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Burberry Patterns on a Totalitarian Art Tour

Hanno Soans (3/2013)

Hanno Soans visited Merlin Carpenter's exhibition in Tallinn.


"What do high fashion and totalitarianism have in common? Both love to posture and do so with full dedication."
Gennadi S. Klein


I set out to write this review of the exhibition by Merlin Carpenter, a mid-career English artist (born 1967), at Temnikova & Kasela Gallery at their premises at 1 Lastekodu Street, which was open from early to mid-summer, when the 28-degree heat on the cusp of summer exhausted all art critical curiosity and desire to understand. My initial natural reaction on entering the gallery was the following: this exhibition is somewhat childish, and for me a dull attempt to connect the fake Burberry patterns on canvas, in the style of the colour field painting of the 1960s and 1970s and Op-Art, with the cult status of the highly regarded legacy of current fashion and consumer fetishism – ironically.

But these days what isn't ironic? I understand what the artist is trying to do – to show the natives the hollowness behind their recently acquired fashion-awareness, but in my opinion he is too late… or maybe a little early. Late, because the natives are already fashion-aware, and early because commercialisation, the flourishing of museum shops and souvenirs of contemporary art (tourist tendencies, which Carpenter has been critiquing for quite some time now) are only now starting to take root. This exhibition is essentially dealing with the same thing. Or to use the English expression – it "sounds like a broken record". In the same way that Silvie Fleury's installation of shopping bags does at the hit-exhibition at Kumu Art Museum "Critique and Crises", which opened just before Carpenter's closed. Both seem too easy, too self-explanatory and too neutral. The title of Carpenter's exhibition is pseudo-Soviet: "All Power to the Factory Outlets."

Well, let's take a closer look. Carpenter, an artist in the stable at the respected Reena Spaulings gallery in New York, uses the Burberry patterned canvases like a backdrop or prop. He fills the gallery with a series of pseudo-paintings all of the same size and completed in the same year (2010), which vary in intensity and density, and on first glance, appear virtually identical. Yet, he carefully avoids aesthetic choices in composition. Pictorially, it is more like a virus has taken over the gallery, just like the unnaturally expensive patented patterns of Burberry and Louis Vuitton that have taken over the main streets of the world's cities. A careless visual magic connects with the general impression – the space is full, it is pleasing to the eye, it is intriguing – even puzzling.

The abundant pseudo-paintings are accompanied by another feature. Unlike the aesthetics of the totalitarian free market economy, this one refers to the old school concentration camp aesthetic in the form of a bench-type protrusion in the gallery that is covered by a barrier of rusty barbed wire. "This prevented people from sitting here", explains Aliina Astrova, the gallery's curator who had invited Carpenter to do the show. An intentionally banal metaphor for totalitarianism. It is also worth mentioning the busy, post-revolutionary style poster, with its images of the artist's friends and acquaintances interchanging with cult-figures of the October Revolution. In the centre is a van decorated with a Burberry pattern and a mortar, driven by Lev Trotsky himself, as if on his way to coordinate the Red Army at the Front in an armoured train. The poster also features J. G. Ballard, from whom the titles for this series of works are borrowed.

The exhibition poster makes reference to this exhibition, but perhaps even more to the subsequent stops of the Burberry Propaganda Tour in Eastern Europe, where Carpenter's work was shown in various on and off pop-up exhibition spaces as well as outdoors. Ballard, whose book "Crash" was recently translated into Estonian, also makes an appearance in the exhibition. The titles borrowed from his "Kingdom Come" (2006) – "The Metro Centre", "Neon Palaces", "Towards a Willed Madness" and "The Trench Coat Hero" – sabotage any attempts at viewing the highly desirable patterns as an abstraction of something. It is important to know that Ballard belongs to the list of the artist's personal heroes, whom he has painted on canvas in a slightly Kippenberger-like expressive style and featured in a pack of playing cards depicting the artist's idols (price £ 20). And to contextualise the artist's hitherto minimal gestures , it makes sense to take a look at his earlier work on the internet. Because, even though the exhibition is somewhat transparently constructed and his slogan painting "Die Collectors Scum" (2007), which has assumed cult status, seems to speak from the fetishized position of his own work, as well as that of British artists half a generation older, with whom he seems to have a slightly strained relationship, it does not yet mean that his flirt with Art Strike and his parody of consumer fetishism is not fruitful.



Exhibition view at Temnikova & Kasela Gallery
Photo by Matti Adoma
Courtesy of the artist


And finally, all that remains is to clarify a misconception that has accompanied this exhibition. In the local press, Riin Kübarsepp's article in Postimees, for example, places Merlin Carpenter in the generation of Young British Artists (YBA). This term originates from Michael Corris' article in the May 1992 issue of Artforum. As an acronym it was not used until 1996. It denotes a generation, many of them fellow graduates (from Goldsmiths College), who mostly worked using a neo-conceptual art language and ready-mades, attracted much media attention and were a close knit clique in the London art scene. To take a closer look, this connection is false and misleading from the position of the artist. Merlin Carpenter was born in 1967. His contemporaries do include two Hirsts – a footballer and a theatre director – but not the famous face of the YBA, Damien Hirst (born 1965) or Tracey Emin, known as the YBA cover girl (born 1963). Furthermore, Carpenter graduated from St Martin's College, and not Goldsmiths. When Hirst, as a precocious second year student put together the exhibition "Freeze" in London's Docklands in 1988, and which is registered as the YBA's debut, our hero was still in his early 20s. His relationship to his fame-hungry predecessors was more polemic than anything else. And this helps us understand his mockery of consumer fetishism.


Hanno Soans is an art theorist, critic and curator who lives and works in Tallinn.

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