Brands in art: the art of marketing

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Kim Joon

Duet Heineken, 2006; WE Starbucks, 2005

Kim Joon

In Korean artist Kim Joonås work the human body appears to become the canvas, painstakingly patterned in complex digital designs that are often adapted from brands.

The obvious parallels with tattooing are striking, particularly since the practice is frowned upon in Korea, where tattoos are traditionally associated with criminals and prisoners.

By imprinting the insignia of widely accepted brands onto his models, Joon creates a subtle tension between what is readily assimilated into society and what remains a taboo.

Korean art - Kim Joon
Images © Kim Joon

The sensuous arrangement of his subjects adds a further dimension to his work, the complex (and often impossible) interplay of limbs forming a second strata of pattern-making.

Yet while the human form remains recognisable, individuality is entirely lost in a mass of colour and iconic design - effaced, almost literally, by the overwhelming presence of the brand.


Ryan Gander

This Consequence, 2005

Ryan Gander

The white Adidas tracksuit is designed to be worn by staff at galleries exhibiting UK artist Gander's work.

The clothing appears to be marked by two blood-colored stains, but in fact these have been embroidered into position exactly like the Adidas logo.

Gander's intervention essentially results in an entirely new brand, yet its uncertain nature is the very antithesis of a brand's usual defining function.

If, in the gallery, the true nature of the 'stains' becomes clear, the clothing is likely to become associated with Gander himself, despite the presence of the powerful Adidas trademark.


Worn elsewhere, the tracksuit might simply be perceived as stained, its wearer seen, disturbingly, as someone involved in some kind of violent incident.

And if the embroidery itself is noticed, the tracksuit could be mistaken as a variation of an existing Adidas range - a potentially covetable 'limited edition'.

With his relatively simple intervention, Gander creates a complex hybrid that confounds branding's quest to fix identity.


Luo Brothers

Welcome to the World Famous Brands

Luo Brothers
Image © Luo Brothers

China's increasing acceptance of westernized culture is a subject addressed by several of its best-known contemporary artists.

The Luo Brothers meld the brightly colored aesthetic of popular Chinese art with icons of western consumerism, a visual representation of the social transitions taking place.

Their work seems, on the surface, celebratory; chubby babies, symbolic in Chinese culture of a New Year, hold once prohibited commodities aloft as if joyously proclaiming the advent of a new era.

Additionally, titles such as 'Welcome to the World Famous Brands' seem to leave little doubt as to the artists' own optimism.

Yet as toddlers straddle soft drinks that form part of their future, and entire architectures are constructed of packaging, there's apprehension in these images about the extent to which consumerism may permeate Chinese society - and more irony to the Luo Brothers' work than at first appears apparent.


Wang Guangyi


Wang Guangyi
Image © Wang Gunagyi

The work of Wang Guangyi is more immediately ambiguous about western-style consumerism.

Adopting the strident aesthetic once typical of Chinese communist imagery, well-known brands seem to become a rallying cry, a new force through which to motivate and mobilize the worker.

But this visual rhetoric is likewise associated with political messages which, in essence, are little different to the lifestyle promises made by consumer brands.

The implication in Wang Guangyi's images is that propaganda and marketing are closely intertwined, each attempting to convey ideals that often conceal less palatable truths.


Paul McCarthy

Sauce, 1975

Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy's work has been variously described as an assault on American culture, carnivalesque, psycho-sexual or concerned with domestic violence.

One certainty, however, is that condiments such as ketchup, chocolate sauce, mustard and mayonnaise make constant - and messy - appearances in his video works and performances.

Functioning as visual substitutes for bodily fluids and waste, their use has led to comparison with the violent practice of the Viennese Actionists, an assumption McCarthy himself has denied:

"Vienna is not Los Angeles. ... People make references to Viennese art without really questioning the fact that there is a big difference between ketchup and blood."


Paul McCarthy, sauce
Images © Paul McCarthy

The ketchup in question makes one of its first appearances in the 1975 video 'Sauce'.

The bottle is clearly on display and instantly recognizable as Heinz, the homely familiarity of the brand at odds with the unfamiliarity of the art.

As McCarthy smears himself with its contents, there's also a suggestion that he sees himself as some kind of convenience food - an idea made even more explicit in the later performance 'Hot Dog'.

Since, at the time, McCarthy was highly suspicious of the commercial artworld, his actions could be seen as critical of a system ready to casually 'devour' artists like himself.

But whatever his intention, awareness of brand crucially allows McCarthy to depict scenes of 'blood and gore' while referencing typically American products - a darkly comic element that aligns consumerism with horror and revulsion.


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