Grand Theft Auto

How car advertising borrows from contemporary art

P0047334_web.jpg

Robin Rhode Commissioned by BMW for the Z4 advertising campaign 'An Expression of Joy'

Robin Rhode Commissioned by BMW for the Z4 advertising campaign 'An Expression of Joy'

The instrumentalization of art in advertising is nothing new and, as a PR strategy, appears to have lost no traction. Recent examples include Robin Rhode’s very willing collaboration with BMW to produce An Expression of Joy (2008), a romantically choreographed performance painting enacted by a BMW with paint applied to its tyres in an oh-so-rugged warehouse, accompanied by bleeping electronica. That elaborately staged event, documented (to a fault) for posterity on BMW’s boutique website, generated a glut of print and moving-image advertising for the company, equating, with all the subtlety of a gun, the ecstasy of artistic creation with the exhilaration of operating the ultimate driving machine. Less joyous unions include telecommunications corporation AT&T’s decision to ‘borrow’ Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (2005) for Central Park, as the basis for a television commercial, and IBM’s unofficial, unsanctioned and presumably unwelcome nod to Julie Mehretu in an animated advertisement for commercial data transportation.

The next step in this evolution, it would seem, belongs to the car manufacturer, Acura, the luxury subsidiary of Honda. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given the company’s oft-repeated imprimatur: ‘Advance’. At the end of each television commercial, a throaty, authoritative male voice intones: ‘The most innovative thinking you’ll find, you’ll find in an Acura.’ Their cars bear the burden of proof, boasting the latest technology integrated into the most refined containers. Taking those containers apart with fancy and finesse to foreground their interrelated goals of innovation and advancement has become the concerted focus of Acura’s advertising campaign, and to those ends they have summoned, not surprisingly, art in numerous guises, but also the most entrenched conventions of gallery and museum presentation.

A new suite of advertisements for Acura’s 2011 models emphasize this commitment. One of the selling points of the new ZDX, for example, is an active damper system that has, they claim, transformed the vehicle’s suspension. This innovation is based on the use of a fluid more advanced than oil that responds with uncanny precision to electromagnetic charges. To make manifest and seductive this rather intangible, technical innovation, the ad begins with a rarefied interior space that recalls nothing more clearly than an Upper East Side residence-turned-gallery – emphatically and unmistakably blue-chip. Suspended from the ceiling above a layer of oil is a muscular industrial magnet which, as the atmospheric music begins, draws a triangular field of jagged, glistening peaks from the smooth expanse of oil below. It then sways fluidly across the room to the gentle tones of a narrator who elaborates on the real-world applications of this ostensible abstraction. For any high culture journeyman there is nothing indecorous about seeing an industrial material like oil in an Upper East Side space: that kind of finely calculated dissonance is standard fare in the art world. Only towards the end of this 31-second segment does abstraction give way to an intelligible image of the product: the ZDX ‘installed’ sans oil in the same space. In this case, the spectacle of abstraction in a museological environment becomes the marketing synonym for a technical advancement of calculable ‘value’ that itself holds no visual appeal. A combination of sleek abstraction and the aesthetics of installation, then, combine to make this invisible product visible and therefore saleable.


Acura ZDX "Oil" Commercial

This advertisement for the ZDX ‘borrows’ liberally and without credit from a 2001 installation descriptively titled Protrude, Flow by the artists Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno. Other advertisements from the same series are a little more oblique in their ‘fair’ use of artist’s ideas. One for the Acura TL, for instance, set in the same Upper East Side habitat, touts the ‘power’ of this sports sedan by staging the assembly of the vehicle’s power-train in a time-lapse fashion, each addition, the voice claims, enhancing the muscle of the vehicle. Here the point of reference could arguably be Mexican artist Damián Ortega’s iconic Cosmic Thing (2002), an exploded Volkswagen Beetle, its component parts suspended from the ceiling to present a static, three-dimensional autopsy of the so-called ‘people’s car’.

Two other advertisements from this series generalize the aesthetics of installation to present cars as deconstructed sculptural objects that make elegantly visible technical properties usually concealed by the body of the product. The shell of an Acura MDX is catapulted by a carefully aestheticized crossbow-like device into a gallery wall to demonstrate the shock-absorbent qualities of its frame, while the sound-dampening technology in the nimble tsx is literalized as a forest of speakers – a kinetic sculpture with sound – that recalls any number of installations from Susan Philipsz through to Haegue Yang and Olafur Eliasson. In both of these instances, the deconstructive impulse, a strategy used most often by artists to critical ends, is turned on its head: disassembly does not reveal a greater truth about these subjects, but simply reasserts and further instantiates their price tag.

None of this is new terrain for Honda/Acura. In 2003 it launched Cog, a celebrated advertisement for the seventh-generation Accord that drew so liberally on Fischli/Weiss’ 1987 film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) that the artists sent a letter to Honda UK threatening legal action for copyright infringement. There is a lighter touch to the company’s familiar interest in not-quite-copyrighted ideas in this group of Acura TV ads, but the use of rarefied museological situations to stage technical ‘advancements’ as abstractions or installations represents a deeper incursion into the art world’s system of values, one that acknowledges with uncomfortable frankness the implicit triangulation between conventions of museum presentation, cultural prestige, and actual value. To be sure, aesthetics have always had value, but a decorous kind of value predicated on connoisseurship, learned consensus, concept and craft. Acura’s commercials synthesize the development of this tradition of looking and assigning value into an advertising package that sets out to achieve openly what the art world achieves quietly behind closed doors: profit. Perhaps these advertisements feel exploitative and dirty not because they represent bad examples of sculptural abstraction or installation art, but because they demonstrate how easily our system of aesthetic values can be generalized, reduced to a formula, and used.

Christopher Bedford is Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbia, USA.

Issue 138

First published in Issue 138

April 2011

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018