Picture and a Thousand Words: The interplay between art and Ikea
May 01, 2010 | Toronto Star | Ryan Bigge
Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York
It doesn’t take an umlauted gënïus to figure out where this photograph originated. This despite the fact that German-born, San Francisco-based artist Kota Ezawa has processed and transformed the original catalogue image into a soft pastel cartoon.
But Ikea is so iconic that we recognize its well-designed yet affordable consumer seductions even when disguised or distorted. This might also have something to do with its omnipresence — the company now prints nearly 200 million copies of its lifestyle bible each year, making it almost as well circulated as the actual Bible.
It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Ikea has a pervasive influence that extends beyond our homes (Billy bookshelves and tea light candles) into popular culture itself, like music (“Date With Ikea” by Pavement) and movies ((500) Days of Summer). This might help explain why its unassembled furniture and the consumer utopia it implies have attracted the critical gaze of various artists over the past 15 years. (And for Ezawa, along with Jeff Carter’s mechanized sculptures of blue Lack tables and Kvist bamboo flooring, Ikea supplies both the problematic and the artist’s raw materials.)
Ezawa’s work is entitled “NEW! ($2.99/EA)” and is currently being shown as part of CONTACT, a photography festival held every May in Toronto (www.scotiabankcontactphoto.com). This year’s event is subtitled “Pervasive Influence,” and while that might sound like a reference to Scotiabank’s cultural hegemony (they sponsor the Giller, CONTACT, Caribana and Nuit Blanche), it instead indicates our current era of photographic saturation. As Bonnie Rubenstein, artistic director for CONTACT, writes in this year’s program guide, “The festival acknowledges the all-encompassing role photography plays in our lives, and challenges audiences to explore how it informs and transforms our experience of the world.”
Ezawa is one of a dozen or so photographers in a curated exhibit entitled “The Mechanical Bride” now at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. This refers not to a screwball robot comedy from the 1930s, but to the (occasionally) screwball ideas of the late media and literary theorist Marshall McLuhan. In his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, McLuhan analyzed various forms of print culture, including newspapers and advertisements, and tried to tease out hidden meanings. For example, a print ad for Berkshire Nylon Stockings containing a pretty girl and a horse is hardly an innocent tableau for McLuhan: “Juxtaposition of items permits the advertiser to ‘say’ . . . what could never pass the censor of consciousness.”
Today we might recognize this observation as obvious, but McLuhan made his observation back in 1951, when the manipulations of advertising seemed more innocent and less apparent. In an essay about CONTACT’s “The Mechanical Bride” exhibit, Janine Marchessault, a film studies professor at York University, argues that artists like Ezawa are continuing McLuhan’s project: “The mechanisms of persuasion in mass media are revealed through a focus on its conventions and politics behind the scenes.”
The problem today is that the mechanisms and politics of Ikea are far more sophisticated, making them difficult to locate and analyze. Even worse, at least for critics of advertising, is that many of us find the big blue barn’s unique style of manipulation enjoyable. Put another way, it can be hard sometimes to find the necessary skepticism to attack a family-friendly company that offers a $1 breakfast (although until just 11a.m. each morning).
McLuhan’s skepticism, meanwhile, remains an acquired taste. By the time he died in 1980, he had generated a mash of genuine insight, contradictory aphorisms and a half-dozen books, each progressively more confusing than the last. And while it’s impossible to accurately guess what he might have thought about Ikea and Ezawa, he undoubtedly would have mentioned his theory of hot and cool mediums from his 1964 book, Understanding Media.
A hot medium, like photography, is typically information-rich and well-defined, thus requiring less interpretative work on the part of the viewer. What Ezawa has done, McLuhan might argue, is take the hot medium of photography and rework it into a cool medium (like illustration), making the artwork more participatory. This “unphotograph” requires the viewer to more actively interpret the image. Or, as Marchessault writes, Ezawa’s “large-scale transparencies in light boxes, that mimic advertising displays, are no longer recognizable as photographs.”
As luck would have it, McLuhan is currently “hot” (in the buzz-worthy sense) thanks to a new biography written by Douglas Coupland. As a media-savvy, pop-culture obsessed renaissance man who jumps between art, novels, television, movies and non-fiction, Coupland is McLuhan-esque in the best sense of the term, making him well suited to the task of wrestling with the infamous thinker.
Coupland also has work in this year’s CONTACT festival, as part of another McLuhan-inspired exhibit called “The Brothel Without Walls” (the title of which is fodder for another essay entirely). And, it should be noted, Coupland has also found inspiration in Ikea. His first novel, Generation X, included an image of a clip art chair with the caption “Semi-Disposable Swedish Furniture.”
The link between art and advertising isn’t much of a stretch, given the work of Richard Prince, whose photographs recombined Marlboro Man ads. And the link between art and Ikea isn’t tenuous either — the company sells thousands of picture frames each year, along with some tame posters and wall art.
Art inspired by Ikea will continue to grow in proportion to the size and dominance of the company itself. Last September, a new piece by street artist Banksy appeared on a wall in the London district of Croydon, and featured a young punk reading the assembly instructions for a “large graffiti slogan” that was purchased from “IEAK.” And in a tidy twist, art is now starting to inspire Ikea. As the March issue of The Art Newspaper reported, Ikea will be commissioning contemporary artists to create work for a huge new Moscow store scheduled to open in 2012.
In a clever irony, Ezawa takes the precise, staged, too-perfect style of Ikea’s product photography and disassembles the image, attacking the fantasy world with a digital Allen key. Where Ikea requires us to self-assemble the furniture we purchase, art offers us a finished product for contemplation, but we must self-assemble its meaning.
(Toronto Star link).