Exhibition: Consumerism as art

20th October 2000 at 01:00

The Victoria and Albert Museum

You would expect an exhibition entitled Brand.New to be well designed, but its first room at the Victoria and Albert Museum is still a surprise. Four thousand photographs of people and things, from Chris Evans to cosmetics and foodstuffs, fixed on standing wires, wave gently in the breeze from electric fans. The forest of brands, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, marches up over a wooden hill, on the other side of which begins the exhibition proper.

Here the brand as promise - to make the consumer feel more confident, healthier or more beautiful - is explored in depth. Celebrities endorse a brand or even give their name to a product, such as Paul Newmanrsquo;s sauces and salad dressings. Sometimes a character is invented: homely cake-baker Betty Crocker exists only as a marketing phenomenon.

The strains of the music from the Hilltop commercial, quot;Irsquo;d like to teach the world to singquot;, accompany a display which chronicles the success of Coca-Cola in seeing off most of the 300 similar brands available in 1917 and going head to head with Pepsi. And here the visitor encounters the notion of quot;glocalisationquot;: a brand, such as McDonaldrsquo;s golden arches, recognisable anywhere, has subtle differences to acknowledge variations in culture and environment.

Ways of individualising a brand come next, displayed in booths meant to recall huge packing boxes. quot;Authenticityquot; is a useful catch-word, meaning the original, the genuine and, therefore, the best. The wall is adorned with a rare and suitably quot;distressedquot; (in the sense of worn and begrimed) pair of pre-1900 Levirsquo;s. Could these have belonged to a genuine cow-poke?

The subsequent booths explore various ways to impress the consumer - with scientific know-how, friendliness, by playing on the conscience (buy without damaging the environment) and status. Ogle the piles of monogrammed goods through what appears to be a huge gold card - and then congratulate yourself on being superior to such meretricious temptation. Well, itrsquo;s better than feeling poor.

The final sections show a series of nine mini-films by David Cohen in which people talk about their response to branding, and a section entitled quot;Subverting the Brandquot; in which fakes and political satire of consumerism are displayed side by side. The exhibition is not sponsored, although Siegelgale, the Internet consulting firm, is supporting the associated website: www.vam.ac.uk

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking exhibition, which would be an excellent stimulus for discussion in PSHE as well as art and design. There will be a two-day conference about the issues raised on November 11 and 12 and a programme of other educational events. For details: 020 7942 2197.



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