Hailing from Oz, Peter Drew shares his first encounter with the Scottish art scene
There's something very appealing about an exhibition that politely ridicules global art brands like MoMA and Tate. Maybe it's because we've already noticed that something's amiss when those brands treat contemporary art like a fairground commodity. Personally, it's exactly the kind of critical discourse I came to Scotland to discover. Back home in Australia we have a long tradition of dutifully following European trends without assuming the authority to ridicule their direction. We usually have enough trouble simply justifying the existence of contemporary art, which most Australians treat with an air of suspicion. Having just arrived, I'm curious to discover whether Scotland suffers from the same affliction. Secretly I'm hoping that my new home is close to the action but with enough breathing room to avoid the hype.
The New York-based publishing and design duo Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt) have charted the malignant romance between art institutions and the world of corporate branding, especially graphic identity. Recently shown at Tramway, their work Identity consists of a half-hour video projection that alternates over three channels, accompanied by an annotated essay. The video narrates an abridged history of branding, the voice-over employing its commercialised semiotics.
I couldn't avoid the feeling that Tramway’s space had become a lecture theatre but it was the kind of lecture I was happy to receive because its structure demanded interpretation. So I sat and let the projection fill my brain with information and afterwards I felt smarter, partly because it made art institutions look a bit silly.
It seems that the big problem with branding major arts institutions is that the tail can start to wag the dog. When Tate brands itself to be "EVERYDAY not esoteric, ENJOYABLE not worthy," it's only a matter of time before artists strive to make everyday, enjoyable art that's anything but esoteric and worthy. In this way, marketing consultants formulate the vision for contemporary art that eventually trickles down to the artist who waits at the bottom of the food chain. The museum-going public is at the top of the hierarchy, so whatever gets 'em through the door at Tate Modern must be good. Once marketing starts to pull the strings, novelty takes over. The eventual benefactors of this cycle are the smaller arts communities that don't trivialise their practices in order to fulfill a brand. After all, why would anyone choose art that's been trivialised by branding when they can choose mass culture that's always going to be better at being trivial?
But rather than spelling out the end game of art's increasingly corporate mentality, Dexter Sinister's Identity concludes with the origins of identity, which the work's triangular structure conveys in a neat geometric metaphor about the nature of ideas: If you're at an impasse between two opposing points - let’s say, modernism and postmodernism - then you need a new idea, a third point to form a triangle and inside the triangle you'll have a new field of possibilities. After being shown the mess of generalisations that is corporate branding, this image of a clean, unadulterated triangle seems so simple that the complicated stuff appears all the more suspect. Perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism isn't such a bad thing after all?