“It’s not easy being green.” To some, this line will evoke the Apple commercial showing a camera circling the new (green) iMac against a white background. Through the green plastic one could see part of the inside of the computer, and the sad voice of Kermit the Frog slowly pulling your heartstrings: “When I think it could be nicer being red or yellow or gold.” The commercial communicates simplicity and minimalism with a song that has a funny rapport with the color of the machine. It’s a prime example of the style first used in 1959 by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) who quite literally revolutionized the world of advertising with their campaign for selling the Volkswagen Beetle in the US. Not an easy job if you think about how the Beetle was designed in Nazi Germany, how the timing was more than a little off (so soon after the war), especially considering that this was the heyday of big cars that exuded luxury.
The campaign DDB devised for the only economy car on the US market at that time was groundbreaking in many ways. Using black and white photography and depicting only the image of the car, the happy family and the technical details that were common in adverts for Chevrolet and Buick were strangely missing. “Lemon,” it read under the first ad showing the Beetle from a diagonal angle. “Think small” underlined a tiny car lost on a white page. The car made fun of itself (“Don’t laugh” or “Will we ever kill the bug?”) and was not afraid to show it’s technical sides (it was often shown upside down or with all it’s parts lined up). The Beetle became the icon of a hippie lifestyle and its advertisement campaign changed the business of admen forever.
The American artist Kelley Walker (born in 1969) used the famous Beetle ads as the starting point for his large-scale installation consisting of nearly two hundred panels now on view at Galerie Catherine Bastide in Brussels (and which will travel to Paula Cooper in New York this fall). The panels, all squares, come in two sizes and some ten different colors. They are hung around the room in a specific rhythm, almost like notes of a musical score. The ads are sometimes clearly visible, sometimes not at all; folded, rolled, cut up, and perforated: they’ve been turned into abstract and formal shapes.
The process of creating these images—the compositions and reconfigurations of the ads—was in part “decided by” or outsourced to the software program Rhino. Rhino software is popular with designers and architects because of its diversity of functions, its so-called low-learning curve, and the fact that it is far less expensive than other 3-D modeling software. Walker delegated, in a sense, some formal choices to this 3-D modeling tool by asking the software program to turn 2-D images into 3-D animations, resulting in twists and turns. Walker has outsourced agency to software and other users before, most notably in his “disaster” series where he sold a poster together with a CD-ROM on which the poster was stored. Buyers could rework the posters on the CD with Photoshop.
The shapes printed on MDF panels at Catherine Bastide have also been translated into two actual 3-D objects. On a grey and green pedestal are two small sculptures, and their shiny material reflects the colored panels surrounding them. Two oblong rectangles, showing pages from a New Yorker magazine overlaid with Walker’s famous brick prints, break the flow of squares.
There has been extensive discussion on the question whether Walker can be called an Appropriation artist. He denounces the label in interviews (and critics tend to agree) because the concept of Appropriation is based on the belief that there is an original source that can be appropriated. Rather, quoting Anne Pontégnie, who curated a show of Walker at Wiels in Brussels, the artist is concerned with “finding relevant ways of acting—as an artist—with the endlessly recycled images that constitute the only horizon of our reality” (2008). In the 21stcentury mess that our image culture has now effectively become, it is impossible to trace back images to an original source. If we were to enter Plato’s cave now, we’d find shadows of shadows of shadows (ad infinitum).
By accepting this state of affairs, and closing off the possibility of going back to an original state of the image, Walker puts himself beyond Appropriation Art. In his method of superimposing images and layering meaning, he creates what Yann Chateigné calls, by quoting the philosopher Tristan Garcia in the commissioned text accompanying the exhibition, a flat ontology. Pontégnie talks about how Walker erases the semantic differences between art and life, creating a convergence between the two (art and life are literally joined together in his works: chocolate and toothpaste on riot photography, a Beetle ad turned into a formal artistic gesture).
This horizontal approach to images, semantics, layers of meaning, semiotic connotations, etcetera, puts Walker, in a roundabout way, in line with a younger generation of internet or post-internet artists who have grown up in the messy 21stcentury internet cave, and who, by definition, no longer have any use for originals and copies, copyrights or fixed states of artworks. Walker is known, after all, for changing works between shows, for showing works in different ways every time and thinking of them as part of a continuum rather than a fixed product. He not only shares with these artists a horizontality to the meaning of the materials used but also the very materiality itself. Photoshop is equal to painting, laser cutting to sculpting. However confusing this might seem, this is the 21st century. It is, indeed, not easy being green.