Picture this. There is a photograph of a bald, black man's head in profile. His face is out of shot. Just above his ear, centered almost perfectly on his skull, he appears to have been branded – literally scarred – by Nike's iconic swoosh symbol. It is a genuinely simple image – it took me all of four sentences to describe it after all – but it has enormous impact because the two main elements – the Nike swoosh and the ugly history of the branding of American slaves by their owners – are such strong visual cues that the photographer, Hank Willis Thomas, can layered his composition with meaning quite quickly. By appropriating the Nike swoosh as a scar, Thomas is able to create a dialogue around the literal and figural objectification of the African American male body, while the composition also almost immediately talks to how the language of advertising gets embedded in our bodies and how brands start to own people and identities, ultimately making money off them, just as rich white men once made money off their slaves.
Brand appropriation in art is nothing new. Andy Warhol famously employed Campbell's soup cans in his compositions to mimic the monotonous repetition and uniformity of advertising. Jeff Koons has been sued more times than I care to count for ripping off bad advertisements from the 1980s. But when actual brands, and their iconic logos are brought into artworks less mimetically but as an altogether more violent interruption of the brand's standard messages, as is the case with Thomas' work, something more political happens. Artists are able to engage with some of the more nasty aspects of consumerism and capitalism. There is, however another unavoidable consequence to employing brand iconography, even in a negative context. No matter how much an artist and artwork critiques a strong brand, they also unavoidably reinforce the cultural agency of these signifiers by including them in the work.
Take the all-too-famous Prada Marfa by the Berlin-based artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset. The minimalist sculpture, that sits in the middle of 'nowhere' Texas, looks like any other Prada boutique in the world at first glance – the signage and the merchandise are 100% real, their usage even sanctioned by Miuccia Prada herself. But this is no shop. Sealed against the elements like a tomb, it was never intended to be open for business, but rather meant to slowly melt back into the landscape as the biodegradable building breaks down over time. Elmgreen and Dragset in fact conceived of the stoic surrealist sculpture as a means to criticise luxury brands – like Prada – and the way they have no social consciousness when gentrifying areas; the sculpture itself sits in an area of Texas where the mean income averages out to about the equivalent of 6 Prada handbags. However much Prada Marfa might call Western materialism into question, it has ultimately, and rather depressingly reinforced the exact capitalist values it criticises, with young girls everywhere flocking to see what has now been coined the fashion girl’s 'Statue of Liberty.'
New York born artist Tom Sachs' work is equally problematic. With works like Chanel Guillotine, Hermès Hand Grenade, and the controversial Prada Death Camp, Sachs took off when he started appropriating high-end labels and aligning them with violence and wartime. In a similar vein to when the fashion world fell in love with Prada Marfa, you could also criticise Sachs for aligning himself with cult brands as a means to accelerate his own success; fashionistas love Chanel or Prada, whether the logo sits on a handbag or a guillotine. And indeed, Sachs has become something of a fashion world darling and has been aligned with cult, alternative brands like Opening Ceremony. Whatever his opponents may say, Sachs' particular combination of luxury brand and violent iconography is an effective way of synthesizing a dialogue about big brands wiping out individual identity. One just has to hope that people see past the branding and get Sachs' actual message.
The controversial Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is perhaps one of the few artists who is able to bring 'brand' into 'artwork' without celebrating the very system he is attacking. But his particular form of appropriation is so extreme and visceral it is almost unpalatable. In Art Farm, Delvoye rears pigs specifically as art objects, tattooing them with Louis Vuitton insignia or drawings of immediately identifiable Disney princesses. Like Thomas, Delvoye is engaging with the custom of branding livestock – a practice which in fact led to the modern use of the term 'brand' in marketing – but these pieces also ask us to confront the fact that animals are used in our society mostly as commodities, often destined for use in luxury accessories, as part of the food chain, or as is the case here, as an artwork for galleries and collectors.
Delyoye’s work is so effective because it is visually rather unpleasant. We aren't looking at a perfectly designed minimalist sculpture, or a stunningly balanced black and white photograph, rather we have to encounter the unsanitized, tattooed body of a live pig in the gallery. And, for a split second, even the least animal loving person asks him or herself, 'is this wrong?' The real question Delvoye is asking is, 'is it any worse buying the dead skin of a pig or alligator stretched across this season's it bag?'
Please don't misunderstand me - I am a huge fan of Prada Marfa, and I would back Hank Willis Thomas each and every time. But it is not the artists or the artwork that are my concern. It is actually us, the audience looking at the work – who celebrate it, and make it popular – that are the problem. We mistakenly and maybe even subconsciously can end up turning these critical pieces into propaganda for the brands and systems the artists themselves are trying to question.