Thursday, December 04, 2008
As a child my parents would sometimes take me to the Barbican centre. There was nothing fun about the Barbican Centre, the strange interior spaces seemed inexplicable and unnerving and I associate it with sales of charity Christmas cards and craft knickknacks. Thinking about it, I’m really just remembering one occasion when we went to see the Nutcracker Suite, hence the Christmas associations. Craft knickknacks are disappointing for children, because they look like toys, but are actually no fun. As was the absence of the nuts and sweets I had been expecting, hence the lingering resentment.
Anyway, I mastered my antipathy for the place and went to see the exhibition of war photography by Capa and Taro. That exhibition is excellent and I may write about it later, but the thing that really grabbed me was an installation in The Curve gallery near the entrance called Frequency and Volume. It’s by a Mexican artist, Rafael Lozano Hemmer, who seems like a serious dude. As you pass along the gallery a series of powerful lights throw your silhouette onto the opposite wall. The outline of your shadow is then read by a series of computers as a position on the scale of radio frequency – you get a kind of red Redibrek glow around your shadow and a projected caption tells you what frequency and station you’re on. As you walk from one end of the gallery to the other you pass through all the different stations, very much like the red line moving through the dial of an old fashioned FM radio. By moving towards the wall, enlarging your shadow, you pass upwards through AM and FM into mobile phone, astronomical and MoD frequencies, which, for legal reasons, are turned off in the installation’s London incarnation.
It’s great right.
So I’m having this wonderful, joyful interactive experience and all the time I'm thinking of an obscure 1980s cinema ad for Red Stripe in which a red stripe is overlaid over a black and white film following a man through a day in his life, "tuning in" to different stations, until finally he reaches a bar and drinks a pint of Red Stripe. There the music switches to, I imagine, reggae. I can’t find this ad anywhere but I reckon it would be from 1989 or so.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that Rafael Lozano Hemmer ever saw this ad. Or that his installation isn’t a much more interesting thing than the Red Stripe spot. It’s just funny that in this case the ad definitely preceded the artwork, and yet there can be no suggestion that one was copied from the other. But if the two things had happened the other way round, you’d just get that horrible feeling you get when creatives rip off art wholesale and then start spouting off about Andy Warhol or something.
I’m not saying this because I think it’s bad, or unfair, but just that it demonstrates the hierarchy. If you were the Chapman brothers (both of them, so you wouldn’t have to argue about it) you could do a series poor copies of adverts, or even just copies of ads taken from YouTube, and sell them for millions as studies of the relation between commercial ideas and ideas that sell. It wouldn’t be good, or even original, art, but it would really annoy advertising people.