American bashing at ‘The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop’

(c) Tate

‘I think the most important is to keep in mind that artists, since the beginning of art, have been depicting the world around them’, says Elsa Coustou, curator of the EY Exhibition at the Tate Modern, The World Goes Pop. Primarily referred to as a typically American and British phenomenon, pop art has long been synonymous with Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe’s series of portraits, as well as with Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book canvases and Rauschenberg’s collages. However, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop offers a new angle by gathering 160 works from across the world, featuring pop artists from Asia, South America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and therefore changes the preconceived idea one has of this form of art. These worldwide artists’ works appear to be — through themes such as social imbalances, capitalism and consumerism, censorship, the role of women, sexual liberation, tradition, war, civil rights, etc. — either forms of protests or commercial sabotages, and sometimes both at the same time.

Even though a multitude of matters are tackled in the various works, one central topic comes through every time, and that is the huge presence of America, which materialises either through the spoken artistic language or in terms of what is criticised throughout the exhibition. Indeed, Elsa Coustou explains: ‘It’s a historical show so we are gathering works that are from a particular moment, specific contexts, and specific countries, from specific artists. (…) I think the main goal was to unearth some unknown or less known artists and show a global concern for how the society was at the time and the importance of Americans in the world and in capitalist consumerist societies.’

From left to right: Doll Festival by Ushio Shinohara / The Divine Proportion by Jorge Ballester / Listen America by Raul Martinez

While walking through the ten colourful rooms of the exhibition and reading the extensive captions explaining the context in which each work of art was born, one may stumble upon the Doll Festival by Ushio Shinohara, which embodies and criticises the modernisation and Americanisation of the Japanese society, or The Divine Proportion by Jorge Ballester, which constitutes a warning against the threat of the American cultural and economic imperialism. Both works, accompanied by Listen America by Raul Martinez could well form the main trio condemning Americanisation.

More specifically, some works, such as the Ethnographies series by Grau, denouncing Franco’s repressive dictatorship in which capitalism was marketed as fulfilling and liberating, I want you by Marcello Nitsche, or the posters from Album the Red by Gérard Fromanger, all denounce capitalism. Some others condemn consumerism: Glu Glu Glu by Anna Maria Maiolino expresses the concerns related to the impact of mass consumption on women’s subjectivity, Atomic Kiss by Jean Rabascall is a reflection of May 1968 and responds to both the politics of the time and also the taking over of imagery from the mass media and therefore denounces the contradictions of the American consumerist society, and in a similar vein, At last, a silhouette slimmed to the waist by Bernard Rancillac shows the darker, less glossy side of the American consumer society.

From left to right: I want you by Marcello Nitsche / Album the Red by Gérard Fromanger / Glu Glu Glu by Anna Maria Maiolino / Atomic Kiss by Jean Rabascall / At last, a silhouette slimmed to the waist by Bernard Rancillac

Elsa Coustou explains the origins of these pop artists and the birth of their own pop art, specifically in Brazil, in Japan and in Germany: ‘There are artists, for instance in Brazil, who are very critical of the relationship between Brazil and America at the time through economics, i.e. big American companies invading the landscapes in Brazil. In Japan as well, many Japanese artists were also very marked by the American presence after the Second World War and the impact it had on the traditional Japanese culture suddenly getting some American features. In Germany, the country was split into four parts and the American army was very present in Frankfurt, so many German artists were kind of pop at the time and really felt the presence of Americans. In general, it’s a moment when Americans were so present everywhere that you couldn’t escape it in a way.’

Through their works of art, which one can qualify as ‘pop’, these artists have proved their admiration for the quintessentially American language that has been used, but in the meantime, the works of the exhibition criticise what this language has been used for, thus denouncing the hyper-individualised consumer and the isolated celebrity icon, which is associated with pop art. Elsa Coustou gives the example of the reaction of French artists at the time so as to demonstrate this phenomenon: ‘In France, for instance, it only started to arrive on the market around 1962 in Paris, and then the artists immediately said: ‘ok, this is American. We are also experimenting with figuration and we don’t want to do abstraction anymore, but we don’t want to be Americans, we don’t like Americans’, and so what they did is use a similar language — a visual language — but it was very critical.’

The different pieces embody the admiration of the worldwide artists for the American style, while at the same time, criticising what was behind it. And the exact same thing occurred within the exhibition. The World Goes Pop is crossing geographical boundaries in the sense that pop art has been adopted in different countries as a powerful and already popular tool to vividly criticise the political contexts and shifts in the various societies, which for the main part were due to Americanisation and what emerges from it, namely capitalism and consumerism.

The curator, Elsa Coustou, confirms this tendency and gives the following analogy: ‘There were proper criticising from artists against Americans but also there is a fascination I think they still have; when you see a movie like a Coppola movie, you say: ‘this is America: there is something very… almost glamorous, physical about it, but you don’t want to be part of this culture, the gun culture for instance’.’

In the last room of the exhibition, ‘some works assert the risk for art to become a consumable product’ but ‘at the same time, [they] proclaim the power of art to subvert and oppose the operations of global capitalism’, thus showing both sides of the coin for the art world in the modern capitalist world.

Boris Bućan’s brand logos

Boris Bućan’s brand logos transformed into ‘art’ combine the art sphere with the consumerist one, and therefore show that art has become a consumable product, but also reflect the growing presence of brands in Yugoslavia in the early 1970s and thus criticises its transition to consumerist culture. Keiichi Tanaami’s critical video piece, Commercial war, uses the comic-strip genre to denounce the impact of American consumer culture on foreign nations, and therefore proves that art still has this power to oppose and sabotage capitalism, the power to change some things more generally.

According to Elsa Coustou, art has nowadays become a consumer good, ‘in the sense that you can buy it. I mean some people would buy a work, not because they appreciate its aesthetical value but because it’s expensive… and in a collection, for them, it’s more because of the name of the artist than for the work — and then they put it in storage and lend them; it’s investment in the same way you would invest into a hotel or buy a flat or build a flat.’ she says.

But she also believes that it can fight this consumerism tendency and oppose it, especially thanks to conceptual art. She explains: ‘the less it’s close to the actual product, the more it is intellectualised and the more it is ephemeral. Like performance art, you can’t quantify it so it’s a way to fight against that [consumer tendency].’

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