article

12.10.09

Art and High Commerce

At Art Basel Miami, Jeff Koons designed a watch, David LaChapelle directed a Maybach commercial, and Olaf Breuning created a beer label. Anthony Haden-Guest on the art of marketing.

A billboard by the highway between Miami and Miami Beach read:

FLASH, HYPE AND LACK OF SUBSTANCE HAVE HAD THEIR DAY PHEW

This must surely be an unusually cogent piece of word art? Nope. It turned out to be a vodka ad. But it served as a smooth introduction to the seamless co-existence of Art and Branding, which is increasingly a fact of life in the art world and which cropped up everywhere during this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach.

The structural elements were in place immediately before the art worlders and wannabes began hitting town on December 1. Audi has been the principal sponsor of Design Miami for four years. “It’s a nice investment with a great return,” says Andrew Lipman of Audi.

Quite what the investment is he won’t say, but I have heard talk of $25 million a year. And the return?

“Design is one of the key pillars of the Audi brand,” he says. “And that week in Miami you have some of the most influential people from round the world in one place.”

Audi, which was launching a new car this year, put up their pavilion on Collins Avenue more or less kitty-corner with the Fontainebleau Hotel and made their presentation to 800 worldwide media they had flown in. This was November 30 and doubtless the motoring men had left town before the art world’s Heavy Mob had moved in.

The art and branding ventures during Art Basel were less financially humongous, but agile and ambitious. Olaf Breuning, for instance, had designed a limited edition label for the Grolsch beer bottle. He was signing them in an area near the entrance of NADA, the fair put together by the New Art Dealer’s Alliance. “I enjoy making this part of my work,” he said as he signed away.

Grolsch marketing men were clumped in a small group some yards to the Swiss artist’s rear, watching as fairgoers persuaded Breuning to add a doodle to his signature, thereby upping the value of the trophy. I asked Brian Schmitz, a brand manager, how Grolsch would benefit from the enterprise. He talked of the bottle’s characteristic snap top, which, incidentally, Breuning has made part of his drawing for the label. “The position of the brand is about not following the crowd,” Schmitz said. “It’s about authority. And artists feel the same. They don’t mind being different. Because they are proud of their work.”

Cards in the media center advised all that the watch Jeff Koons had designed for Ikepod was on the third floor of the Webster Hotel and could be seen between 6 and 8. I went with a couple of fellow travelers. The design on the face shows heaped green and purple spheres and, according to the man from Ikepod, was based on a sculpture upon which Koons was then working.

How many watches were there?

“It’s a limited edition of 10 in platinum,” he said. He was not effusive.

How much were they?

“$39,000 retail.”

He added that there was an unlimited edition in titanium at $12,000 and that the profits were to go to a charity set up by Koons.

Was this the first time Ikepod had worked with an artist?

“All our watches are designed by Marc Newson,” the representative explained. And turned back to the man he was showing the watch.

Over to Pulse, where two women in identical white dresses were dispensing Perrier, and Chistopher Labzda, a New York artist with an MFA from Goldsmith’s, was picking up green plastic Perrier bottles, uncapping them, and assembling them. “This is my first complete public project,” he said.

How did he get the gig?

“I heard about it from a friend. I just wrote a quick proposal to make a Wishing Well. And they accepted it. It was a three-day turnaround.”

The Wishing Well project was not Perrier’s first attempt to channel cultural energy. “They had Warhol do a Perrier bottle,” a PR woman said. “And this March we hired Scott Campbell, the famous tattoo artist from Brooklyn, to design a nightlife campaign to reinvent the brand.”

Certainly the wildest and most wonderful coupling of Art & Branding during Art Basel was that organized by the German curator, Reiner Opoku, on behalf of another vehicle of deluxe desire, the new Maybach Zeppelin. Opoku chose David LaChapelle to make the images and as a model LaChapelle chose Daphne Guinness, who, as he told the assembled throng, was “the only model who would show up in her own couture clothes.” Two images of liquid longing, of dreams and desires, were on view, and one is such a saturnalian romp that I think it’s hats off to Maybach.

These examples of art bleeding into marketing have antecedents, of course. There was the famed Absolut art project, which began in 1991. But it is probably Philip Morris’ support for the arts that is the template here. This grew notably when Big Tobacco was denied traditional advertising venues. And now that traditional advertising venues are themselves having an increasingly bumpy ride, other brands have followed.

Is it art? I don’t know—I got a set of coasters and a tote bag. Life was good.

Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.