Flash Art Int. (1999 - 2001) Anno 32 Numero 206 May June 1999
Swetlana Heger, Plamen Dejanov, and Corporate Culture
The show "Dream City" has been organized by various contemporary art institutions based in Munich with the aid of the Siemens Kulturprogramm. The show presents 30 international artists who deal with different aspects of publicity and allude to specific significances of social/cultural life in Munich. The title of the show was taken from a tourism brochure - giving an ironic hint of the self-confidence of the city's marketing administrators.
Vito Acconci, Stephen Craig, Franz Ackermann, Joseph Beuys, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Ayse Erkmen, Stefan Kern, Swetlana Heger & Plamen Dejanov were some of the exhibiting artists. However, none of the works on exhibit caused more trouble than the one by Heger & Dejanov. They proposed to install an actual BMW branch salesroom inside the Kunstverein: complete with genuine building components, advertising photographs, brochures, and emblems.
Creating controversy, arguments ranged from condemnation to praise. Some felt that placing active advertising logos into cultural spaces interrupted traditional art discourse. Others contended that these images overstepped the bounds of private sponsorship. However, the press release from Siemens Kulturprogramm describes a revolutionary break through of industry/art relations.
The Siemens AG cultural programme is not just the main sponsor of the "Dream City" exhibition, it is also the driving force behind the show's content and ideology; as such, it is involved in all the decision-making processes. Thus, through concept, the advertising images loose their corporate meaning: they are intended and contextualised as art.
In the Siemens press release for this exhibition, we read, "Artistic analysis of the world of work and industry on the one hand and awareness of culture's innovative potential on the other can change our [Siemens's] perspective. In this respect, breaking down common prejudice and boundaries are part of the programme." Let's hope there will be more and more firms pursuing similar lines of argument. Perhaps they should hand these remarkable observations out to the museum curators involved, so that they are not completely overwhelmed by the arguments.
Heger and Dejanov's work and their joint venture with BMW has stimulated an important discussion. This work redeems culture's claim to have innovative potential; it also says a great deal for the vision and the stature of those responsible for the culture programme. They have endured incredulous misinterpretation describing the project as "contemptible product placement," and "ironic BMW advertising by the pair of artists."
However, this is definitely not a simulation; this is not a game, but reality. In the Kunstverein, BMW has created a real sales scenario, and it becomes a work of art through the artistic collaboration of BMW. This symbolizes a discussion that has been observed since the late 90s. It is driven by a changed reception of phenomena that we call art (and the aesthetic fascination of that which we previously did not dare label as "art").
The tradition of this artistic scenario follows all the objet trouv* principles of the 20th century, but goes one step further. This work maintains its functionality; it is about how we interpret a car, a sales room, a poster, a brochure. And how we define art. From that perspective Ad Reinhardt's statement, "art is art and everything else is everything else," has to be expanded. "Art can be art, but it can very well be something else. And not only something else, but a very desirable something else."
(Translated from German by Michael Robinson)
Wolf-Günter Thiel is a critic based in Berlin.
Thiel and Nikolova: Plenty Objects of Desire is the name of what is so far your most substantial project. What does this title conceal?
Dejanov and Heger: The starting point for this project was Barbara Steiner's invitation to the Ludwigsburg Kunstverein. The commission to work in one of the institution's spaces in the longer term led us to consider linking together all the exhibitions that we are invited to for a year.
In the Kunstverein itself we rented out a platform (a kind of stage) to interested firms, artists, and private individuals for presentation purposes from 1997 to 1998. Our intention was to use the rent income to open a branch of the Kunstverein in Berlin.
In parallel with this we rented out our own working capabilities to visitors during various exhibitions (Air de Paris-Paris, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Le Consortium-Dijon etc.). Thus in the course of time we have worked as waiters or gardeners - in other words in a number of professions that did not relate to our qualifications as artists. But we also took jobs that were close to artistic production: e.g. a French race-horse owner commissioned portraits of his horses from us, another employer invited us to discuss contemporary art, and of course paid us for this. We also worked as drawing teachers, interior designers, or office assistants.
We invested the majority of the income from these various jobs in purchasing works of art, by artists including Philippe Parreno, Elizabeth Peyton, Jorge Pardo, and designer objects by Charles and Ray Eames, Willi Guhl, Richard Sapper, Venini etc., and so set up little collections at the exhibitions that also had an everyday function.
We left the final realization of the project open, as we noticed that we found the process much more exciting than setting up a real place.
T&N: Your working concept is reminiscent of a micromodel of the art business. What are the main differences between organizing an art institution and the strategy you have adopted?
D&H: In the art business the economic conditions and the organizational work always remain in the background, although it is precisely these structures that play a fundamental part in realizing a work of art. What interests us is to address these same structures in our artistic work.
T&N: Unlike other exhibited works of art, which fulfill a more static and contemplative function, your work seems very dynamic and subversive. This requires permanent and active participation in events. In your last exhibition at Mehdi Chouakri in Berlin and at the Wiener Secession, Vienna, your announcement of the holiday to be taken by the gallery owner or the artists was surprising. What does "concept holiday" mean to you?
D&H: The work called On Holiday at the Wiener Secession was a continuation of our Plenty Objects of Desire project.
For the "x-squared" exhibition, which addressed work in the conditional context of artistic production, we decided to use the exhibition budget for our own holiday.
All that was to be seen in the institution was a sign saying that we were on holiday for the duration of the exhibition. In fact we were on holiday for almost six weeks. Incidentally, this project is one of our favorites. We should like to implement it at least once a year in future.
It was different in Berlin. This time we were not on holiday, but the gallery owner and his employees were. The gallery was closed during the exhibition, and there was a sign saying "Gallery closed for the Holidays" on the outside of the door. This time there was no saving on production costs - from sun-glasses and swimming-trunks to air-ticket and hotel.
T&N: Your projects illustrate connections between structures that have, so far, always been considered separate. Commercial conditions, economic interests and art are being linked up. This often meets with a sceptical reaction in the art world.
D&H: We do not want to attack the art business and play it off against commercial strategies; what we want to do is short-circuit two systems that can anyway not be seen as separate, but very probably have been and will be separated ideologically. We are often reproached with producing work that is too aesthetic, and that this is because we used to be short of beautiful things. We do not take these reproaches too seriously, as they do not have anything to do with the kind of content that our thinking addresses. We see having got to know both systems as an advantage for our work.
T&N: Your most recent "client" is the motor car company BMW AG. How did this partnership come about, and do you see it in terms of discussion or a joint use of marketing resources?
D&H: We first suggested that we might work together to the BMW branch in Munich. BMW AG turned up even at the second meeting, which we saw as a sign that they were interested in a longer-term partnership as well.
If the second part of this question were a multiple choice test, we would tick both discussion and joint use of marketing strategies.
T&N: How does BMW see Dejanov & Heger's commitment?
Christiane Zentgraf: The artists want to reveal relationships that really exist between commerce and art, which both sides like to keep concealed. Art "needs" commerce (materials, money, marketing, etc.). "Mixed marriages" (Walter Grasskamp) between art and commerce are as old as the moral reservations that art has always talked about ("purity" of the partner, the money).
T&N: How does BMW handle criticism of Dejanov & Heger's work?
CZ: We consider it favourable that the work triggered conflict and was hotly disputed by artists, exhibition visitors, and the media. The work is obviously explosive and entirely up to date. If it were meaningless it would be ignored and no one would waste a word on it. BMW is open to criticism, questions, and arguments, as the dialogues and the conflicts in fact create mutual understanding an sharpen people's awareness of realities. BMW is an innovative company, and as such prefers experimental and innovative projects to tried-and-tested traditional ones. Thus the company always risks creating a disturbance, and failure. This is exciting and stimulating. Innovation is just as existentially necessary for art as it is for the motor-car business. In art such risks are seldom life-threatening, which is why we are happy to share them in future.
When curatorial side wanted to eliminate the installation partly or completely just before the exhibition, we felt it was our job to mediate between the adversaries and to enter into a constructive dialogue on behalf of freedom for art.
T&N: What is new about the Dejanov & Heger project for BMW AG?
CZ: It was a new experience for us to be invited to work with artists. We became partners in a real artistic process that was initiated by the artists. We wanted to devise a joint project whose artist statement was as firmly fixed at the beginning as certain conditions made by the artists and that thus had to be accepted by BMW.
It was new for us, and entirely understandable that the artists included a BMW Z3 in their Plenty Objects of Desire collection. It is new that the car was not alienated within the art context and thus transformed into an art object. As such it too was placed in a real situation, a car-park in front of the Kunstverein - a multiple reflection of the ambivalence between art and reality.
Something else that is new is that the real BMW saleroom (in which the real transaction - sale/purchase - of the sport car Z3 took place) has been shifted in to the art-space. In the context of BMW KulturKommunikation this implementation of a radical confrontation between reality and art via the real process of selling a car is an innovative element. Reflecting on the transaction process and reversing the relationship of art and reality, the project revealed that art and commerce are interconnected.
T&N: How is BMW actively involved in Dejanov & Heger's project?
CZ: BMW AG is responsible for KulturKommunikation world-wide, and will accompany the artists and the Der ganz normale Luxus (Quite Normal Luxury) project to all its venues. We will make sure that the artists will be able to co-operate with BMW on the spot so that their project can be realized. Actual implementation in Munich was in co-operation with the BMW branch there, which is responsible for product sales and thus has approved salesrooms, information, and advertising material and not least cars at its disposal.
BMW offered the artists favorable sales conditions for the sport car Z2 2.8, designed four pages of the exhibition catalogue as requested and provided the salesroom and the appropriate furniture, sales materials and sales personnel by the hour for the installation in the Kunstverein.
T&N: How do you design your work with BMW AG?
D&H: In the next few months, various exhibition contributions that we have been or will be invited to make in Germany and abroad will be realized in aggressive co-operation with BMW.
In this way BMW AG will become the co-producer, and be directly integrated into the working process.
That means: all the exhibitions by Dejanov & Heger will be BMW presentations at the same time, and the material exhibited will consist exclusively of BMW production cars, lifestyle items etc., and advertising videos, posters etc. Additionally, all catalogue or magazine pages put at the disposal of our artistic work will be rented out to the company. In return we will be given a luxury sports car, which will in turn be part of the Plenty Objects of Desire collection or can be used for everyday purposes.
This co-operation is increasingly turning out to be extremely productive and stimulating for both parties. The project is completely new and has just been launched in Munich at the "Dream City" exhibition - not without some upsets. Parts of the installation were dismantled in our absence, and then put up again after a lot of quarreling. One of the four curators of the exhibition distanced himself from our work in a public letter.
T&N: How has BMW benefited from this co-operation?
CZ: For BMW, culture is a bridge for dialogue, communication and mutual understanding. This project funded and promoted dialogue between all participants (artists, curators, commercial partners, press, visitors etc.). BMW was the artists' "chosen" partner and had the good fortune of being tied into the creative process at a very early stage. In this way we were able to collect experience, gain insights into other ways of thinking about and looking at things, and not least we found that the artists, Swetlana Heger and Plamen Dejanov were stimulating friends, and it will certainly be worth while traveling round the world with them.
(Translated from German by Michael Robinson)