The “separation of powers” between art and economics is a paradigm that persisted from the Enlightenment well into the latter part of the 20th century. Entire generations of painters and sculptors were guided by the principle that the sublime could only arise independently of the secular. “Artistic freedom” was practised far away from politics and economics and almost exclusively at a studio. And if a painter took the liberty to depart from this path of virtue, then his art was not exhibited at museums, but he had to make a living at fairgrounds. This was the case, for instance, with Théodor Géricault and his “Raft of the Medusa” (1819).[1] Such “punitive measures” signalled to the public very clearly where art should be located: in a museum, in an upper middle-class salon or on a pedestal at the centre of a public square.

Such patterns of definition continued far into the sixties, when Andy Warhol painted his first soup and peach tins, Roy Lichtenstein put Walt Disney characters on canvas, César formed pyramids out of scrap heaps, Joseph Beuys published his art-and-society manifestos in daily papers – and the first critics expressed their indignation about this “art of the fairground”. Unlike earlier failed attempts to integrate art into everyday life or create “fine” art from the ordinary – such as Russian Suprematism, Italian Futurism and the Bauhaus idea – the success of Pop Art, Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme was immense once it had overcome its initial problems. Now, in 2002, the cross-over from quality culture to mass culture has gained broadly based acceptance, and everyday objects have found their way into museums. In other words, art has conquered its place in everyday life. And the former paradox between art and economics has made room for continuous dialogue – perhaps not always harmonious dialogue, but nevertheless so advanced that the formerly complementary partners can benefit from each other’s mutual stimulation and inspiration.[2]

Icons as sociocultural global players

The discourse of icons, practised daily by our product and communication society on television screens, on hoardings and in magazines, is THE artistic and social issue of the 21st century. The young Swiss artist Nic Hess, currently a scholarship student of the renowned New York P.S.1, has a special position in this context. His works are located precisely at the interface between artistic and commercial communication. Hess works with icons, emblems and logos which appear to be omnipresent in today’s global society and which, because of their presence, have created a cross-national form of language that transcends all national borders of culture and all ideological mindsets. In his mostly large-format murals, created from ordinary adhesive tape, plastic film and industrial paints, we can find the trademarks of Michelin, Peugeot, Toblerone, Puma, Nike, Lacoste and McDonald’s, all of them global players whose products and messages have long been a firm part of our collective awareness. When we see a drawing of a jumping puma we do not think primarily of an animal, but mainly of a sports shoe. The graphic rendering of a crocodile or an alligator immediately makes us associate a Piqué Polo shirt. And when we need public conveniences, we look out for a pictogram of a man or woman.

Yet these icons have long lost their purely functional value in communication. In the late eighties they acquired a life of their own, characterizing no longer just the company advertising for a specific product, but functioning as metaphors of certain values that are held. Whereas, until 1989, the Coca Cola logo was still seen as the embodiment of the American way of life, this brand image has become substantially internationalized in recent years and has turned into a fundamental symbol of youthfulness and the fun society – whether in Los Angeles or Moscow! The message conveyed by Coca Cola as a brand has become increasingly independent of the original product. Although, ultimately, it serves to sell a soft drink, it communicates far more than just the “message” of a cool drink! By sponsoring, for instance, rock concerts and supporting trendy sporting events, the Coca Cola Company has been surrounding the brand with an integral lifestyle that goes far beyond the drink itself and which has attained a more general, cultural dimension. As Naomi Klein puts it in her book No Logo[3], the “full integration of advertising and art and of the trademark and culture” has now reached completion.

From a mass-produced article to a unique artefact

This state of affairs, which largely concerns consumer goods communication, is the starting point of Nic Hess’s artistic approach. His works comprise overlaps and combinations of universal icons and logos that add up to imposing panoramas and pictorial landscapes. Each installation is specially conceived for the place where it is exhibited, serving it, as it were, and appropriating the place. Locational relatedness in Hess’s art may refer to the architectural environment, the geographical location or the “client” – regardless of whether this is a museum, an art gallery, a firm or a private individual.  His installation “Swinging Swindle”, for instance, designed by Hess for the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999, is an abstract map of the North American continent in the midst of a dynamic tangle of lines and areas and of icons and codes. Superimposed upon the map is a painting by the Dutch Constructivist Piet Mondrian, thus achieving an amazing analogy between cartography and art. By equating the geographical grid of the United States and the artistic model of Mondrian, the artist highlights the obscuring and entanglement of icons and their meanings. Elsewhere Hess placed a stylized flock of birds, otherwise used for marking large window panes, on the ceiling of the exhibition room[4] – in precisely the place of a small skylight, thus creating the impression of birds leaving the room through this aperture.

In Hess’s art, logos – as the most reduced forms of advertising – always remain what they are: visual recognition elements. Nevertheless, the artist systematically disregards all design regulations that usually determine the use of logos and accurately define their contexts.[5] By deliberately ignoring the prescribed use of such icons, he transforms universal emblems into his own, almost personal icons. He underlines this appropriation through the use of film and adhesive tape of all colours for his independent reproduction of the mass media icons. An element that is used millions of times in advertising is thus transformed by the artist’s hand into an expensive and, above all, distinctive item. In this way an icon is further transformed through a very special image transfer: it becomes a unique artefact!

New narrative techniques through multiple decoding

By combining logos with other trademarks – a “deadly sin” in commercial communication – Nic Hess often develops totally new narratives in his murals. They are stories which still bear witness to specific products and their symbols, but which go further, so that other, alternative narrative blueprints appear equally plausible. Hess probes into the suitability of icons as “new content carriers, compiling them in accordance with their inner, associative relationships until they come alive again.”[6] If, for instance, an alligator (which is in fact the trademark of the French sports item manufacturer Lacoste) looks deceptively like a crocodile and is shown alongside a camel, then the viewer suddenly associates the image of an archaic scene in the Nile delta at the time of the Pharaohs who worshipped the crocodile as a god. These symbols would normally appear to allow clear decoding within our global society. However, in this context, set up by the artist, they can be restored to their original identities. The jumping puma no longer represents merely a German sports article manufacturer. And the bunny is more than the trademark of a men’s magazine. Hess uses trademarks as the vocabulary of new narratives, thus undermining their one-dimensional perception under consumerism.

However, consumerism means more than the world of commercial products. Again and again, Hess also uses the icons of art history and of the history of civilization, as these have been impacting our perception at least as much as the consumer goods industry. For instance, Hess integrates Edvard Munch’s “Scream” into his work “Together Now” (2000) at the New York Drawing Center. It takes the form of a woodcut—like copy of the famous theme. In this way Hess highlights the hackneyed nature which the picture has gradually acquired through its frequent large-scale reproduction since it was painted. Similar to Coca Cola, the “Scream” has become a trademark or symbol of Munch as an artist. By repeatedly integrating such icons of art history[7] into his own works, Hess also expresses irony towards himself: he knows exactly that in order to be successful, an artist needs a trademark just as much as a communications strategy: after all, art is a product — though, admittedly, the most exclusive product — and one that has to submit to a continuous demand for innovation. This, of course, makes it akin to fashion.[8]

Fuji Meets Matterhorn

“51 Views of Mount Matterhorn”[9] is the name of the installation designed by Hess for the European head office of the US company Dow Chemical GmbH. This monumental picture, 20 metres (66 ft.) long and 6 metres (20 ft.) high, sums up Hess’s art in the form of a prototype. It contains a large number of iconic allusions, alternating between local and global symbols and weaving new narrative strands into these frequently erratic emblems. The publication of the same name continues this form of narrative. The book contains a compendium of icons and symbols used by Hess in his artistic worlds in recent years. At the same time, the logos, which are so familiar to us, are examined by means of lexical research for their readability and significance. This decoding process shows that icons are by no means as unambiguous as they are made out to be in mass-media communication.

The large-scale panoramic picture “51 Views of Mount Matterhorn”, for instance, contains the client’s diamond-shaped red corporate logo, turned into a glider. With a mild touch of irony, the artist maintains the recognition value of the icons, while at the same time relishing their transformation into items of leisure. This can be read as a cleverly subtle comment on our faith in trademarks – a faith which, despite an increasingly liberalized world, has acquired almost proto-religious proportions. “Advertising,” says the media philosopher Beat Wyss, “fulfils a civilizational brief. Its omnipresence promotes the community spirit of partaking in beauty.” [10]

Beauty is also omnipresent in Nic Hess’s paintings. With stylistic self-confidence he weaves mundane trademarks into deceptively aesthetic picture stories: the “monkey’s tail” (the commercial ‘at’) of the internet community mutates into the extended arm of the Michelin man; Mount Matterhorn, a Swiss national shrine, becomes the feather head-dress of native American chief whose ear is adorned by an amulet with a Lufthansa crane. His eye takes the form of a video camera that stares at the viewer – Big Red Brother is watching you! And the artist himself is seated in the opposite corner of the trademark collage, under the guise of a Pinocchio mask,[11] roguishly watching the events he has unleashed.

Hess knows about the significance of such symbolic camouflage activities, in other words, the creation of masks through the use of cultural stereotypes. In the same way, we, as viewers, are aware that our society today communicates through trademarks as means of discernment and distinction.[12] The code of the icons – Adidas, Puma or Nike? Old School or Avant-garde? Armani or Versace? Bill Gates (Microsoft) or Stephen Jobs (Apple)? – has acquired a firm place in our individualized world, a world that no longer derives its definition from political or religious symbols, but through consumerist symbols themselves. This makes artists and viewers accomplices in the race for attention, simulation and self-invention.

Nic Hess’s pictorial constructions can be read as platforms of perception for reviewing an existing range of visual recognition codes. However, when the native American Indian no longer appears, for instance, on the tank of an American motorbike, but in the entrance hall of a multinational chemicals group, we feel irritated. The icon has left the product that carried it and we are called upon to consider it in its new environment. After all the native American – serving here as an example representing many others – turns out, upon closer scrutiny, to be a semantic and etymological symbol that can easily be misunderstood. Many people read this symbol as representing the United States of America. However, it is a well-known fact that the original inhabitants of North America are no more than a tiny minority in the USA today and that the word “Indian” is based on a misinterpretation of Spanish explorers who believed they had found a new route to India. Against this background, the alleged unambiguousness of the icon dissolves into nothing. In this way a variety of new stories and perspectives open up in the mind of the viewer and the reader, countering the apparent levelling of our habitat with an artistic attitude that combines ironic playfulness and clever subtlety. Nic Hess’s pictures challenge us to look behind the icons and to rediscover the stories that are increasingly concealed by visual superficiality.

[1] Géricault’s monumental painting, now exhibited at the Louvre, tells the story of the sinking of a French vessel. The shipwreck created a stir at the time, because the general public blamed the lax safety regulations stipulated by the French government. See also: Paul Virilio, Die Sehmaschine, Merve Publishers, Berlin 1989, pp. 94 ff.

[2][2] There are more than enough examples of the interaction between art and economics, which has been increasing in the last 20 years. If I list artists such as Fabrice Hybert, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Wolfgang Tillmans, Jochen Gerz and Sylvie Fleury in this context, then these are just a small number of examples who represent the artistic approach of the product and communication society to economics. Artistic reflection, in turn, has an increasing impact on modern corporate culture – ranging from pure prestige objects in a corporate collection to process-oriented artistic projects directed at a company’s corporate image.

[3] Naomi Klein, No Logo, Der Kampf der Global Players um Marktmacht, Ein Spiel mit vielen Verlierern und wenigen Gewinnern (No Logo, the struggle of the global players for power on the market, a game with many losers and very few winners), Bertelsmann Publishers 2001, p. 63.

[4] “KollekTIEREnd” (1999) at the migros museum für Gegenwartskunst: the name of the exhibition contains the word for “collection” and, in capital letters, the word for “animals”.

[5] For instance, there is a detailed manual for the “proper” use of the Dow logo. See also:

[6] Angelika Affentranger-Kirchrath, “Im Universum der verzauberten Labels” (In the universe of enchanted labels), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, January 24, 2002.

[7] As well as Munch’s “Scream”, Hess has so far used themes by Roy Lichtenstein, Hokusai and Piet Mondrian.

[8] See also Boris Groys, Über das Neue. Versuch einer Kulturökonomie (On Innovation. A tentative theory of cultural economy), Munich and Vienna 1992. Holger Bonus and Dieter Ronte, DIE WA(H)RE KUNST – Markt, Kultur und Illusion (True/Past Art – Market, Culture and Illusion), Erlangen, Bonn and Vienna, Straube Publishers 1991.

[9] The title is an allusion to the legendary Japanese woodcut artist Hokusai (1760-1849) who created a series of 100 views of Fujiyama (100 Views of Mount Fuji) to pay homage to Japan’s national mountain.

[10] Beat Wyss, Die Welt als T-Shirt, Zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Medien (The world as a T-shirt, the history and aesthetics of the media), Cologne, DuMont Publishers 1997, p. 114.

[11] The Swiss wholesale distributor Migros had invited Hess to design a shopping bag. Each of these paper bags has a portrait of the artist at the bottom, where Hess can be seen as a long-nosed photomorphed Pinocchio.

[12] The importance of brand membership today is also reflected in an entire scene that has developed in connection with logo services., for instance, contains a database of several thousand trademarks. And allows surfers to download logos to their mobile phones.