Newton’s three laws of the physical world are beautifully illustrated by Der Lauf der Dinge (‘the way things go’). This is a 1987 video by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. ‘It follows the domino effect of a series of simple objects such as string, soap, styrofoam cups, rubber tires, plastic pails, balloons, and mattresses; when combined with fire, gas, and gravity, these objects form a hypnotic chain of kinetic energy that disturbs the viewer with its chaotic potential. [ 1 ] Disturbed enough to want a pint of Guinness? [ 2 ] If you haven’t seen it on TV, have a look on Youtube and you will see the Guinness advertisement using the same idea to sell pints, as does the Honda Accord ad to sell cars. [ 3 ] Art and advertising have collided, the boundaries are blurred and it will be helpful if you keep in mind the ‘hypnotic chain’ of The Way things go as we explore how advertising and ‘curated’ art impact on a small city, in this case Cork, in Ireland.
Once when I was asking directions in Ireland, I was told; “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.” Using that logic, let’s not start in Cork, but Skibbereen at the West Cork Art Centre (WCAC). In March / April 2008 it exhibited Curating degree zero (CDZ), “…a touring archive of curators’ work, which contains material (catalogues, articles, videos, CD’s, images and websites)…” that charts the rise of the role of the curator as a type of ‘middleman’ in the art world over the past decade. [ 4 ] As I pondered the curator’s role and took in the diverse written material in the gallery, I thought of something I had recently read by Bob Isherwood. Isherwood is Worldwide Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi. [ 5 ]
We operate in an attention economy because this is the age of over- information. To give you some idea of scale, it’s estimated that one edition of the New York Times, contains more information than a person in 17th century England would gather in a lifetime. [ 6 ]
Isherwood’s Saatchi and Saatchi is an advertising company; however, they dropped the word ‘advertising’ from their name in 1992 to become an ‘ideas’ company. Charles Saatchi, the art collector, along with his brother Maurice, founded Saatchi and Saatchi; however, they parted ways with the company in 1995.
Damian Hirst, whose career began with the help of Charles Saatchi, became an international brand name associated with controversy and tabloid sensation. The rise of the contemporary curator can be traced back to the same period as the emergence of Hirst and Saatchi on the London art world, which coincidentally also coincides with the rise of branding. Are they interlinked? Certainly branding is linked to Saatchi’s advertising career and to Hirst’s profile; Hirst’s first group exhibition was not only as an artist but also as a curator ( Frieze ). But what did this grow out of? Reaganomics, Thatcherism, the ’80s?
“The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multi-national corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” [ 7 ] This trend is well documented in Naomi Klein’s book No logo [ 8 ], in which she reveals that ‘branding’ can lead to a rejection of responsibility to the local as the multi-national strives for maximum profits by outsourcing all production internationally. The organisation essentially becomes a virtual company without loyalty to any one locality.
In the ’80s Charles Saatchi was well versed in the conceptual shifts in business and advertising for his company was at its peak. It had helped in “…creating advertising campaigns for clients such as Margaret Thatcher, the pro-apartheid South African National Party, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and many other government-owned institutions…" [ 9 ] Charles Saatchi also knows the art world and would have been aware that the conceptual art movements of the sixties and seventies and their rejection of the object prefigured the arrival of branding in business
The London ‘art world’, even if it has global aspirations and consequences, is an insular and localized place, as Charles Saatchi reveals when he says “Dealers tend to buy artists that other artists they already show recommend. If you’re not in the loop, if you didn’t go to the right art school, if you don’t know the right people who have the right dealers, it’s very hard to break in.” [ 10 ] The most prominent artist associated with Saatchi is of course Hirst.
Hirst’s fame has reached the point where the Glucksman Gallery in Cork has put Hirst’s name at the top of an exhibition billing to advertise their exhibition, The Inevitable show (reproducing fame). The Glucksman appropriates Hirst’s name but is not exhibiting his work. What they exhibit is a recent exhibition advertisement for one of his shows (signed by Hirst) in the gallery. This apparently allows the gallery to use Hirst’s celebrity name ‘legitimately’ as a signature draw-card on the bill. In advertising, it might be known as a guerrilla campaign, but in reality it is a cheap gimmick. It’s important to note that the Hirst poster in the gallery still reads as an advertisement – if only for celebrity memorabilia.
Another example of where contemporary art and advertising collide is the John Lewis ads that used their commercial products to make figurative shadows. It was obviously derivative of Sue Webster and Tim Noble’s [ 11 ] art. Now one might argue that Noble and Webster do not have a patent on shadows and are heavily indebted to Shigeo Fukuda [ 12 ]; however, it is an example of identifiable cross-referencing between contemporary art and advertising. Even more explicit is the current exhibition of Takashi Murakami at the Brooklyn Museum. “Mr. Murakami, who is frequently called the Japanese Andy Warhol…” [ 13 ] has installed a Louis Vuitton shop or boutique “smack in the middle of an exhibition in one of the borough’s most venerable art institutions?” [ 14 ] Or in Dublin, the Hugh Lane Gallery is currently exhibiting Julian Opie’s electronic billboards that ‘advertise’ Julian Opie’s work on O’Connell Street. Opie until recently was on the Board of the Tate Modern.
Then there is Seán Lynch exhibiting another advertising billboard at the National Sculpture Factory (NSF) in Cork. The billboard is the subject of another review, to appear in the summer 2008 issue of Circa, so there is no need to go deeply into the work except to say Lynch exhibited another work with the same title at the Glucksman Gallery last year. That exhibition, Overtake, the reinterpretation of modern art, curated by René Zechlin and Matt Packer (who until recently worked in the bookshop of the ICA) [ 15 ], suggests strongly that the Glucksman has influenced the NSF in the selection of Lynch. The Glucksman’s Director, Fiona Kearney, was previously Programme Co-ordinator at the National Sculpture Factory and wrote a paper titled ‘Alternatives to propaganda’. [ 16 ]
If the Glucksman influences the NSF one might ask who is influencing the Glucksman?
One needs to look into the Glucksman’s bookshop. There amongst the books that venerate the gallery’s architecture you will find Tate Modern-branded product for sale. A British cultural institution’s commercial product being sold by an Irish university gallery’s shop seems odd, but then the Tate also regards itself as an international ‘brand’ [ 17 ] and it openly states they want to make money. [ 18 ] The Tate’s commercial creep into the Glucksman reveals they are also selling the Glucksman a Krensian vision – but what is a Krensian vision?
Recently the Board of the Guggenheim announced that their controversial Director Thomas Krens was stepping down. Krens has symbolised one side of a cultural debate where museums are transformed into ‘brand’ identities and behave more like multinational companies. “… Some critics argue that Krens has in effect turned the Guggenheim into a McDonald’s-like franchise …” [ 19 ] complete with signature architecture for each building. “Krens has drawn criticism for some of his programming choices, including a show devoted to Armani suits underwritten by the fashion house itself.” [ 20 ] Some say Krens “…has actually created a model for expansion that is being copied by institutions around the world, including the Tate in Britain…” [ 21 ]
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde stated that “All art is quite useless.” Well, not any more. Advertising and cultural institutions have found a use for art and this can be seen at the Tate Modern when you visit the shop attached to the current DADA exhibition. There you can buy a catalogue for under £20 or you can buy the limited edition ‘Man Ray-inspired’ chess set for £30,000! [ 22 ] Modernism once offered different possibilities, for it recognised the pitfalls of the future. “…to prevent art’s authenticity, criticality, and life force from becoming one with advertising, propaganda, and the maw of capitalist consumerism, you need to keep art separate, pure, and involved with questions of its proscribed disciplines. Such a strategy would preserve fine art.” [ 23 ] It would seem the ultimate post-modernist irony that the museums which built their identities (brand or reputation) on the Modernist project would ultimately sell out to satiate their contemporary commercial aspirations. Curators seem willingly involved and are playing the role of ‘middle management’ in this process.
The National Sculpture Factory is at the end of this international curatorial food chain and the way it goes is that the Krensian Guggenheim influences the Tate, the Tate influences the Glucksman and then the Glucksman influences the National Sculpture Factory. Look at the recent announcement by the NSF that the international artist they have selected as part of three upcoming Cork commissions is Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. [ 24 ] Google his full name and the very first site on the list is none other than the Guggenheim Museum. Google also reveals that Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle exhibited at the Tate Liverpool (along with Takashi Murakami, who exhibited a poster!) during a recent Liverpool Biennale .Now google Manglano-Ovalle along with Anna Gaskell and you will find they share some major exhibitions together, including at the Guggenheim. Gaskell was featured in an exhibition at the Glucksman Gallery in 2005 titled Through the looking glass curated by Fiona Kearney…
Charles Satchi might say that is just the way things go; however, does Krens’ departure from the Guggenheim suggest that things are about to change? And if so, how long will we have to wait for that change to filter through the system and to Cork?
John Kelly is an artist based in County Cork. He is represented by Agnews in London Niagara Galleries in Australia. His work can be viewed at the Fenton Gallery in Cork.
The original images from this article are no longer available.