Ad Men: Anna Dezeuze on the Appropriation of Art by Advertising

Article excerpt

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A FLURRY OF INTERNET DISCUSSIONS HAS SURROUNDED TOSHIBA'S NEW SPACE CHAIR ADVERTISEMENT FOR WIDE-SCREEN TELEVISIONS, focusing in particular on its striking resemblance to British artist Simon Faithfull's Escape Vehicle no.6, 2004, most recently on show in the artist's exhibition 'Gravity Sucks' at the British Film Institute last summer.

Both the ad and Faithfull's video feature a chair, tethered to a large weather balloon, being launched into the sky, rising over 30km off the ground, hovering over the surface of the earth and exploding under atmospheric pressure. The launch is filmed by cameras attached to the balloon, and in both we can hear the regular bleep of the radar signal transmitting the footage to viewers on the ground.

When Andy Amadeo, the ad's director and creative director of the publicity agency Grey London, was asked in an interview on National Public Radio about his relation to Faithfull, he responded without hesitation that the artist had been 'part of the team'--a claim that the artist himself has refuted. And when the Toshiba-Grey team repeatedly boast, in The Making of Space Chair (available on YouTube), that they have tried 'something nobody tried before' and that such 'leading innovation' constitutes 'Toshiba's nature', one wonders if the inability to tell the truth is a genetic flaw in the company's innovatory 'DNA'.

Of course, such disputes are not new and can in fact be traced back to the earliest interactions between advertising and visual art. When the manager of the Pears soap company visited Victorian painter John Everett Millais to discuss using his painting of a little boy blowing bubbles as an ad, the artist, who was by no means averse to other commercial applications of his art, nevertheless 'protested strongly against this utilisation' of his picture, but realised that ultimately he 'had no power' to prevent them using it 'in any way they liked' (as they had purchased the painting, along with the copyright, from a third party). Pears's rival in the soap market, Lord Lever, did not for his part feel the need to obtain permission from the artist William Powell Frith to reproduce a painting that he owned, The New Frock, 1889. In a letter of protest, the artist told of his surprise when he encountered his picture of a little girl showing off her new dress in an illustrated paper, re-titled So Clean!, in order to promote Lever's Sunlight Soap.

While copyright laws today would probably allow both Millais and Frith to contest such blatant appropriations, conceptual artists continue to experience the surprise, frustration and resignation of their Victorian predecessors. Artists like Faithfull or Christian Marclay find out about such plagiarism when friends send them a YouTube link. Marclay had been approached by Apple, and had declined to work with them; in contrast, Faithfull has stated that he did meet with Grey to discuss a possible collaboration in the context of a live performance of Escape Vehicle no.6 for the 'Gravity Sucks' exhibition, which would have involved beaming the live footage into one of the BFI cinemas, and later 'an edited version for TV, functioning as an artwork/advert'. The event remained unrealised, but the process involved in creating Faithfull's work was replicated by Toshiba without his participation, much in the same way as the Apple Hello ad that launched the iPhone in 2007 directly borrowed from Marclay's Telephones, 1995, the comical device of mounting in sequence a range of film clips showing fictional characters answering the telephone. Apple has done this kind of thing before, negotiating with US photographer Louie Psihoyos to use his 1995 'Wall of Videos' image, The Information Revolution, 500 monitors, for the launch of its Apple TV product in 2007, then pulling out of the deal and making its own version.

Just as Millais found himself forced into a defensive position against supporters who mistakenly believed that he had painted Bubbles as a soap advertisement, conceptual artists fear unfair accusations of complicity and opportunism. …

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