact of color that takes the popularity of the rose gold iPhone as its entry point. “Is the rose gold iPhone a totem? Does it signify an order? Maybe you won’t even remember it all?” says Cwynar. That would all depend, I suppose, on if it was being sold directly to you or not. As a young woman, I remember that year vividly—and rose gold was, quite literally, everywhere. High-street shops were selling everything from plant pots and necklaces in the shade, and a woman in my office purchased a whole suite of rose gold desk supplies that sat glistening in an otherwise grey space.

It was a time of renewed hyper-feminine aesthetics, ‘Millennial Pink’ was beginning to take the market by storm too, and a blushy color called ‘rose quartz’ was voted Pantone’s ‘color of the year.’ Prompts for personal recollection like this one are what makes Cwynar’s approach so affecting, helping us to draw our own experiences into her realm of thought. Elsewhere, Rose Gold is made up mostly of close-ups of eyes and kitschy objects, cut in with more obscurely related subjects, like images of the Hoover Dam, one of America’s first sites of progress and power.

“Tracy (Cézanne),” 2017, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021) © Sara Cwynar

The final film of the trilogy, Red Film, is described by Cwynar as continuing her critique of captialism’s persuasive, constant pressure to consume and conform, and takes a more personal vantage point than the previous two—with the artist herself featuring in the images this time. Hanging upside down in front of the camera, the blood rushes to Cwynar’s head, bulging her eyes and reddening her skin to the point of bursting. This is a reference to Marilyn Monroe, the artist explains, whose X-rays were sold at auction after her death, proving that even her insides had become a commodity at that point. Later, photographs of scarlett lips and production lines at cosmetics factories highlight the gendering of the color red.

Film still from “Red Film,” 2018, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021)

“To create her art,” writes Sheila Heti in the book’s closing essay, “Sara Cwynar spends her money like a consumer: she shops, she collects, she builds up her collection. Like the most distracted hoarder, she throws all of what she collects on her floor in piles. There is some organization to her cataloguing system, but not much.” This essay is a truly apt piece of writing to tie up a book of such complex and meandering themes. It is a piece about wanting to own things without really knowing why beyond seeing an artfully staged image of them, or seeing someone else have them, and it’s also a piece about the relationship between time and money, and how we rarely have both to play with. “Her films are delicious,” says Heti, “I want my life to be the color of her films.” That’s because they are filled with images that adhere to the visual language of advertising in all its glossy and intoxicating style. Or, said another way, Cwynar’s vision is one that employs a system of pure aesthetic seduction that is hard to resist.

“Sahara from (As Young as You Feel),” 2020, from “Glass Life” (Aperture, 2021)

In the end, your reaction to this book will all depend on the sort of viewer, or consumer, you are. Perhaps you feel used to, or overly numbed by, this onslaught of information, and in that case maybe you won’t feel the misplaced sickness that Bouthillier identified. But maybe you are someone who responds best to slowness—who likes the sorts of novels and movies where nothing remarkable happens, for instance—and then this book will be a more intense experience, with its penchant to take you in a hundred directions at once. Either way, though, one thing that is clear is that Cwynar is a truly unique artist, and in Glass Life she’s found ways to visualize worlds of thought I’ve only ever really read about in words before.

Beyond that, this publication is also a truly masterful example of how to translate the experience of film into print. Stills alone aren’t enough if you’re looking to replicate the actual feelings of viewing a film, and few manage to do it effectively. Somehow, in its playful, liberal and intentional layering of images and objects, symbols and ideas, Glass Life has our eyes hungrily scanning pages to take everything in, just as if we were seeing it flicker, momentarily, on a screen.

Sara Cwynar: Glass Life
by Sara Cwynar
Publisher: Aperture
ISBN: 978-1-59711-479-0